A Brief History of Chinese Novels

In surveying some six centuries of the Chinese novel, from the first major accomplishment, Sanguo yanyi (fourteenth century; The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925), to the novels of the twenty-first century, some important distinctions must be observed. First, a Chinese novel’s style depends on whether it belongs to the tradition of the “old novel” (jiu xiaoshuo)—written before the launching of the Literary Revolution in 1917—or to that of the “new novel” (xin xiaoshuo), written after 1917. Both kinds of novels are said to be written in the vernacular and cover a broad spectrum in respect to writing. For a written work to be regarded as literature in ancient China, it first had to be written in the literary idiom of wenyan, a highly formalized style that is commonly known today as classical Chinese. Because the novel ordinarily contained colloquialisms adopted from common speech, it was considered by nearly all scholars and critics, if not by many of its readers, “impure” in style as well as frivolous in content and hence outside the pale of genuine literature. The vernacular style of the traditional novel, however, despite its use of colloquialisms— actually confined mostly to dialogue—bore little resemblance to informal speech, for classical Chinese remained an essential ingredient of this style.

Indeed, a comparative inspection of the language of the traditional Chinese novel reveals a kind of evolutionary process in respect to the proportion and purpose of colloquialisms embedded in the literary idiom. For example, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms follows the standard history of the turbulent Three Kingdoms so closely as to quote the state documents verbatim and in full. On the other hand, the sixteenth century Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus, 1939; also known as Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and His Six Wives, 1940) employs a larger count of colloquial particles than do some of the much earlier short tales called huaben, which were based on oral telling and whose heyday was the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The early eighteenth century Rulin waishi (The Scholars, 1957) is relatively free of wenyan, guanhua (official speech), and liyan (slang). The late eighteenth century Honglou meng (1792; Dream of the Red Chamber, 1929) shows a considerable advance over the previous novels in individual characterization, which is accomplished mostly by idiomatic speech uttered by its principal characters. The new novel of modern times came into being following the launching of the Literary Revolution in 1917 and the introduction of Western novelistic standards. Its leaders, Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu, despised classical Chinese and advocated that the written vernacular, baihua, replace it in all writing. Their view eventually obtained general acceptance: The modern Chinese novel is written exclusively in the colloquial language and in terms of Western, not traditional Chinese, literary standards.

Second, the traditional Chinese novel must be viewed in the light of its own history, literary tradition, and narrative standards. The novel in the West emerged during the eighteenth century predominantly out of the epic, collections of novellas, and various modes of the romance— chivalric, classical, pastoral, picaresque, allegorical, gothic, and historical. In China, on the other hand, the traditional novel appeared during the fourteenth century under the dominant influence of historiography and oral techniques of the professional storytellers. The first major Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, adheres closely to standard history and is concerned predominantly with historical characters; few ahistorical figures or fictional episodes appear. Hence the novel is not a historical novel in the Western sense but rather dramatized history produced by skillful narrative architectonics, especially a closely knit internal structuring of incidents, rendered in an elegant style. Thus, the line between historiography and fiction in old China is not easy to draw. If novels after The Romance of the Three Kingdoms move further in the direction of fiction, history often serves as a starting point and a baseline.


The strong influence of the technique of oral storytelling is another marked feature of the traditional Chinese novel. This feature is evident in the largely colloquial speech of the characters, which sometimes descends into slang and even into billingsgate. Apart from the colloquial idiom of the dialogue, however, the traditional novel contains other oral conventions: the quoting of popular songs, the adapting of popular tales, and the creating of pseudohistory. An important oral convention is the simulation of the oral storytelling situation by using a single narrative point of view that represents a generalized storyteller speaking to a generalized reader. This method contrasts prominently with that employed in the Western novel, in which a variety of simulacra, limited or unlimited, are used and often individualized. In the dialogue of the novel, the Chinese author provides no hint of the emotion implicit in a speech; he or she simply uses such terms as Ta shuo dao (He said as follows), Song Jiang jiao dao (Sung Chiang shouted), or Ta yue (He said), and so on, without the “stage directions” often found in the Western novel, particularly in popular fiction: “‘I agree,’ he said haltingly” or “‘I won’t,’ she angrily replied.”

Furthermore, prefixed to each zhang (chapter) of the old novel conventionally appears an antithetical couplet of verses whose meaning is related to the contents of the chapter. Also, chapters commonly end on a note of crisis or suspense that is emphasized by a conventional formula amounting to: “If you don’t know what happened afterward, then listen to the telling of the next chapter” (italics added). Finally, the episodic development of the narrative is a feature of the inherited orality of the old novel. Here, the term “episodic” means the intricate interweaving of incident and coincidence throughout the whole narrative without any evident concern that the whole will finally assume some discernible shape identifiable with that unity of structure that Western critics tend to demand of the novel.

In short, whatever social or psychological realism the traditional Chinese novel manages to convey to the Western reader—a mimetic aim never envisioned by the Chinese author—that effect is both restricted and aided by its oral conventions. On the other hand, the new novel in China is a product of the rejection of the previous Chinese literary tradition in favor of Western literary standards and conventions, whether bourgeois or proletarian.

Third, the episodic orientation of the old novel was ultimately a product of the traditional Chinese cosmology shared by most educated people. Rejecting the notion that the cosmos and the humans in it had come about as the result of some ultimate cause, they conceived of the universe as a self-generating, finite, dynamic process— a single, organic whole whose parts interacted in harmony. Humanity was viewed as an intimate part of this holistic, creative process. Employing the “Rule of Three,” these educated people abstracted the principal parts of the cosmic organism as Heaven, Earth, and Man, seeing their relationship as triadic and symbolizing it emblematically as an equilateral triangle. If the Chinese rejected the idea of an ultimate cause or external force in terms of the transcendent, the anthropomorphically conceived Jewish Jehovah or Christian God, Heaven (tian) was nevertheless regarded as Providence, an immanent force that silently directed both the workings of the physical world and the affairs of humans. Hence, Confucians spoke of the “Mandate of Heaven” (tianming); Daoists spoke of “The Way and the Power” (daode), referring to the power of nonbeing that “does things without doing them”; and Buddhists spoke of “The Great Void” (wu), by which they also meant nonbeing, and “moral retribution” (baoying), meaning “present retribution in this life” according to a person’s just deserts as dictated by the law of karma.

This sort of worldview accounted for the lack of emphasis on causality in the traditional Chinese novel. Events are presented in a different arrangement and with a different focus from those commonly found in the Western novel. According to Western thinking, an event is the consequence of a previous happening: It is an “outcome” and a result. As such, events in a Western novel are presented in a linear and temporal fashion as a sequence of cause-and-effect occurrences. That is, each event (E) has its proximate cause in some preceding event (C1), the occurrence of which, in the circumstances prevailing at the time, necessitated the occurrence of E—that is, made it happen. If traced backward through some intermediary steps, E may also have some remote cause (C2). Cause and effect are thus considered an event, but the things, substances, or people that affect or are affected by this happening, and thereby undergo some change, are considered agents or receivers. In a narrative, “agents” imply actors, which in turn imply action. “Receivers” imply those people, things, and substances that experience the action and may be affected by it. “Things” and “substances” imply setting and atmosphere. A sequence of causally connected events arranged in some meaningful pattern constitutes the plot, or the line of action, of a narrative from the Western standpoint. Additionally, it is the principal factor that structures the story and gives it a shape that is supposed to possess unity. The acceptance of this view of causality has led Western authors to choose between two possible foci: The focus will be directed either at character or at action. The former gives rise to the novel of character and the latter to the novel of adventure. Either character or action becomes the principal force imparting motion and momentum to the sequence of cause-and-effect events. Indeed, the Western conception that human experience is a process opposed to stasis eventually placed the emphasis on internal rather than external events; the former were put into the realm of consciousness or subconsciousness.

The traditional Chinese worldview, however, was not wedded to a causal interpretation of events. The universe is a dynamic process, to be sure, whose parts interact with one another, but not in a linear, progressive fashion. Rather, it is a complementary, reciprocal process, a dual interrelation in which the duality remains constant, hence neither progressive nor dialectical but simply cyclic. Unlike Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy, which proposed that when a thing is negated, a new thing arises at a higher level, traditional Chinese philosophy held that when a thing is negated, it simply repeats the old. The Great Harmony initiates the forces of yin and yang, whose interaction brings all things into form but eventually destroys their forms. Still, because things cannot be dispersed without forming again, their perpetuation is spontaneous, inevitable, and cyclic. Thus, motion (yang) becomes rest (yin), and rest becomes motion once more. This process continues ad infinitum in a spatiotemporal universe that is a finite whole. Hence, the Chinese did not think of events as causally linked. Furthermore, because motion is opposed to rest, events have their opposite in nonevents, and events are interwoven in the tapestry of the universe with nonevents as woof and warp. Events are connected merely by succession or coincidence— not causally linked—and are juxtaposed to nonevents. In this way, both events and nonevents are spatialized into a pattern of dynamic and static episodes.

This traditional Chinese worldview was responsible for the focus and the structure of the old novel. The traditional novel does not focus on a single character or a single event to the extent that one or the other serves to unify the whole. The interest tends to embrace many people in their interrelationships in a variety of social contexts. The principal characters may not change— may neither develop nor decline, as they frequently do in Western novels—but simply remain the same.

In dealing with the fortunes of a series of protagonists, the novelist presents a series of cycles in each of which a different protagonist is featured. First one and then another character or incident takes the lead in forwarding the linear progress of the narrative on the printed page. The novel is developed by a system of linked plots, usually governed by some central issue, and these plots together structure the novel as a whole.

