The Wallet of Kai Lung

wallet of kai lungHave you ever read something on the recommendation of a character in a book you were reading? No, wait, of course you have: Jenny at Jenny’s Books has a whole category of “Heard about in a book,” so there must also therefore be more of you. I have done it quite often. I once made a project of reading all the books Tom Lynn gave to Polly in Fire and Hemlock, and that was a pretty fantastic project if I do say so myself. So this was something similar: in Gaudy Night, in the thrice-blessèd punting scene, Lord Peter Wimsey has Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici in his pocket. After he awakens from his unintended sleep, Harriet asks him about it, and Lord Peter responds, “My tastes are fairly catholic. It might easily have been Kai Lung or Alice in Wonderland or Machiavelli –” And since I’ve read Alice in Wonderland and Machiavelli, I thought I would try Kai Lung.

What a peculiar little book! It was written in 1900 by Ernest Bramah, who also wrote detective stories, supernatural stories, and politico-science fiction along the lines of George Orwell. It takes the form of tales told by an itinerant storyteller in ancient China, and it’s written in an exaggerated, elaborate, “oriental” prose, full of adages and wise fake-Chinese proverbs. You’d think that this, for today’s audience, might be merely offensive or dull, and certainly there’s no getting over that aspect of it. This book would never be written today, and there’s no question why it doesn’t have much of an audience. Compare it to something like Three Men in a Boat, which was written around the same time, and you see the difference: Jerome K. Jerome has a freshness and timelessness to his wit that this book doesn’t have.

That’s not to say, though, that Kai Lung has nothing going for it. Bramah is satirizing  British society in his faraway Chinese tales, and his proverbs are often hilarious. The advertisement in one of the stories for Ti Hung’s idols reminded me of the copy-writing in Murder Must Advertise, and made me laugh:

Good-morning! Have you worshipped one of Ti Hung’s refined ninety-nine cash idols? … Our ninety-nine cash idols are worth a tael a set. We do not, however, claim that they will do everything. The ninety-nine cash idols of Ti Hung will not, for example, purify linen, but even the most contented and frozen-brained person cannot be happy until he possesses one. What is happiness? The exceedingly well-educated Philosopher defines it as the accomplishment of all our desires. Everyone desires one of the Ti Hung’s ninety-nine cash idols, therefore get one; but be sure it is Ti Hung’s.

Have you a bad idol? If so, dismiss it, and get one of Ti Hung’s ninety-nine cash specimens. Why does your idol look old sooner than your neighbour’s? Because yours is not one of Ti Hung’s ninety-nine cash marvels.

They bring all delights to the old and the young,

The elegant idols supplied by Ti Hung.

In the end, this was worth reading, more as a delicately witty fossil of its time and place than as anything that I think will really endure. Though who can say? It’s in Lord Peter’s list with Alice and Machiavelli and Boccaccio and Donne and the Bible; I bow my head to his mocking and superior judgment.

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15 Responses to The Wallet of Kai Lung

  1. Lisa says:

    Oh yes, and Peter’s quotation in Strong Poison that somewhat lessens Harriet’s distaste of his impulsive proposal at their very first meeting – in prison! “And if you can quote Kai Lung, we should certainly get on together.” But I’ve never found a copy – and never thought of looking on-line til now.

    And add me to the list! I’ve got a book of John Donne’s poems as well, just for Peter.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d forgotten that one! It’s been far too long since I’ve read Strong Poison. Hmmm. Must remedy that. But yes, I’ve got this on my Kindle! Easy. Donne is different — worth reading even outside the Wimsey mystique. But I’d never heard of Kai Lung before.

  2. To stray a little far off-topic for a moment, into Murder Must Advertise (which you do mention in your post, to excuse my wandering), one of the most interesting facts related in that book is the difference between “from” and “with” in legal advertising language. It was said there that to say that something is made “with” plums, for example implies fewer plums than to say that something is made “from” plums. That is a distinction which I have occasionally investigated while reading the ingredients lists on food products, and it holds fairly true in American advertising as well. Just to mention yet another factoid that Lord Peter Wimsey has given us.

  3. P.S. There are two other Kai Lung books, one I can’t remember the title of and one called “Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat.”

    • P.S. Just remembered the title of the other Kai Lung book: “Kai Lung’s Golden Hours.” I actually have a copy of each of the two books I mention, but have never read them yet, and had never before heard of “The Wallet of Kai Lung.” Wonder if there are any more?

  4. Jenny says:

    I’m actually just now reading one of the books Tom recommends to Polly in Fire and Hemlock! I’ve read most of them already — I read most of them as a kid, and felt triumphant when Tom kept giving Polly books of which I was also fond — but never The Box of Delights. So that one’s in the hopper now and I have high hopes for it.

    • Jenny says:

      I actually really liked it. It strongly reminded me of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, but was written 50 years before. I think my best book from that project was Henrietta’s House. Which one do you like best?

  5. Susan E/readerlane says:

    I smiled when I saw this review. I too read the Kai-Lung books inspired by Peter Wimsey and Harriet –I read Religio Medici by Thomas Browne for the same reason. Of the two, Religio Medici with its wonderful language was the keeper for me. Kai-Lung was a little too fantastical, but you’ve prompted me to see if I still have it, tucked on a back shelf, for some browsing. Susan E

    • Jenny says:

      Ah, good recommendation! I haven’t read Religio Medici yet. I will put that on my list straightaway. Kai Lung has been on my list for years for this reason; I don’t know why I never put Browne on there. Maybe something to tackle this summer.

  6. Browne’s ‘Religio Medici’ is the jewel in the wallet here for myself with its ornate and baroque labyrinthine meditations, though his ‘Garden of Cyrus’ has been compared to Alice’s adventures too.

    • Jenny says:

      So few books are really ever compared to Alice; it’s in such a class by itself, isn’t it? Thanks for the comment on Browne. As I said, I haven’t read it, and I’m not sure why; it’s been in my sights certainly ever since Kai Lung has been.

  7. That’s such a wonderful scene in the punt on the river. I love too how they visit the Botanical Gardens and we read that about their “good deal of pleasant conversation… especially if they know the old-fashioned names of the commoner sorts of flowers and are both tolerably well acquainted with the minor Elizabethan lyrists.” I was determined to read some when I read that, but don’t think I did!

  8. sakura says:

    I love hunting down books recommended in books too – just can’t help it!

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