The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffman Price

It is almost always a pleasure to read a novel by a fellow Sinophile, particularly one as peculiar as E. Hoffman Price, a contemporary of pulp staples like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and C. L. Moore. One might uncharitably describe his fiction from that era as racist due to his trading in stereotypes common to the time in which he wrote (much has already been made of Howard and Lovecraft’s portrayals of non-whites as dangerous “others”). Yet, his bio, printed at the end of the 1979 paperback for The Devil Wives of Li Fong tells us Price received the title of “Tao Fa” from the “Venerable Yen Pei of Singapore,” the name by which he was known in San Francisco’s Chinatown where he worked as a gourmet who specialized in Chinese dishes, specifically shark fin soup and tea smoked duck.

Also peculiar is that The Devil Wives of Li Fong is a retelling of the Madame White Snake legend, also the basis for Tsui Hark’s 1993 film, Green Snake, which is one of my favorite movies. Price changes certain elements of the original tale -- the names have all been changed, for example -- but the basics are the same. A failed scholar meets two immensely desirable women, who happen to be snake spirits attempting to take a short-cut on the wheel of life, whom he takes as his wives. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests, not trusting spirits who attempt humanness without the benefit of reincarnation, attempt to tear them apart.

Price, clearly proud of his studies in East Asian culture, somehow pulls off the tricky business of writing a light read brimming with idiomatic dialogue and descriptions of Chinese magical and religious practices that thankfully fall just short of laborious. And the shocking part, if one were to judge the book by its tawdry cover, is how accurately it renders Chinese idioms, magical practices and religious beliefs from that period. It’s among the best examples of a fantasy that actually manages an authenticity of sorts, in the sense that it grounds its fantasy in Song dynasty China rather than a hodge-podge pan-Asian fantasy world where discrepancies can be dismissed as intentional anachronism. (It doesn’t hurt that Price is adapting a legend set in historical China) Even more unusual: actual historical events, like the conflict of Taoists and Buddhists in the imperial court, figure into the plot.

Aside from Price’s meticulously rendered setting, The Devil Wives of Li Fong is really a fantastic, light summer read. The dialogue, even when heavy with philosophical and religious underpinnings, is frequently hilarious, displaying a level of muted passive-aggressiveness not typically seen in the genre outside of, for example, Jack Vance’s work. The characters are endearing, perhaps even more so given how tremendously un-politically correct their situation is (Sworn sisters/Snake Women Mei Ling and Meilan share Li Fong as a lover). Price also writes one of the least embarrassing sex scenes I’ve read in a paperback with embarrassing cover art.

There are flaws, though I would rather not dwell on them, as I consider them nearly inconsequential. Instead, I’ll note that there is some unusual thematic weight to The Devil Wives of Li Fong. One of the interesting things about the various adaptations of the Madame White Snake story is how often they treat themes of identity. Identity consistently plays a part in Price’s narrative, the most obvious instance being Mei Ling and Meilan’s attempts to bypass reincarnation and simply become human. They seek to achieve humanity by taking on its form and fulfilling the duties of human women (again, Price is either oblivious to or unconcerned with being politically correct). But Li Fong also chooses a new self. In different instances he wears the role of a learned healer rather than an absconding senior apprentice, of a learned man rather than a failed scholar.

By performing these roles, Li Fong comes to fit them. By acting as humans, Mei Ling and Meilan hope to live themselves into that reality. There is constant conflict between what these characters are by nature and birthright and what they are by inclination, or circumstance, or choice -- a theme that one might think fitting for the decorated American soldier, Edgar Hoffman Trooper Price, a pulp writer who became the dharma Tao Fa, known amongst people with whom he had no real relation besides that he chose to relate to them.


  1. I'll have to check this out. I was weaned on Howard and Lovecraft, and I love the White Snake legend (even wrote a paper about it when I was in school. Sounds like a good read!

  2. Yeah, I was really happy with this one. Price wrote another Chinese fantasy themed novel called The Jade Enchantress, which I haven't read and need to track down. But I think you'll enjoy this one if you like the White Snake legend.