In dealing with an individual protagonist, a conflict resolution pattern (proceeding through the stages of point of contention, confrontation, conflict, and resolution) is linked to that of the next individual protagonist, but emphasis is placed on nonevents nearly as much as on events. In other words, this “overlapping” of events takes into consideration what has been called “the interstitial spaces between events.” In this procedure, the novelist sets his or her “clearly defined events” into “a thick matrix of nonevents” such as static descriptions, set speeches, formal banquets, and discursive digressions. The effect is to give the reader a sense of the continuity of discrete events that are not causally linked.

This spatial, noncausal, and nonlinear structuring typical of the traditional Chinese novel is in part obscured by the necessarily temporal, line-by-line arrangement of the narrative language. If the novel were a Chinese landscape painting—whose principles of organization stem from the same cosmological theory, in which the iconology is presented to the eye simultaneously within the confines of the picture plane—this kind of structuring would be immediately apperceptible. In painting, Chinese artists do not aim at the realistic representation of surface appearances. They are not interested in presenting an illusion of depth, for instance, by imitating visual phenomena according to certain optical principles. Rather, they follow the Law of Three Sections: They place the foreground low; depict trees, a pond, and a fisherman in a boat in a middle area; and then sketch the mountains above. Making use of intervals of space and rhythmic lines, Chinese artists seek to induce in the viewer a sense of the “life breath” and the “lifemotion” of the cosmic organism. Indeed, they regard the lines of their configurations as a vascular network made up of “dragon veins,” and they seek to depict the pulse of the universe.

In sum, these discriminations are the first and foremost that the Western-oriented reader must draw in attempting an appraisal of the Chinese novel, whether old or new, from an aesthetic standpoint. It is therefore a mistake to arbitrarily take Western fiction as a standard against which to appraise Chinese traditional fiction. Aesthetic standards and techniques differ in terms of time, place, cultural orientation, and aim. In respect to the Chinese new novel, the critic must distinguish between those novels that have bourgeois aesthetic aims and those composed according to the aesthetic principles of the proletariat revolutionary movement, especially those laid down by Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong in Zai Yan’an wenyi zuotanhui shang de jianghua (1942; Talks at the Yenan Literary Conference, 1965), which later became the literary program of the New China.

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Origins and Development

In the European tradition, epic verse was an important forerunner of long fiction, but such was not the case in China, where special historical and intellectual conditions precluded the production of folk epics. Chinese fiction originated from its oral traditions of myth, folklore, legend, and history, in ballads to be sung and tales to be told. Hence, Chinese fiction emerged from certain other oral practices and forms as well as from certain rhetorical techniques common to fiction that appeared in written histories, philosophies, and religious texts such as narratives, descriptions, biographies, and dialogues.

The premodern view of fiction in China differed significantly from that held in the Western world. To the ancient Chinese, fiction was termed hsiao-shuo (small talk). They regarded it as something trivial and frivolous that had little or no literary merit. To them, orthodox literature consisted of but four genres: classics (the “Four Books” and the “Five Official Classics”), histories, philosophies, and belles lettres (poetry, literary criticism, and miscellaneous essays on sundry subjects). Thus, fiction in China received little respect and less attention from scholars and critics until the twentieth century.

The late Tang Dynasty (618-907 c.e.) scholars who wrote the earliest Chinese fiction, short stories called chuangi (tales of the marvelous), did so as practice exercises for the public civil-service examinations. Hence, these stories were also known as wenquan (warming-up scrolls). Furthermore, these stories were written in classical Chinese and not in the vernacular favored by later writers of short stories and novels. Those scholars who wrote vernacular stories and novels were not anxious to reveal their true identities and thus tarnish their reputations, so they concealed them by leaving their works anonymous, using a pseudonym or “studio name,” or citing an earlier (deceased) writer as the original source. Consequently, many Chinese authors of traditional fiction remain unknown or were identified only in later scholarship.

By the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 c.e., the scholar class had practically become the exclusive custodian of the Chinese written language. In their hands, the written script broke away from the common speech of the people and went its separate way. The characters were normally given sounds (either imaginatively, in silent reading, or aloud, in recitation) in some dialect because the script had no pronunciation of its own. This style, called wenyan (classical or literary Chinese), came to be used exclusively for all serious writing. At the same time, the written script was also used to simulate the vernacular favored by later writers, and the colloquial forms were mixed with the classical. The colloquial style was called baihua (plain speech). Thus, Chinese literature as a whole came to have two contrasting prose styles—literary Chinese, or wenyan, and colloquial Chinese, or baihua. Wenyan was also developed in two contrasting styles—pianwen (parallel prose) and guwen (ancient prose)—but the latter replaced the former for most serious writing by the ninth century c.e. Not until the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty (1279-1367 c.e.) were dictionaries produced giving the Chinese characters in Mandarin pronunciation. At any rate, the history and development of Chinese fiction closely parallel the history and development of both literary and colloquial prose.

Although written records prove that public storytelling in China was a common social institution as early as the Tang Dynasty, such an activity goes much further back into history. The major writings of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.), such as the Shujing (The Book of Documents, 1950), the Guoyu (conversations from the states), the Zhanguo Ce (fifth to second century b.c.e.; intrigues of the warring states; English translation, 1970), and the Lun yu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects of Confucius) are all within the oral tradition. While primitive conventions of narrative form and technique stem from this oral tradition, both traditions— oral and written—continued to influence narrative until the twentieth century. Even when written in classical Chinese, this narrative, especially the novel, continued to reflect the colloquial idiom.

Although the downfall of the Zhou led to the creation of the first Chinese empire under Emperor Shi Huang Di, only two developments took place during the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-207 b.c.e.). The autocratic Shi Huang Di harshly censored and burned all books of which he disapproved.Amore significant development for the future of literature was the standardization of the Chinese script.

The Han Dynasty (207 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), however, was a more fruitful literary period. The Han emperors actively promoted literary scholarship and rewarded worthy scholars with official appointments and promotions. Scholars tried to reconstruct the texts of the burned books, and the Confucian classics were edited, redacted, and “fixed.” The first etymological dictionary was prepared. The civil-service examination system was firmly established. Areliable and effective historiography was founded through the efforts of Sima Qian (c. 145-c. 85 b.c.e.) and Ban Gu (32-92 c.e.). Two new poetic forms, the fu (rhyme-prose) and the yuefu (lyrics and ballads), were devised, and Indian Buddhism was introduced in the Former Han (207 b.c.e.-24 c.e.) to compete with the indigenous Confucian and Daoist creeds.

All the developments already described contributed to the later development of Chinese fiction. The examination candidates of the Tang Dynasty were to create the first literary short stories, the chuangi, as practice exercises. The essence of history is narrative, and later Chinese fiction would draw heavily upon Chinese historical narrative, particularly the novel. The new poetic fu and yuefu were narrative forms. Finally, Indian Buddhism was to have a profound impact on the Chinese imagination.

The fall of the Han Dynasty resulted in relative political chaos in China for four centuries, a period known as the Six Dynasties (220-589 c.e.). During this time, the two chief indigenous systems of thought, Confucianism and Daoism, reacted to the introduction of Buddhism, the foreign creed from India, prompting an increased interest in mysticism and metaphysical speculation. This led to a distortion of the heretofore practical system of ethics that Confucianism had espoused. Mystical meanings were interpolated into the Confucian classics, while the more speculative and metaphysical Daoism rose in popularity. Eventually these trends led to a new school of philosophy called xuanxue (dark, or subtle, learning). This philosophy sought to encourage metaphysical speculation by means of dialogues studded with wit and humor called qingtan (pure conversations), which were recorded in writing. One such compendium, entitled Shishuo Xinyu (fifth century b.c.e.; A New Account of Tales of the World, 1976), was made in the fifth century by Liu Yiqing (404-444 b.c.e.). The contribution of the institution of qingtan to later fiction was no doubt greater than that made to philosophical speculation. Rooted in speech rather than in wenyan, it minimized the importance of the content of the essay and focused on the wit, encouraging a search for choice words and phrases.

Another side effect of the introduction of Buddhism was the revival of the ancient Chinese spiritualist cult of the wu.A wu was a shaman or priest who acted as a mediator between spirits and humans. The cult’s preoccupation with gods and ghosts was enhanced by the teachings of Buddhism. Members of the cult adopted the practice of writing stories about gods and ghosts. These stories became so popular with the people that noncult writers began to compose such stories for entertainment. Even scholars took an interest in them and began to collect and publish them. One such collection was published about the beginning of the third century under the title Liyizhuan (c. 220; strange tales); the identity of its author or editor is unknown, though it has been ascribed to Caa Bei. Other collections were brought out by Zhanghua (232-280), Gan Bao (fl. c. 300), and Wu Qun (469-519). The adherents of Buddhism and Daoism also wrote similar tales.

Such “ghost stories” were called qigui (tales of the supernatural). Although the scholars of the Six Dynasties period took an interest in them, they did not take them seriously as literature, referring to them as qigui xiashuo. Actually, the qigui were simply journalistic recordings of folklore or religious propaganda. Nevertheless, they are significant in the history of fiction because they were among the first attempts at imaginative writing and point to the Buddhist and secular pianwen, which began to appear near the end of the Six Dynasties period.

