“Wow, that’s almost as long as the Bible,” I said to myself in amazement when I realized what I’d gotten myself into.

It seemed like a harmless enough idea: Download a Chinese audiobook app. Randomly choose one of the most popular books. Start listening. Stick with it to the bitter end.

But, as Forrest Gump would have known had he tried learning Mandarin, “Chinese is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” What I got was a dramatized, multi-cast, hilarious, creepy, edge-of-your-seat zombie-comedy-adventure that runs for 68 hours. I knew almost none of that when I started.

The book? 《我当阴阳先生的那几年》, which is, “The Years I Spent as Mr. Yinyang.” Which, off the bat, told me nothing about the book’s contents. How ignorant I was! (Edit: It seems KTing, the website I used to depend on for audiobooks, bit the dust. This novel is also available, in a much less user-friendly format, here.)

I listened to the first chapter at least 5 times, looking up words each time. I heard the next few chapters 2 or 3 times each. Even though I had understood a lot of what was being said, I was still pretty baffled around chapter 5. So I started looking up information about the book online. Once I saw “zombie-comedy-adventure,” it suddenly all made sense. Well, at least as much as a foreign-language zombie-comedy-adventure can.

One Little Detail

It turns out that “Mr. Yinyang” isn’t a person’s name; it’s a job title. But, as with many things in Chinese, if you don’t know that, then you don’t know to look it up. And, as with many things in Chinese, even if you do look it up, it sometimes doesn’t show up in most dictionaries. When it does, the definition can make you more confused than you were before.

The most humorous definition I found was “funeral adviser.” Which is true. But, his purpose at a funeral isn’t to help you order flowers. It’s to make sure that your dearly departed stays departed.

Which doesn’t always work out. Hence the “zombie” element.

So, what’s up with that job title? Well, you’ve heard of “yin” and “yang,” right? Well a “Mr. Yinyang” is a guy who works with “yin” and “yang.”

According to oriental dualism, “yin” and “yang” are opposing forces in nature. “Yin” is the negative, passive, dark or sinister side associated with the night; “yang” is the positive, active, light side associated with the day. If there’s too much “yin,” creepy stuff happens. So a Mr. Yinyang tries to balance out the “yin” and the “yang” to hold the creepy stuff at bay.

So how does he do that? Well, you’ve heard of 风水 fēngshuǐ, right? That’s how. Among several other options. The hero primarily used 符咒 fúzhòu, or magic incantations written on strips of paper.

So, when a Westerner asks me what I’m listening to, I say nothing about funeral advisers and simply reply, “Chinese Ghostbusters.”

The Right App for the Right Job

When I started, I was using a pretty crummy app that told me next to nothing about what I was listening to. It didn’t even show a picture of the cover. So, for a long time, I had no idea how enormous this book was. Once I switched to KTing (the best Chinese audiobook app I’ve found), I was able to see what was ahead of me: 204 chapters, at around 20 minutes each! And that’s abridged; the novel itself is longer.

How did one book get to be so long? Why, because of qidian.com, of course.

Qidian: A Starting Point for Authors

So, what is “qidian.com?” Glad you asked. It’s a website where authors can post their work. 崔走召 Cuī Zǒuzhào, the author of  《我当阴阳先生的那几年》, would write chapters, one at a time, and post them on this site. As he built up a readership, he was able to begin charging money for access to successive chapters. This article explains how it works (even though the article’s main point is how the website’s founder got arrested).

I just checked《我当阴阳先生的那几年》’s page, and chapters 1 through 163 are free; chapters 164 through 288 require a paid membership.

The incentive in such a system is for the author to write as much cliff-hanger material as possible, to get readers hooked and paying money to read more. Which, in this book’s case, seems to have been pretty successful. A quick Baidu search (“我当阴阳先生的那几年有声小说”) will show that there are actually dozens of different audio editions of this book floating around out there. But the KTing version is by far the best. And probably the least likely to be carrying a virus.

