The Three Leaps of Wang Lun by Alfred Döblin

Paperback, 528 pages
Publisher: Calligrams (April 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Barbara Epler 

“Alfred Döblin’s was one of the craziest books in the whole world. It is, I guess, the first expressionist modern German novel.” —Barbara Epler 

The Three Leaps of Wang Lun was Alfred Döblin’s first novel, published in 1915, over a decade before his masterwork Berlin Alexanderplatz. A German expressionist novel set in 18th-century China, The Three Leaps of Wang Lun is remarkable in its faithfulness to historical detail. The rebellions and reign of Emperor Qianlong provide the backdrop for the story of the enigmatic religious sect leader and martial arts master Wang Lun. Despite its critical and commercial success in Germany, it has, until now, never been published in English.


Book One

On the mountains of Chihli1, in the plains, under the all-suffering sky they sat, against whom the armour and arrows of Emperor Ch’ien-lung were mobilised. Who passed through the walled towns, spread out through market towns and villages.

A gentle shudder went through the land where the “Truly Powerless” appeared. For months their name – Wu-wei – had been once again on all lips. They had no abode, begged the rice, the bean broth they needed, helped the peasants, artisans at their work. They did not preach, sought no converts. The literati who mingled with them strove in vain to hear from them a religious dogma. They had no icons, did not speak of the Wheel of Existence. At night many made their camp under rocks, in the vast forests, mountain caves. Often a loud moaning and wailing rose from their resting places. That was the young brothers and sisters. Many ate no meat, trampled no flowers, seemed in friendship with plants, animals and rocks.

There was a vigorous young man from Shantung who had passed the first examination with distinction. He rescued his father, who had gone out alone in a fishing boat, from the gravest danger; before setting out after his father, he vowed to follow the adherents of Wu-wei. And so he went, the joyful examination celebrations hardly over, quietly from the house. He was a respectful, rather shy youth with deepest eyes, who suffered visibly under his spiritual struggle.

A bean merchant, a gaunt bony man, lived through 15 years of childless marriage. He grieved deeply that after he was dead there would be no one to pray for him, to feed and care for his spirit. At the age of 45 he left his home.

Chin was a rich man from the foot of the Ch’an. He lived in a constant rage because, however carefully he guarded his wealth, month after month he was the victim of thefts, though only of trifles. On top of this came the extortions of policemen, tax gatherers; several times he lost houses, burned down by ill-wishers. He feared that one day he would stand bereft of goods and chattels. He felt impotent, without rights. So he gave away all his money to blind musicians, old bawds, actors, set fire to his own house and took to the woods.

Young rakes with girls they had rescued from the painted houses drifted in. Often the girls, who were among the most revered of the sisters, could be seen in strange ecstasies under the purple callicarps, in the fields of millet, and heard to babble incomprehensibly. 

Six girlfriends from the northern Imperial Canal who had been married as children jumped, in the month when they were to be taken to the houses of their bridegrooms, tied together with a halter into the canal below the town. Since they injured themselves against the canal wall as they jumped and hung there wailing loudly, they were rescued by some passing barrow haulers who conveyed them to the nearest police post after making shift to bandage the quite unresisting girls with scraps of clothing. As they were recovering under the friendly care of the officials and putting themselves to rights, their fathers came storming up outside. The girls heard the noisy altercation with the constables, climbed out through a rear window and made off. They tramped from village to village, hid themselves in a secluded cave in the mountains, obtained food by helping on the farms, in the mills round about. The youngest of them, a blooming 15-year-old, daughter of an old schoolmaster’s concubine, died there when a robber violated and then strangled her. Not long afterwards the robber together with the girls fell in with a group of sectarians. 

In northeastern China, in the provinces of Chihli, Shantung, Shansi, even in Kiangsu and Honan, in great cities with several hundred thousand inhabitants, in hardworking villages and idle hamlets, it came to pass every day or two that someone went into the market and in front of a fraud or beggar priest or crippled child tipped all his money and valuables into a mule trough. That husbands disappeared from families much blessed with children; they would be seen, months later, in distant regions begging with the vagabonds.

Here and there a minor official went about listlessly and in a daze for weeks on end, answered every question snappishly, shrugged his shoulders insolently when rebuked, then suddenly committed some astonishing crime: embezzling public funds, tearing up important documents, attacking some harmless fellow and breaking ribs. Once sentenced he would bear his punishment and his shame with equanimity, or slip out of prison and into the woods. These were people to whom separation from family and possessions came hardest, who could break free of them only by a crime.

They taught nothing that was not already known. An old parable they told passed from mouth to mouth: 

There was once a man who was frightened of his shadow and loathed his footprints. To escape both he decided to run away. But the more he moved his legs the more footprints he left behind. And however fast he ran the shadow never left his body. So he fancied he was going too slowly, began to run faster, not stopping until his strength was exhausted and he died. He didn’t know that all he had to do to lose his shadow was linger in some shady spot; that in order not to leave footprints he needed only to keep still…

The land exhaled a sigh. Such joy-glazed eyes had never been seen. A tremor passed through families. And when at evening there was once again talk of the “Truly Powerless” and the old parable was told, each looked at the others and in the morning took note of who was missing.

A sweet secret suffering appeared to afflict healthy young men and women in particular. It seemed they were being drawn away by bridal pangs of some kind.


[1] Chihli (Zhili) was a northern province in China during the Ming Dynasty, bordering the Bohai Sea and encompassing modern-day Beijing. The province was dissolved in 1928.

  • The Three Leaps of Wang Lun