The introduction of Buddhism into China resulted in an imaginative expansion of Chinese mythology and legend that later provided stock for fiction. Legendary tales were scattered in various ancient books such as the Shijing (c. 500 b.c.e.; The Book of Odes, 1950); the Zuozhuan (c. 450 b.c.e.; The Tso Chuan, 1989), which covered political, social, and military events from 722 to 463 b.c.e.; and the Shanhai jing (c. 200 b.c.e.; The Classic of Mountains and Seas, 2000). The Chinese began learning of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; numberless universes; many heavens and hells; endless cycles of rebirths; Gautama Buddha; Amitabha Buddha, the ruler of the Western Paradise; Vairochana, the primordial eternal Buddha; and Maitreya, the Laughing Buddha, who will come again. There were legends, too, of Siddhartha Gautama sitting under the bo tree, the dream of Emperor Ming Di, and Bodhidharma meditating before a wall at the Shaolin Monastery and then teaching his novices the art of quanfa (the law of the fist).

Buddhism also had an impact on the Chinese language and on prose style. With its introduction, there was an urgent demand for translations of the Buddhist sutras (sacred texts). New words and concepts had to be interpreted and translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. The translators saw that Daoist words and concepts could be used to explain Buddhist ideas; this method was called geyi (interpretation by analogy). In other cases, if no Chinese words could be substituted for the Sanskrit, transliteration was employed. Thus, the Sanskrit nirvãna became the Chinese nipan. Truth and comprehension were paramount in the eyes of the translators, and they made every effort to keep their prose style plain and unadorned, perfectly clear, and as faithful to the original as possible.

The Buddhist narrative compositions, the pianwen (changed composition), were the products of peripatetic Buddhist monks who recited them before temple audiences. Composed in alternate prose and verse, the pianwen were creative popularizations of passages selected from the Buddhist scriptures that were illustrated by stories taken from the life of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Indian Buddhism. Because these “sermons with exempla” were popular adaptations of sacred scriptures, they were regarded as “changed compositions.” These changes included an irregular alternation between the use of verse and prose, as well as the bridging of the compositional process by means of the episodes taken from the Buddha’s life.

The Buddhist pianwen became so popular with Chinese audiences that similar types of secular narratives were modeled after their religious prototypes. Specimens of pianwen, both religious and secular,were among the numerous manuscripts dating from 406 to 995 recovered at Dunhuang. Among them is a religious pianwen of the Five Dynasties period (907-960) referred to as Mulian pianwen (the story of Mulian). It is the story of a young man who becomes a Buddhist monk and his effort to rescue his mother from hell. There is also a secular pianwen called Shunzi qi xiao pianwen, which may be the earliest fictional account of the legendary Emperor Shun, the Chinese model of filial piety. At any rate, the pianwen substantially influenced later Chinese fiction.

These first attempts at formal imaginative writing seen in the qigui and the pianwen, as unsophisticated, crude, and awkward as they were, prepared the ground for the emergence of the first mature Chinese fiction, the literary short prose romances called chuangi that reached their greatest vogue in the late Tang Dynasty. Written in wenyan, or literary Chinese, in the new prose style called guwen, these short stories were written by the literati (rusheng) for other literati. As romances, they were longer, more sustained, better organized, and superior in style to previous fictions. Although written in guwen classical prose instead of the vernacular, the dialogue portions of the stories showed an attempt to approximate living speech. In terms of the literary tradition, the chuangi was the main fictional form of the Tang period. At the same time, the manuscripts of the Denhuang caves show that popular fiction in the form of the pianwen was produced throughout the Tang period and well into the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

During the Northern Song period (960-1126), however, the art of the oral storyteller had reached such a state of perfection that the literati turned from the writing of chuanqi to the writing of short tales in colloquial Chinese based on the art of the popular oral narrators of fiction. These vernacular stories were called huaben (story roots) because the literati derived them from the promptbooks that the shuohua ren, or speech makers, prepared to jog their memories when they found that necessary. By the Southern Sung period (1127-1279), the vogue of the chuanqi huaben had diminished to such an extent that the huaben had become the dominant fictional form. Indeed, the greatest huaben stories written by literati were produced during the Southern Song period.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), however, interest in chuanqi was revived for a time by the stories of Ch’ü Yu (1347-1433), who had used the Tang chuanqi as his models. Most of the extant Tang tales had been preserved in a collection made at the insistence of the Song emperor Taizong. During the Ming Dynasty, at the time of this brief revival of interest, some further collections were made.

A more potent revival of the chuanqi form, however, occurred during the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty (1644- 1911), which inspired the most famous of all such tales by the masterly hand of Pu Songling (1640-1715) published in 1679 under the title Liaozhai zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, 1880). Although his range of subject matter is in line with earlier chuanqi, his tales display an unusual command of literary Chinese and the ability to make the improbable, sometimes even the impossible, convincing. His work inspired many imitators. As for the huaben stories, there are no extant Song or Yuan collections. Several collections of such stories, however, were made during the Ming Dynasty. The earliest of these stories were printed by Hong Pian, around 1550, in six volumes. Although sixty tales were originally preserved, only twenty-nine of them have survived. In the 1620’s, a major anthologist and writer, Feng Menglong (1574-1646), published a three-volume collection known as the Sanyan (three words), each volume containing 40 stories, or 120 tales altogether. Most of them are of the huaben type written during the Yuan Dynasty or even earlier, but some are Ming pieces. These collections were followed by the inspired writing of Ling Meng-qu (1580-1644) and Li Yu, or Li Liweng (1611-c. 1680), who wrote their own huaben fiction. Such tales continued to be written until the twentieth century.

In comparison to the short tale, the novel was long in coming in China, not emerging until near the close of the fourteenth century. If the term “novel” is used in its general sense to mean “a long prose fiction with a relatively complex plot or pattern of events,” then the first major Chinese novel is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong (c. 1320-c. 1380). This novel was partly inspired by a previous fictional form that originated with the oral storytellers of the Southern Song period and flourished in conjunction with the huaben. Some oral storytellers specialized in telling long narratives of fictionalized history that required serial development. Even more than the huaben tellers, they needed promptbooks in writing. These serialized stories were called pinghua (common talk) because, like the shorter huaben, they were written in the vernacular (actually Mandarin mixed with classical Chinese). Their development seems to parallel that of the Southern drama.

Pinghua promptbooks in their original condition, although lost in China, were preserved in Japan, all printed between 1321 and 1323, during the reign of Yuan Yingzong of the Yuan Dynasty. These texts retain the formal properties of their Song predecessors. Beginning with a prologue setting forth a small story analogous to the main tale to be told and suggesting its moral, the pinghua is a much longer narrative than the huaben type of short story and belongs to a different genre. It is the transitional fictional form between the vernacular short story and the vernacular novel, and it points directly toward the colloquial novel that was to come. The pinghua that partly inspired Luo was the Sanguozhi pinghua (1321-1323; a pinghua of the history of the Three Kingdoms), but he also made use of a reliable official history and a commentary on it.

Following Luo’s The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the vernacular novel completely dominated the Chinese tradition. Although the guwen style of wenyan had proved effective for short narratives, it was not a satisfactory instrument for extended fiction in which dialogue played a prominent part. Sung writers of short fiction had abandoned the literary Chinese of the chuanqi in favor of the vernacular of the huaben. It was natural, therefore, that Luo should have adopted the pinghua as his model.

Although some novels were written in classical Chinese, especially during the Qing Dynasty, none is comparable to the best vernacular novels. A Qing guwen novel entitled Yin shi (c. 1800; the tale of a silver fish), by Tu Shen (1744-1801), has enough magic to be relatively successful. A more lengthy effort, however, a 300,000- word novel in pianwen (parallel prose) written by the eccentric Chen Qiu, entitled Yan Shan waishi (c. 1810; the informal history of Yan Shan), and whose style is involved and complex, is virtually unreadable.

The vernacular novel tradition brought forth the greatest masterpieces. The next major effort after Luo was Shuihu zhuan (fourteenth century; translated by Pearl S. Buck as All Men Are Brothers, 1933; also known as Water Margin, 1937), attributed to Shi Nai’an (c. 1290- 1365), about whom nothing is known. Although written in the fourteenth century, the earliest known edition dates from the middle of the sixteenth century. Following this work, novel writing seems to have been eclipsed by the Yuan drama. Two centuries elapsed before another masterpiece appeared, Xiyuo ji (1592; The Journey to the West, 1977-1983) by Wu Chengen (c. 1500-c. 1582).

In the late Ming Dynasty, a great novel appeared that was quite different in character from those preceding it. This was the novel of manners called Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus 1939)traditionally attributed to Wang Shichen (1526-1590), although this attribution has been questioned. A one hundred- chapter novel, it was circulated in manuscript in the 1590’s, and the first printed edition appeared around 1610. The previous masterpieces are of a semihistorical character and have a close alliance with Chinese historiography. Although the Jin Ping Mei purports to show the dissolute manner of the time of Emperor Hui Zong of the Song Dynasty, it actually depicts, realistically and with considerable precision, the manners of the author’s own time. This Ming novel was followed by perhaps the greatest masterpiece in the history of the Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin (c. 1715-1763). The story of the decline of a wealthy aristocratic family of the author’s own time, centering on the romantic love affair of the two teenagers, Jia Baoyu and his cousin and playmate Lin Daiyu, the narrative is infused with Buddhist and Daoist myth.