My Current Status

In addition to listening on my walk to work in the mornings, I’m also reading it through the Pleco dictionary document reader when I have odd moments during the day. Obviously, the listening is going a lot faster, and the reading then helps to clarify confusing bits weeks or months later. I’m well over 50% through the audiobook; for reading, Pleco says I’m at 14%.

There were a couple of points at which I considered stopping. The book definitely contains some objectionable elements, and I wouldn’t recommend it to Chinese people, since they’re probably already all-too-familiar with the philosophy behind it. I suspect some of the language is bad, but can’t be completely sure. Some of the scenes have been downright gruesome. In spite of its flaws, it’s done a better job keeping my attention than any other Chinese-language audio I’ve found.

It has also been valuable for far more than linguistic reasons. It’s a window into Chinese culture, particularly superstitions that seem to influence basic philosphical assumptions down to the present day. Quaint but darkly bizarre customs now make sense. I understand my in-laws a bit better (including why my wife used to hate cats!). And I finally see where many of the seemingly odd misunderstandings of the gospel come from.

Dualism and Modernity

The hero is constantly hiding his abilities for several reasons; one is that, in the modern, scientifically-oriented world, no one would believe him. It’s especially in those moments that a question pops up in my head: “How much of this does the author really believe?” I suspect that the answer is the same simple two-word answer that would apply to most modern people: “It’s complicated.”

While materialistic scientific thinking has definitely lessened dualism’s grip, its presence is still inescapable. The ancient philosophy affects everything from health care to how you decorate your front door.

No doubt, the author’s primary purpose was to entertain, and there are many moments he pokes fun at old-fashioned superstitions, using it to simultaneously amuse and terrify his audience.

Unfortunately, my ability to do literary analysis here is limited both by my language ability and cultural background. But I do have some real-life experience: While most people I meet are skeptical, I find that these same people still tend to go along with a great deal of traditional superstitions, partly due to social pressure, but partly out of a just-in-case-it’s-true sense of caution.

Regardless of how much the author believes in the existence of immaterial beings and the efficacy of things like 风水 fēngshuǐ, all authors believe in something, otherwise they don’t write. 崔走召 Cuī Zǒuzhào is no different.

What is Justice?

The author’s belief in fate 命运 mìngyùn stood out in chapter 64, “所谓正义” (“So-Called Justice”). The hero 崔作非 Cuī Zuòfēi had to do battle with a family of evil creatures. It was a kill-or-be-killed scenario that not only involved adult creatures, but their small offspring. As the hero neared victory, he had opportunities to talk with them, and discovered that they were motivated less by evil than a simple desire to survive.

As he prepared to kill them, they asked, “Is this what you call ‘justice?’ [正义]” 崔哥 Cuī Gē had no answer. As he wrestled through that question in his conflicted heart, his final answer was: “It’s fate (命运).”

He uttered a common fatalistic idea: “我们不过都只是命运的棋子罢了。”

“We’re all just Fate’s chess pieces.” There’s not much that can be done. For whatever reason, reality is set up so that we often have no choice but to crush others to preserve ourselves. It’s nothing personal; it’s just fate.

Within the context of the story, the hero is right. In this fantasy world, there isn’t room for a sovereign Ruler over all who is Himself just. In this entertaining but depressing fiction, there is little hope for justice or mercy.

But reality is very different. Reality is that perfect justice and mercy have met each other on the cross. Reality is that we’re not helpless victims of “fate;” we’re victims of sinful choices – usually our own.

Reality is that the sovereign Judge is always just, yet offers mercy to all who come. Reality is that there is a Heavenly Father who promises to always orchestrate all circumstances so that His people can, if they so choose, behave with perfect justice and mercy at all times. Unfortunately, we often get confused. Worse, we often willfully do wrong. But the option of doing right, and the blessing that comes with it, is always there. And always will be.

Featured Image: from a completely overblown ad on YouKu.com