Chinese Whispers

Edward Payson Vining’s Art of Error

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue: So runs the New World catechism. But some doubted his primacy even then. Oviedo relates the "romantic story" of a Spanish caravel that blew off course, making landfall on the future Indies. The mortally ill crew returned months later, and the pilot revealed the location to his friend Columbus before rather conveniently dying.

Such revisionism may be unconscious flattery: America is so great, so stunningly singular, that it needs to be discovered not once but eternally. The first foreigner is ever changing, his proponents holding up artifacts or rethinking twice-told tales, map in hand. He was of course Leif Ericsson. For Welsh-wishers, he was Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd and he reached Alabama. He came from Carthage, he was a Phoenician, he left strange mounds in Michigan.

He was a monk named Hwui Shan or Hoei-shin or Hui-shên and he came not from the east but the west.

illustration by Limbert Fabian

In 499, then, Hwui Shan, a Buddhist missionary originally from Afghanistan, arrived at last in China. He told of having sailed to four lands lying east, and dilated on the third, called Fusang. Here grew many "fu-sang" trees, from which the inhabitants derived food, clothing, paper (they had the art of writing), and toponym. They knew nothing of war and did not value gold. Hwui Shan noted, among other things, the changing colors of the royal wardrobe, two prisons (for serious and light offenses), courtship and mourning rituals, and titles of nobility. Most curious, though, was the information that he and four fellow mendicants introduced Buddhism to the people of Fusang in 458.

Well over a thousand years separated the bonze's tale from its staunchest advocate, Edward Payson Vining. The monk's account surfaced in the seventh-century Liang dynasty annals, wherein the transcribing prince proceeded to lampoon it, to the amusement of his friends. By the time the historian Ma Twan-lin included it in his Antiquarian Researches (1321), it had shaded into mere fancy.

So the discovery of America required discovering. While researching his book on the Western Tartars, the French sinologue M. de Guignes came across the Fusang story, and in 1761 identified the country as Mexico. Continental scholars weighed in on either side. The geographer to George III applied the label "Fou-sang" to what is now Vancouver; the Prussian Orientalist M.J. Klaproth thought Japan more likely; the physician of the Russian legation in Peking attacked the botanical evidence, and somehow ended by placing the country in decidedly unfloral Siberia. Nearly a century later, the story found a transatlantic vector in the polymath and wit Charles Godfrey Leland, then a young Princeton graduate studying at Heidelberg, where he heard Carl Friedrich Neumann lecture on the topic. In 1847, Leland urged his stateside brother to find a publisher for his translation, perhaps a touch hastily ("Some words . . . puzzle me, but you can easily correct them, and if you can't, let them go, don't give it an excuse for not getting it published, let it rather go, faults and all"); nevertheless, three years passed before it appeared in Knickerbocker Magazine.

Amplified into an 1875 book, Leland's Fusang caught the attention of Edward Payson Vining, general freight manager of the Union Pacific Railroad. He had a reputation for driving hard, even unscrupulous bargains with rival and lesser train pools; according to a Chicago agent, he was "so despised here that not one of the RR men want any further business relations with him." But on the printed page, his inflexibility turned into an elastic curiosity, amenable to radical hypotheses—which he then pursued to their logical ends. In The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), he fingered the dithering Dane as a woman pretending to be a man for reasons of state—a theory that found favor with the American actor Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln's assassin) and shaped Danish actress Asta Nielsen's 1920 screen version. (If his take is no longer much invoked, his ghost must be satisfied with an appearance in Ulysses, ch. IX.)

Somewhere between brushing up his Saxo Grammaticus and adjusting rates on eastbound tea transport, he found time to compose his Fusang exegesis, An Inglorious Columbus, which appeared in 1885. (The adjective here means "obscure"—a description of Hwui Shan rather than a poke at Columbus.) If it were fiction, it would be Nabokov's Pale Fire, spun out to the length of a couple of Adas: From the 746 Chinese characters of Ma's text, Vining extrapolated a book of over 800 crammed octavo pages. Where the locus classicus is brief, almost elliptical, the commentary obsessively collates and rationalizes, approaching in density a state of pure information.

It is a fascinating book; it is also nearly unreadable. After a thumbnail history of Buddhism, Vining relinquishes a third of the tome to his precursors (from de Guignes on), reproducing most of their arguments in toto. Each version repeats part or whole of the essential story, then attacks or defends certain aspects, responding to other glosses—thus leaving the reader with another substrain of repetition. (One may recall, uncharitably, the "never-ending series of transmigrations" that Prince Siddhartha set out to escape in the first place.) The cento culminates in a 38-page chart, looking something like a timetable. Each verso gives a section of the Chinese original, while the recto stacks eight translations, one atop the other. Skilled in many languages, Vining alas had no Chinese. This did not stop him from providing the final version.

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