After the appearance of these five—The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, The Journey to the West, Chin Ping Mei, and Dream of the Red Chamber— nothing comparable followed in the Chinese novel tradition. There are, however, other novels of considerable value and significance. Two are of special importance: Rulin waishi (1768-1779; The Scholars, 1957), an early Qing work by Wu Jingzi (1701-1754) that satirizes pseudoscholarship and the civil-service examination system; and a late Qing work, Lao Can youji (1904-1907, serial; The Travels of Lao Ts’an, 1952; revised 1990), by Liu E (1857-1909; also known as Liu Tieyun), a delightful story of an itinerant Chinese physician concerned about his country’s condition and opposed to injustice and harsh government.

Originating in Chinese myth, legend, and folklore, the oral tradition of Chinese literature strongly influenced written literature. Although the Chinese literary language became divorced from common speech, an alliance between writing and speech was maintained from early to modern times. Traditional Chinese fiction, like Western fiction, is divisible into the short story and the novel, but unlike Western fiction it is also divisible into fiction written in the literary as opposed to the vernacular language. This latter distinction is as important as the former.

With the Literary Revolution in 1917, the character of Chinese fiction drastically changed. The acceptance of baihua (common speech) for all forms of literature, as well as the acceptance of Western forms and standards, meant the complete rejection of the ancient Chinese literary tradition and the culture that accompanied it. Therefore, modern Chinese literature is a special study in itself. The fiction of the Chinese renaissance of 1930 to 1937, based on Western literary criteria, showed promise, if not fulfillment. The Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the subsequent civil war, however, stopped this progress.

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese fiction quickly became a propaganda instrument of the state, and the sanctioned literary production was strictly controlled. Although the communist hierarchy prescribed the rejection of Western influences and a return to the Chinese tradition, this meant the tradition of the folk but not of the literary elite. Furthermore, communist fiction turned to formula and dogma, and writers were required to express themselves solely according to the Marxist-Leninist view of the world. No vital and authentic fiction has as yet emerged under these circumstances.

The Traditional Vernacular Novel

The first great vernacular novel produced in China was The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, a playwright and writer of the late Yuan and early Ming periods. If he modeled his novel on the oral form of the pinghua, which he saw recorded in the promptbook Sanguo zhi pinghua, which was fictionalized history, Luo also turned to reliable official history to keep his facts straight. Indeed, in his novel he adhered closely to the official history of Chen Shou (233-297 c.e.), the Sanguo zhi, juan 36, but also consulted the commentary on it made by Pei Songzhi (fl. 400-430 c.e.). He may also have been indebted to Yuan drama for some structural principles.

The story told in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms occurs during the Three Kingdoms period (220- 265 c.e.), actually extending from 168 to 265 c.e. Following the eclipse of the Han Dynasty, the three states of Wei, Shu, and Wu contended for dominance and the reunification of China. Contrary to Chen, who regarded Wei as the legitimate successor to Han, Luo considered Shu the rightful heir. Presenting his hero, Liu Bei, who becomes the King of Shu, as the legal successor to the Han family, Luo sees the struggle for power as a great historical drama involving opposite moral principles. Consequently, he pits Liu Bei, whom he depicts as the personification of legitimacy, righteousness, and honor, in alliance with Sun Quan, who has inherited the Wu kingdom, against Cao Cao, the founder of the Wei and the embodiment of falsehood, treachery, and cruelty. At Liu Bei’s side is his friend Guan Yu, the ideal feudal Chinese knight, who, though good and pure, is also foolhardy and arrogant. Liu Bei’s prime minister and generalissimo, Zhuge Liang, combines loyalty, sagacity, and resourcefulness with amazing examples of military strategy. Another prominent hero-knight is Zhang Fei, who represents physical prowess, reckless bravery, and impetuous temper. Although Luo obviously intends to glorify Liu Bei and his friends and vilify Cao Cao and his supporters, he does not fail to humanize his characters and displays their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are not stereotypes; rather, they are well-rounded, complex human beings. Although the novel is concerned mainly to show forth the vain ambitions of humans and their inability to control their own destinies, it is also a novel of character.

The term yanyi in the Chinese title of the novel has commonly been translated by Westerners as “romance,” but it literally means “an expansion of the text in a popular version.” In short, it means “popular history.” To regard The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, however, as nothing more than popularized history, as some critics have, detracts much from the full measure of the author’s achievement. Reacting against the superstitions and vulgarities of a cyclic tale told many times over by oral storytellers, Luo sought to create in writing a long narrative of the zhang-hui (chapter division) type which would be more artistically designed and more elegant in style than the folk version. Purging the story of most of its vulgar elements, he blended popular legend with authentic history, eliminating or selecting incidents to suit his purposes. He invented incidents to fit the personalities of his characters and changed the nature of historical personages to suit himself. Although the oral version supported the Buddhist theme of baoying, or “moral retribution” according to the law of karma, he substituted the Confucian theme of tian ming, or the “Mandate of Heaven,” by which all events are determined. Working in this manner, Luo stitched together a strong internal pattern of military campaigns, political intrigues, small exciting incidents of various kinds, and vivid human relationships. Out of the multiplicity of characters and heroes, Zhuge Liang emerges as the principal hero and the model of intelligence, wisdom, competence, resourcefulness, and selfless service to his prince. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was a great pioneering effort and remains an important landmark in the history of Chinese fiction.

Possibly written as early as 1358 and circulated in handwritten manuscript, nothing of which is extant, the first printed edition of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms dates from about 1545. During the Qing Dynasty, around 1679, Mao Lun and his son Mao Zonggang edited a revised version of the novel together with a commentary. ThisMaoedition has been regarded as the standard since 1925, when C. H. Brewitt-Taylor brought out an English translation of the novel in two volumes, which is relatively complete and reads smoothly. A reprint of this translation with an introduction by Roy Andrew Miller appeared in 1959.

If The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a great recreation of an exciting historical period, which is also relatively authentic history, the next major effort in the history of the Chinese novel, Water Margin, is a creation of a historical epoch which is almost wholly fictitious. In seventy chapters in the standard edition, Water Margin is the story of 108 heroes who have rebelled, not against the government itself but against the activities of corrupt officials in the government, and who are living the life of outlaws. The term shui hu means “water margin”; in this context, it refers to a region in present-day Shandong Province, Liangshanbo. It is in this area, composed of Mount Liang (Liangshan) and the marshes that surround it, that the brigand-heroes, under the leadership of Song Jiang, have established their headquarters. Although the novel is almost entirely imaginative, this situation had a historical basis. Asimilar band of outlaws, including the historical Song Jiang, were active at this location in a similar manner from about 1117 to 1121, or immediately prior to the collapse of the Northern Song Dynasty in 1126. The historical Song Jiang and his outlaw band surrendered to the government in 1121. According to some historical sources, the government then enlisted the band in a campaign to quell a much more threatening revolt led by the rebel Fang La.

The story of Song Jiang and his outlaw band was a favorite topic with the oral storytellers of the Southern Song Dynasty; it also became a popular subject with the Yuan Dynasty playwrights. The Mongol historian T’o T’o mentions the activities of Song Jiang and his outlaws in his dynastic history, the Songshi (1345). Finally, an early Yuan fiction, apparently based on a Song pinghua promptbook, also tells this tale. Water Margin must have been inspired by these sources as well as by popular legend.

Unlike The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, whose tight internal structure results from the interweaving of narrative strands and interrelated conflict situations, Water Margin is composed of a sequence of cycles, each of which features a different hero. Hence, although its internal structure is weaker than that of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, its overall structure is stronger. Jin Shengtan’s 1641 redaction in seventy chapters, which has become the standard edition, ends with the brigandheroes assembled in the Hall of Loyalty and Righteousness. They are assembled to receive the Heavenly Tablet, on which their names are inscribed together with the mottoes “Carry Out the Will of Heaven” and “Fidelity and Loyalty Complete.” Although Jin’s ending was actually designed to avoid heaping praise on the outlaws, it nevertheless underscores their lofty principles and the grandeur of their mission. It was no wonder that the Jin version of the novel scored such a hit with the Chinese people.

It must be pointed out, however, that the Jin edition is an arbitrary redaction of a 120-chapter version possibly edited by Yang Tingqian in 1614. The ending of the story in this edition differs significantly from the one provided by Jin in 1641. In the Yang edition, the story ends tragically, the heroes dying one by one with their missions unfulfilled. Jin actually retained seventy-one chapters of the Yang version but converted chapter 1 into a prologue. Jin’s ending, therefore, was both new and arbitrary. It was motivated not by any aesthetic consideration but by political morality, slanted by Jin’s personal dislike for the rebel leader Song Jiang. The Jin edition became the standard simply because of its great popularity. An edition prior to Yang’s also once existed. This was the Guo Xun edition of about 1550, which consisted of one hundred chapters. It is this edition that states that Shi Nai’an was the author and Luo Guanzhong the editor. Although only five chapters of this edition have survived, the whole appeared in a Kangxi reprint of 1589. The problem of the definitive text of the novel, therefore, is complex.

At any rate, Water Margin in the Jin edition is perhaps the finest example of wuxia xiaoshuo (military knight fiction) in Chinese literature. Pearl S. Buck produced an English translation of the novel in 1933 under the title All Men Are Brothers, issued in two volumes, and J. A. Jackson issued an English translation as Water Margin in 1937, also in two volumes. Jackson’s translation is more condensed and less literal than that of Buck. Although Buck’s contains some expurgations, it is faithful to the original text, yet it lacks the spirit of action and movement that Jackson’s conveys. There are many inaccuracies in both translations.

With these two masterpieces of the late Yuan period, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, the Chinese novel came of age. No doubt because of the popularity of Yuan and Ming drama and other types of theatrical entertainment, however, a hiatus in novel writing set in for nearly two centuries, and it was not until the 1560’s that another novelistic masterpiece finally appeared. This work was The Journey to the West, byWu Chengen, a writer, poet, scholar, and official of the middle Ming period. The discovery of the novel’s true author did not occur, however, until the twentieth century. Previously, its composition had been ascribed to Qiu Zhuqi (1148-1227), a great traveler who was an adviser to Genghis Khan.

On the literal level, The Journey to the West is the story of the journey from China to India of a Chinese Buddhist monk named Xuanzang, or Tripitaka, who is accompanied by four animal spirits who serve as his disciples. In fact, it is not the monk who is the hero of the story but one of his disciples, a monkey spirit named Sun Wukong. The other disciples are a pig spirit named Zhu Bajie, a fish spirit named Sha Heshang, and the monk’s white horse, who is a dragon prince in disguise and understands human speech. Consisting of one hundred chapters, the novel is divided into four parts. The first deals with the birth and early life of the monkey spirit. Born of an egg-shaped rock, he becomes king of the monkey tribe. Highly intelligent, he studies Buddhism and Daoism, acquires magical powers and superhuman abilities, and becomes an immortal.Aresident in Heaven, his ego is so inflated that he seeks to replace the JadeEmperor on the throne. After causing havoc in Heaven, he is subdued by Buddha himself and imprisoned beneath the Mountain of Five Elements. Five hundred years later, he is released to serve Tripitaka. The second division is the story of the early life of Tripitaka and the origin of his quest. The third division relates the adventures of Tripitaka and his disciples on their way to India. After fourteen years, the pilgrims reach their destination, where they collect numerous scriptures. Not until their return to China, however, do they attain enlightenment and Buddhahood. The journey is described in a lively and rapid narrative embracing many episodes and numerous trials, tribulations, and confrontations with demons and monsters. The fourth part presents the conclusion of the journey.

Despite its supernatural cast, the tale had a small basis in fact. There was a historical Chinese Buddhist monk named Xuanzang who was known by the religious name of Tang Sanzang (or Tripitaka—the collection of Buddhist scriptures). He traveled to India and was absent from China for seventeen years (629-645). When he returned to China, he became a national hero and a favorite of the emperor. He spent the rest of his life translating the Indian texts and teaching his disciples. He dictated his account of his journey to a disciple, Pianqi, entitling it Da Tang xiyu ji (seventh century; On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, 629-645 A.D., 1904-1905). Xuanzang and his journey became a popular subject of the oral storytellers. The Tripitaka legend became as popular with the Chinese as the Liangshan legend of Song Jiang and his outlaw band.

WuChengen’s fantastic novel, however, appears designed to suggest much more than its literal level of presentation, as interesting, exciting, and amusing as that is. Although the author good-naturedly pokes fun at the three Chinese religions and the governmental hierarchy and its bureaucracy, underneath or beyond that is a serious thrust, a satire upon the nature of humanity itself and an effort to explain the fundamental process through which any human, regardless of his or her particular religious orientation, comes to enlightenment and consequent peace of mind. It is clear that Tripitaka represents Everyman. An ordinary physical mortal, he is fearful, humorless, not too bright, gullible, preoccupied with his own well-being and safety, yet also filled with love and compassion. All too human, he is a model of unenlightened human behavior, a ying’er (a babe in the woods). At the same time, he and his animal spirit friends also clearly represent the various aspects of the human self. He is referred to in the text as “the body of the Law” (fashen), “the original nature” (benxing), and the “primal spirit” (yuanshen).

On the other hand, the monkey spirit obviously represents the human mind at its most efficient and is referred to as the “mind-monkey” (xinhou). He is smart, nimble, clever, rampant, courageous, arrogant, and vainglorious. He personifies the genius of humans, and he calls himself “The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven.” Yet as Lucifer could not outwit or best God, so Monkey cannot outwit or best Buddha, who is simply the Enlightened One and no divinity. The pig spirit represents humanity’s gross nature and sensual appetites; he is lazy, lecherous, gluttonous, jealous, envious, and stupid. The fish spirit, a water monster who lived in the River of Flowing Sands prior to joining Tripitaka, is a coward and a bluffer who seeks to deceive through a ferocious appearance and a bold front; he represents people’s self-deceptions, illusions, and fears. The white dragon/horse symbolizes humanity’s will and determination, an indomitable spirit and sense of responsibility and a willingness to take on a burden and see it through to the end.

These are but some general observations on the complex range of meaning with which the novel is infused in terms of symbolization and allegory. This range of meaning supports the novel’s main concern, which is Wu Chengen’s explanation of the process of human salvation. This state comes about by self-cultivation of the whole person, mind and body. With discipline and humility, humans can arrive at a mental and physical equilibrium, their minds in tune with the corporeal world, the total human in harmony with self and the universe. It is only through corporeality that humans can arrive at the necessary perception of nothingness—a realization that completes the process of enlightenment whereby humans reach complete peace of mind. In short, Wu Chengen’s formula is yisiwukong—that is, “to perceive the nature of emptiness through the medium of illusion,” for the corporeal world, though real, is not Ultimate Reality, which is Void. The Journey to the West is not only an outstanding example of a novel on a supernatural theme but also a polysemous, complex, and seminal book.

Arthur Waley’s English translation under the title Monkey, though including only thirty of the original one hundred chapters, is superb and has long been popular with the general public. Anthony C. Yu, however, produced the first complete translation, published between 1977 and 1983 under the original title in four volumes. Yu’s translation is both highly readable and faithful to the original text, and it is supplemented by helpful notes. The Journey to the West has been made into a series of feature films and was adapted to the stage as The Journey to the West: The Musical, which premiered in New York City in 2006.

Possibly written as early as 1565, the next great masterpiece in the history of the Chinese novel, The Golden Lotus (the Chinese title, Jin Ping Mei, consists of parts of the names of threewomencharacters), is of uncertain authorship. Its composition generally has been attributed to Wang Shichen, a scholar and writer who is alleged to have written it as an instrument of revenge against an official who had ruined the author’s father, another official. This attribution, however, has been questioned, and several other candidates have been proposed, including Xu Wei (1521-1593), a writer and painter, and Li Kaixian (1501-1568), a poet and playwright. At least one handwritten manuscript of the one-hundred-chapter novel was in circulation during the 1590’s.

The first printed edition appeared around 1610, but it met with destruction. The earliest extant edition, known as the Wanli edition, was published around 1617 under the title Jin Ping Mei Cihua (Jin Ping Mei, a vernacular novel with songs). Sometime between 1666 and 1684, the critic and writer Zhang Zhupo (c. 1654-c. 1694) prepared an edition with a commentary entitled Zhang Zhupo ping Jin Ping Mei (Jin Ping Mei commented on by Zhang Zhupo). This edition has been regarded as standard. The important thing as far as Chinese literary history is concerned is that The Golden Lotus was a complete departure in terms of the previous history of the novel. Previous novels had dealt either with people who were of epic proportions or with characters who were different in kind from humans, such as immortals, spirits, demons, and monsters. As specific fictional forms, they are “romances.” The Golden Lotus, however, deals with ordinary people in the context of social relations and manners. Indeed, it is a “novel of manners,” a “novel” in the specific formal sense, the first such long narrative in China.

Although The Golden Lotus purports to show the dissolute manners of the time of the Song emperor Huizong, it actually depicts those of the author’s own time, the first half of the sixteenth century. Set in the town of Qinghe in present-day Shandong Province, the story is primarily concerned with the town’s leading citizen and businessman, Ximen Qing, and his six wives. The wealthy owner of an apothecary shop and an underworld figure as well, his principal activities are making money, gaining social prestige, and searching for fresh sexual experience, particularly by seducing married women. The novel delineates representative figures at most levels of Ming society; it was the first Chinese novel to adequately characterize women. Although the original title of The Golden Lotus (Jin Ping Mei) may be read literally to mean something like “plum blossoms in a golden vase,” it actually refers to three women in Ximen Qing’s life: “Jin” to Pan Jinlian (Golden Lotus), the fifth wife; “Ping” to Li Ping’er (Little Vase), the sixth wife; and “Mei” to Chunmei (Spring Plumblossom), Lotus’s maid, whom Ximen debauches. The other women of Ximen’s household are Yueniang (Moon Lady), who holds the honored position of first wife; Li Qiao’er, the second wife; Meng Yulou, the third wife; and Hsüeh-o, the fourth wife; of these, only Moon Lady is a decent person. It is Golden Lotus, a veritable femme fatale, who is the dominant character of the book. She promotes her husband’s financial ruin and contributes to his early death.

Although the novel progresses by episodes, the tension developed between the parts and the whole is, for the first time in Chinese long fiction, satisfactorily resolved. Its explicit descriptions of sexual activity have frequently been termed pornographic, but they are in fact supportive of the novel’s individualized characterizations and naturalistic view of life. Its naturalism, however, is not based on the Western notion of the influence of heredity and environment in human makeup but on the Buddhist notion of moral retribution, in which humans are a product of the quality of their deeds throughout their previous states of existence. The personal view of the author, however, appears more Confucian than Buddhist because he has taken pains to show the folly of those men and women who become trapped in the net of a hedonistic and materialistic world. He appears to regret the necessity of the novel’s religious solution when Moon Lady permits her only son, the fifteen-year-old Hsiaoko, to enter a Buddhist monastery to become a monk to save his father’s soul. Although the author derived the opening of his novel from chapter 22 of Water Margin, introducing the reader to the famous military knight Wu Song, he quickly shifts the focus from him to Golden Lotus, who murders her husband, Wu Song’s brother, in order to marry Ximen, with whom she is having an adulterous affair. On this and other sources, the author shows but little dependence. The Golden Lotus is primarily a work of a single imagination and a unified and effective narrative. Although heavily erotic, the novel is a strong work of social criticism.

In 1939, Clement Egerton issued an English translation of Jin Ping Mei; the erotic passages, however, are rendered in Latin. A revised version, for the most part complete and unexpurgated, was published in 1972 and is readable and fairly accurate. An excellent and readable translation by David Tod Roy has been published, although only three of the five volumes have been completed: The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P’ing Mei: Volume One: The Gathering (1993), The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P’ing Mei: Volume Two: The Rivals (2001), and The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P’ing Mei: Volume Three: The Aphrodisiac (2006).

Although The Golden Lotus has been highly regarded by some critics, the consensus is that the greatest masterpiece in the history of the Chinese vernacular novel is Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, the scion of a wealthy family that inherited the office of supervisor of the imperial textile factory at Nanjing but suffered a fall from prosperity to poverty. In 120 chapters altogether, the first 80 chapters were thoroughly completed by Cao about 1763 and circulated in handwritten manuscript. The novel in this form included a commentary prepared by an older cousin of the author, Cao Yufeng, known by his pen name, Zhiyan Zhai. Cao Xueqin died at about this time, leaving behind a fortychapter conclusion to the novel in a rough draft. Nearly thirty years later, Go E and a contemporary, Cheng Weiyuan, edited the last forty chapters and issued the whole in a printed edition in 1792 under the new title Dream of the Red Chamber. The novel is presumed to be at least partly autobiographical because it relates the story of the wealthy Jia family and its decline and fall and thus duplicates to some degree the experience of the author himself.

Actually, Dream of the Red Chamber tells what might be called three stories in one, arranged in three insetting frames, the smallest set within the border of a larger and that larger set within the largest. The smallest story is concerned with the tragic love affair between two teenagers, Jia Baoyu (Precious Jade), the hero of the novel, and Lin Daiyu (Black Jade), his cousin and playmate, the heroine. The larger narrative is concerned with the decline and fall of the Jia family, within the context of which the romance takes place, but it features Baoyu’s widowed grandmother, Jia Mu (Matriarch), who presides over the Rungquofu household, and Wang Xifeng (Phoenix), the wife of the Matriarch’s grandson, Jia Lian, and the crafty manager of the household who, however, contributes to the family’s ruin.

The largest narrative, the one that frames the others, utilizes a Chinese creation myth about the goddess Nügua and her efforts to repair the Dome of Heaven with pieces of rock. One such rock being left unused laments its fate to two passersby, a Buddhist monk and a Daoist priest. It expresses the wish to be transported to the earth so that it might experience life in the “red dust” (hongchen). While waiting at the court of the Goddess of Disillusionment to be thus transported, the celestial rock cares for a celestial plant by watering it daily with dew. This loving care makes the plant blossom into a fairy who vows that if she may accompany the rock to earth, she will repay his love with tears of gratitude. When Baoyu is born into the Chia family, he is “born with a piece of jade in his mouth” and obviously is the rock incarnate in the earthly setting. He falls in love with his cousin Lin Daiyu, who, sickly and temperamental, is like a sensitive plant and is clearly the plant fairy incarnate on earth. In her romance with Baoyu, she cries many tears, but they are tears of self-pity and jealousy rather than tears of gratitude. After the Jia family requires Baoyu to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai (Precious Clasp), instead of the unsuitable Daiyu, who soon dies, Baoyu begins to undergo a severe disillusionment. He begins to see desire, whether for love, status, wealth, or knowledge, as the root of all suffering. Longing to free himself from suffering, he decides to renounce the world, or life in the “red dust,” to become an unattached monk. He is last seen disappearing into the horizon accompanied by a Buddhist monk and a Daoist priest. Thus, through Buddhist wisdom and Daoist grace he has achieved enlightenment after having experienced the sufferings of a man in this life. The myth rounds out the novel.

The autobiographical background of Dream of the Red Chamber and its treatment of its subject have prompted various interpretations as to its real meaning. Some of the interpretations are simply silly. It is not easy to decide whether Cao Xueqin intended his novel to be an attack on Confucian ideals and morality and on the feudal system generally, or a vindication of Confucianism and the feudal system (by demonstrating that sensual indulgence, the neglect of the cultivation of Confucian morality, and the irrationality of romantic love can wreck not only the individual but also an entire family), or a compromise with Confucianism and the feudal system (by advocating a Buddhism-Daoist form of escapism). It appears that the novel is actually a complex response to the whole Chinese cultural tradition and that the device of ambiguity is its watchword. This ambiguity is given expression by the author’s attitudes of detachment, toleration, and compassion, which foster a subjective interpretation of the novel’s meaning at the hands of every reader. To a Confucian, romantic love is disastrous, and the ending is a regrettable form of escapism. To a Buddhist or Daoist, romantic love can mean only suffering, and the ending points out the proper solution. To a Chinese taken by Western democratic ideals, Confucianism and the feudal system were cruel anachronisms whose destruction was overdue in the eighteenth century. To a Chinese communist, the novel is a direct attack on Confucianism and the feudal system, and its ending is a regrettable capitulation to superstition. It would seem that Cao Xueqin himself was more concerned with rendering a tragic sense of life than championing any one of these interpretations.

Dream of the Red Chamber is notable for a variety of qualities, some of which mark an important advance over previous Chinese novels. The plot, though complex, is carefully framed and tightly knit in its development to the end. The characterization is outstanding, particularly in respect to older women. The portrait of the widowed grandmother, Jia Mu, is certainly one of the finest characterizations of an elderly woman to be found in any novel, and that of Wang Xifeng is also vivid and forceful. The characters of the young girls, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai, are well defined and individualized. Baoyu’s character is developed step-by-step through dialogue, through his reactions to various situations and through his dreams until he is well understood by the reader. The novel is outstanding for its psychological analysis and penetration. The author rarely indulges in didacticism or authorial comment but allows the opposition between the attitudes of detachment and compassion to develop the ambiguity necessary for subjective judgment. He also makes subtle use of poetry to guide the reader’s feelings. The style he employs is a polished, refined, and highly expressive form of the colloquial that is unusually advanced. Altogether, Dream of the Red Chamber is a work that is both realistic and imaginative. It is a close study of the everyday life of a wealthy and aristocratic Chinese family of the eighteenth century, a precise analysis of the ravages of a romantic love affair, and a profound religious and philosophical commentary on the nature of human life.

The standard Chinese text of Dream of the Red Chamber is the Chengqao edition, published in 1792. It was reprinted in Taibei (Taipei) in a two-volume edition under the title Tsu-pen Hung-lou mêng (1957). Avariorum edition in four volumes, however, was published in Beijing in 1958. This work was prepared by Xu Pingbo and WangXishi and issued under the title Honglou meng bashi wei chao ben.

There are several English translations of Dream of the Red Chamber. One translated from a German version by Franz Kuhn was done by Florence McHugh and Isabel McHugh and published in 1958. Another was done by Wang Qichen and published in the same year. Neither is completely satisfactory, for different reasons. David Hawkes and John Minford published a fine fivevolume English translation under the title The Story of the Stone from 1973 to 1980; an abridged version of this translation was released by Penguin books in 1996 with the title The Dream of the Red Chamber: A Chinese Novel of the Early Ching Period.

In addition to the five outstanding masterpieces of the Chinese novel already discussed, there are two other traditional vernacular novels of significance: the eighteenth century The Scholars, byWu Jingzi, and the early twentieth century The Travels of Lao Ts’an, by Liu E. The Scholars (the Chinese title literally means “unofficial history of the forest of scholars”) is an attack on pseudoscholarship and hypocrisy and an exposure of the ill effects produced by the civil service examination system, especially after the emphasis put on the writing of the bagu wen (eight-legged essay).WuJingzi came from a well-to-do family that had produced many scholars and officials. He himself, however, was of a nonconforming temperament. He shunned an official career and took no interest in preparing for the civil service examinations. Indeed, he preferred the company of poets, painters, writers, monks, prostitutes, and actors rather than that of officials and bureaucrats. Although his novel is satiric, it is also good-humored. It displays his sincere Confucian convictions, the first and last chapters describing paragons of Confucian virtue who are ignored by high officialdom. In the rest of the book, he satirizes both the worst elements produced by the civil service system and the rest of the social order as well. In addition to being the first effective novel of exposure, it is also a roman à clef, because many of the book’s characters are based on either famous historical people or personal acquaintances of the author. Although the novel is composed of episodes that are lacking in unity, the characterization is individualized and well-rounded and is perhaps the most distinguished feature of the novel.

In his epilogue, Wu Jingzi presents his own moral vision. Although still in resistance against corrupt and hypocritical authority, he introduces four humble scholarartist recluses who represent the Four Noble Pastimes of the Chinese scholar: the playing of the guqin (a particular kind of lute); the playing of weigi (Chinese checkers; called go in Japan); the practice of shufa (writing with the brush or calligraphy); and the practice of wen ru hua (literary painting, the art that combined painting, calligraphy, and poetry). Through these four figures, Wu suggests that if the world is easily misled by degrees, official rank, and material success, there are in the background genuine scholars and true artists. If they are unknown and in humble circumstances, they practice their scholarship and their noble pastimes with sincerity and moral sensibility. Such men can carry forward the cause of culture and morality in China even if others have failed.

There is an adequate English translation of The Scholars by Hsien-i Yang and Gladys Yang, published in Beijing in 1957. The full-scale Chinese text was published in Taibei in a fourth printing under the title Ju-lin wai-shih (1957). Liu E’s The Travels of Lao Ts’an is the most important Qing novel produced after the end of the nineteenth century. Written between 1904 and 1907, it was given partial publication in a magazine and a newspaper. The first complete version appeared in book form in 1909. Its literary value, however, was not fully appreciated until the publication of the Ya Dong edition of 1925, which included an introduction by the renowned scholar and critic Hu Shi (Shih), who had in 1917 successfully advocated the use of vernacular Chinese (baihua) in “respectable” literature. Like The Scholars, The Travels of Lao Ts’an is a novel of exposure (and also a roman à clef). The novel of exposure became particularly fashionable during the declining years of the Qing period. Some critics think that these “muckraking” novels reflect the transition between the traditional and the modern vernacular novel. The Travels of Lao Ts’an launches an attack on official corruption and harsh government and shows Liu E’s concern over the declining state of China in his time. At the same time, he celebrates in lyric style the pleasures of living and remains optimistic about China’s future.

It is generally taken that Lao Ts’an is a self-portrait of the author. Although Liu E was born into a scholarofficial family, he declined to prepare for the civil service examinations and instead devoted himself to a variety of studies: medicine, law, astronomy, engineering, music, poetry, and oracle bone inscriptions. He began his career by practicing medicine. Later, at various times, he operated a tobacco shop, a printing shop, and a mining company, and he tried to organize a railroad company. He also supervised flood-control operations and took an interest in criminal justice. The Lao Ts’an of the novel is an itinerant physician who practices traditional Chinese medicine. He is fond of music and poetry and enjoys the drum-tale recitations of the Fair and the Dark Maids. He is interested in good and just government, flood-control measures, and the criminal justice system. He acts the part of the famous eleventh century judge-detective, Bao Zheng, by intervening in a sensational murder case, thwarting the harsh official, Gang Bi, and saving the lives of thirteen members of the Jia family. Like his creator, he is a man of varied interests, wide learning, practical competence, independent courage, and humanitarian compassion. He is a lover of people, nature, art, and life. Although a spokesman for the author, Lao Ts’an is at the same time a credible character and a real human being in his own right.

The Travels of Lao Ts’an, which in a genuine edition consists of twenty chapters, is mainly concerned with the fate of China and the sufferings of its people in Liu E’s time. Quite loosely organized, the book divides itself into three main parts. At the beginning, in the preface and the first chapter, Liu compares the Chinese state to the endgame in chess, the onset of old age, and a leaky ship, which, though floundering in tempestuous seas and on the verge of sinking, refuses any outside assistance. The first part, however, is mainly concerned with the wanderings through Shandong Province of the itinerant physician Lao Ts’an and with the reports he hears of a harsh official, Yu Xian. The second part is mainly a philosophical interlude in which a woman philosopher, Yu Gu, and a hermit-sage, Yellow Dragon, offer their views on various philosophical problems. The third part is mainly about Lao Ts’an’s investigation of the murder case being prosecuted by another harsh official, Gang Bi, and his exposure.

Despite the novel’s loose construction, the entire work has a pattern. The first and last parts constitute a third-person journal of the travels of a highly interesting person and his observations, conversations, and reflections. The middle section gives his responses to what he has seen, heard, and meditated upon—in short, it gives his responses to his own times. The book ends with Lao Ts’an saving thirteen innocent lives and then taking one of the unfortunate singsong girls for a concubine. Thus, the two contrasting sides of his nature are shown—his humanitarian idealism and his capacity to enjoy the pleasures of life. Technically, the novel exhibits several unusual qualities: the effective use of the third-person narrator, the skillful use of the character of Lao Ts’an as a persona for the author, the artistry displayed in the vivid descriptions of scenery, and, finally, the adroit harmonizing of a lyric style with the dissonance of sociopolitical concerns. On the whole, the novel is a delight to read. An excellent, complete English translation of The Travels of Lao Ts’an by Harold Shadick was published in 1952. Another version, The Travels of Lao Can (1983) translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, omits sections of the text that the translators have deemed apocryphal.


Mo Yan

The Modern Movement

The twentieth century saw the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty enter into their last days. It was evident on every side that drastic reforms were needed if China were to overcome its backwardness and catch up with the progress made in the West. Although the monarchy initiated various reforms, it failed to satisfy the new Chinese revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen (Zhongshan). While Sun was abroad, his followers in China rebelled in 1911. With Russian communist support, they overthrew the Manchu monarchy, and China became, at least technically, a republic. Although Sun was chosen the first president, he soon resigned in favor of army commander Yuan Shikai, who possessed sufficient military strength to defeat the republic if he wished.

The new “republic” faced enormous problems on every side: economic distress among the masses, steadily increasing indebtedness to foreign nations, contentions among foreign nations on Chinese soil for railroad concessions, and disunion. Army commanders, or “warlords,” in various areas of the country were powers unto themselves and not subject to the control of the central government. China entered World War I on the side of the Allies, hoping to improve its international position. These hopes were frustrated by the growing power of Japan. China stood in desperate need of all sorts of reforms.

In 1917, the Western-educated scholar and critic Hu Shi (Shih) launched the Literary Reform Movement, which was to have widespread effects on Chinese education and the future of Chinese literature. In an article published on January 1 of that year, in a magazine called Xin Qingnian (new youth), Hu Shi argued that wenyan, or literary Chinese, had outlived its usefulness as the language of communication and should be replaced by baihua, or vernacular Chinese. His argument proved convincing. Yet, because there were many local dialects of colloquial Chinese, this complication posed a problem. If there were to be a national language, one of these dialects would have to be chosen as the standard. Considering that the Mandarin dialects of the north were understood by ninety percent of the Chinese population, the dialect of Beijing was selected as the standard. It, therefore, received the designation of guoyu, or “national language.”

In 1920, the Chinese government decreed that standardized guoyu be taught in the first two grades of elementary school. By 1928, this decree was extended to the junior middle schools, and textbooks in classical Chinese were banned from these grades. This new attitude toward baihua prompted a reevaluation of those old novels, short stories, plays, and folk poems that were written in a style close to the colloquial but had no respectable standing as literature. By this time, also, many translations of Western books had made their appearance, and Chinese intellectuals had begun to read Western literary masterpieces. They were amazed to learn that in the West short stories, novels, plays, and poems written in the vernacular were regarded as great works of art. Therefore, when Chinese authors began to write fiction and other literary forms in guoyu, they imitated the Western literary forms that enjoyed such high prestige. They ignored the fact that China had, for centuries, possessed a vernacular literature of its own. Although a few intellectuals insisted that traditional Chinese vernacular literature had artistic merits of its own, they were unable to convince others that this opinion had any validity; it took almost a generation before the idea gained wide currency.

Few Westerners realize the full significance of the Literary Revolution, which may be said to have actually begun with the abolition of the civil service examination system in 1905 and was completed by the rejection of literary Chinese for modern writing in 1920. It was not merely that the classical language had been replaced by the vernacular of guoyu. More important for the future of Chinese literature was the fact that the reading audience that had enjoyed the perusal of literary Chinese and traditional vernacular literature was also dispensed with, together with its entire culture, and replaced with an entirely new audience, a popular audience. At the same time, however, this popular audience was rejected by the new intellectual class. In rejecting the elite audience and its culture, the new intellectuals also rejected the traditional popular culture that was the inheritance of the mass person. The new intellectuals were therefore cultureless in the Chinese sense. Having stripped themselves of their Mandarin robes and insignia and donned plain Western garb, they attempted to graft Western culture to the new mass person whom they had created in the laboratory of their imaginations but who did not yet exist. They set themselves the difficult task of creating not only a new literature but also a new audience.

When Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, the former director of the Wangpu Military Academy, Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), emerged as the new leader. His immediate object was the reunification of China through conquest of the northern warlords, and he launched his “northern expedition” against them in 1926. Meanwhile, the communists within the Guomingdang (Kuomintang) attempted to organize the workers and peasants to support their cause. Rightly suspecting that the communists were bent on taking over the Guomindang, Jiang expelled them from that body in 1927. In 1928, he succeeded in overcoming the Beijing government and thus reuniting China more than it had been since 1911, but genuine reunification was never achieved. Some warlords still held out against Jiang’s leadership, and the communists, largely driven from the cities, established themselves in the hinterlands under the leadership of Mao Zedong and Zhu De. China was therefore continually engaged in domestic warfare until the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The modern Literary Reform Movement therefore labored under unusually adverse conditions from 1920 to 1937, when it practically ground to a halt. From 1937 until the Japanese defeat, most Chinese writers believed that it was their patriotic duty to support the war effort to defeat and expel the foreign invader. If they wrote fiction at all, it became an instrument of patriotic propaganda. With the Japanese surrender in 1945, civil war broke out between the communists and the Guomindang; it ended when, in 1949, mainland China fell to the communists and the Nationalist Government fled to Taiwan.

The first writer of the Literary Reform Movement to gain enduring fame was Lu Xun (1881-1936), whose real name was Zhou Shuren. In 1918, he published his first short story in the May, 1918, issue of Xin Qingnian, “Kuangren Riji” (“The Diary of a Madman”), an attack on Confucian morality. It is considered the first work of modern Chinese fiction. He is most widely known, however, for his novella Ah Q zhengzhuan (anthologized 1923, published separately, 1946; The True Story of Ah Q, 1927), which he wrote in 1921 as an illustration of the failure of the revolution of 1911. He did not write many stories, and The True Story of AhQ is the nearest he came to novel length. He devoted himself mainly to writing polemical essays.

The period 1930 to 1937 proved the most productive for the new literature; some critics have dubbed this period the Chinese Renaissance. Many poems, short stories, and novels were produced during this time, but perhaps the finest work was done in the short story. Several novels, however, have gained considerable fame. They are the work of Mao Dun (pseudonym of Shen Yanbing, 1896-1981), Lao She (pseudonym of Shu Qingchun, 1899-1966), Shen Congwen (1902-1988), and Ba Jin (pseudonym of Li Feigan, 1904-2005). All of these writers also wrote short stories.

Mao Dun’s second novel, Zi ye (Midnight, 1957), published in 1933, is regarded as his finest effort and is considered a masterpiece in the People’s Republic of China. Set in Shanghai during the years 1925 through 1927, it concerns the owner of a silk mill, Wu Sun-fu, and the struggle between capitalists and workers. The point of view is anti-Trotsky. The novel presents a panorama of the industrial and business activity of the great city of Shanghai and its environs.

Lao She grew up in poverty, a condition that developed in him a philosophy of fatalism. His most famous novel is Luotuo Xiangzi, which English-speaking readers know in Evan King’s 1945 translation by the title Rickshaw Boy, or by the title of the 1981 Shi Xiangzi translation, Camel Xiangzi. Published in 1938, it is the story of an honest, sensitive, and industrious rickshaw boy who fails to survive in the face of destructive socioeconomic forces.

Shen Congwen, hailing from Hunan Province, had a military rather than a conventional academic background. Of the modern writers, he has paid the least attention to Western influences. As a youth, he served in the army and saw many places and many people. His fiction is peopled with garrison soldiers, bandits, peasants, landlords, civil servants, scholars, artisans, sailors, and prostitutes. He wrote many novels and an abundance of stories. His finest novel is generally considered to be Chang he (1949; the long river), which he wrote about 1937. It is a sensitive pastoral story that is realistically and objectively presented. Interwoven with social criticism and Daoist wisdom, it shows a profound understanding of human nature.

Ba Jin grew up in a landowning family in Sichuang Province. As a youth, he absorbed the anarchistic ideas of the Russians Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin. Having revolted against the Chinese family system and Confucian morality, he dramatized his feelings in his autobiographical novel Jia (1933; The Family, 1964). It immediately became popular with radical Chinese youths. While it made its author famous, to modern audiences it can seem overwrought, sentimental and immature.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a series of measures was taken by the ruling Communist Party to make writers faithful tools of the dictatorship of the proletariat. All the writers became members of writers’ federations under the control of the party. As ganbu (cadres), writers were paid fixed salaries and were required to follow the policy laid down by Mao: Art and literature must serve workers, peasants, soldiers, and the party’s political agenda.

Most of the novels published during the period of 1949 to 1966 exemplify what Mao called “revolutionary realism” combined with revolutionary romanticism and glorifyMaoor ordinary revolutionaries under his leadership. Among these novels are Wu Qiang’s Hongri (1957; Red Sun, 1961) and Hao Ran’s Jinguang dadao (1972; The Golden Road, 1981). Few works depicting intellectuals and business people were allowed to be printed, and all of them had to reflect the ideological remolding of the intellectuals and the transformation of business people by the party. Yang Mu’s Qingchun zhi ge (1958; the song of the youth) serves as an example. Almost no novels were written by such writers as Lao She and Bao Jin, who had established themselves before 1949.

Members of writers’ federations had to undergo rigid ideological reform by studying Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, undergoing relentless political examinations under the supervision of party organizations, and living and working among factory workers and poor and lower-middle class peasants to become aware of the difference between “the pettiness of their bourgeois thinking” and the admirable qualities of the rank and file revolutionaries. Moreover, they were subjected to repeated and merciless political purges ordered by Mao. Survivors of one major purge might not escape the next one. Among the major purges was the Suppression of the Counter-Revolutionaries in the early 1950’s, with Hu Feng and his close colleagues being the most famous victims in the literary circle. During the Anti-Rightists Movement in 1957, such famous writers as Ting Lin, Ai Qing, Wang Meng, and Liu Binyan were condemned as antiparty rightists and sent to forced labor camps without a trial. However, all these persecutions of writers and other intellectuals, though already cruel and illegal, were simply dwarfed by the Cultural Revolution started by Mao in 1966.

Mao’s zealous followers publicly humiliated, physically brutalized, psychologically tortured, and in many cases even murdered those they considered to be anti- Maoelements. Such elements included Liu Shaoqi (1898- 1969), vice chairman of the party and president of the republic, who died in solitary confinement, and Zhao Shuli (1906-1970), author of Xiao Erhei jiehun (1943; Xiao Erhei getting married), who was beaten to death by Red Guards. To protest the ceaseless, unlawful persecutions of innocent people and preserve their dignity, a large number of artists committed suicide. One of them was a literary giant in modern Chinese history, Lao She, who threw himself into the Weiming Lake at the most prestigious institution of higher learning in China, Beijing University. Those who happened to survive the first waves of vicious assault by Mao’s followers were then dispatched to the countryside to do forced labor, all in the name of what Mao called “reeducation” by the workers and peasants.

The rampage of Mao’s revolution eventually came to an end with his death and the fall of the Gang of Four headed by his wife in 1976. Then, one by one, almost all the writers victimized by Mao’s constant purges were rehabilitated. Literary creation resumed. What first appeared on the scene was shonghen wenxue (literature of the wounded), with personal or family tragedies under Mao’s tyranny as the only logical and inevitable subject matter. One of its earliest representatives was Lu Yanshou’s Tianyunshan chuanqi (1980; legend of the Tainyun mountain), also made into a feature film. In 1979, New Realism emerged with the publication of several important novellas, such as Shen Rong’s Ren dao zhongnian (1980; At Middle Age, 1987) and pieces of reportage literature (baogao wenxue), such as Liu Binyan’s Ren yao zhijian (1982; People or Monsters?, and Other Stories and Reportage from China after Mao, 1983).

New Realism differed from the literature of the wounded in that the former endeavored to reveal the disparity between the ideals of socialism and the reality of corruption and bureaucracy, while the latter attempted to recall the historical tragedy. Whatever their difference was, both were daring and successful attempts to break away from the fetters imposed by Mao, thus paving the way for a new generation of writers who could afford to ignore what Mao had said about literature. Among the new writers were musician and fiction writer Liu Sola (born 1955), interested in experimental fiction, whose novels in English translation include Hun dun jia li ge leng (1991; Chaos and All That, 1994); Mo Yan (born 1955, Nobel laureate 2012 ), author of Hong gaoliang jiazu (1987; Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, 1993), devoted to depicting life as lived by ordinary people with real strengths and weaknesses, moral aspirations, and sexual desires, and other novels, many available in English translations; and Eryue He (1945-2018), author of Kangxi dadi (1985; Emperor Kangxi), fascinated by the important lessons people can learn from Emperors Kangxi, Qilong, and Yongzheng instead of from Mao’s workers, peasants, and soldiers.

After Mao’s death, many taboos were broken, and a degree of freedom emerged. Writers were no longer forced to serve as tools of the party or undergo ideological remolding. Many felt freer to experiment with literary forms and ideas, led by the novelists Zhang Xinxin (born 1953) and Zong Pu (born 1928) in the early1980s, and later by Su Tong (a pseudonym of Tong Zhonggui, born 1963) and Ge Fei (a pseudonym for Liu Yong, born 1964). Others, in the Xungen (“Search for Roots”) Movement, worked to reconnect Chinese literature to its ancient roots. Han Shaogong (born 1953), for example, draws on Chinese folklore and myth for material but looks to Western genre models. His novels include Maqiao ci dian (1996; A Dictionary of Maqiao, 2003) and An shi (2002; intimations). Nevertheless, an awareness of the existence of a line that no one was allowed to cross remained; in other words, no one was allowed to challenge the legitimacy or authority of the ruling party. The consequence of breaking this ultimate taboo was unmistakably demonstrated by the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

After the events at Tiananmen Square, and with the increasing importance of China in the global marketplace, Chinese fiction opened up in many ways, becoming more welcoming to commercial genre fiction and to fiction by and about contemporary women. With advancements in electronic communication, Chinese writing also became harder to censor and control—although the government’s General Administration of Press and Publication tries to regulate all commercial publications. Wang Anyi (born 1954), who writes realistic portrayals of women’s lives in Shanghai, is among contemporary Chinese writers who have drawn an international audience. Her novels include Chang hen ge (1996; The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, 2008). Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailíng; 1920-1995) also wrote about women in Shanghai, and a number of her works of fiction have been published in English translation, including Qing cheng zhi lian (1996; Love in a Fallen City, 2007) and Se, jie (1994; Lust, Caution, 2007).

In the early years of the twenty-first century, a new generation of sexually liberated writers emerged who defied governmental attempts to keep them from writing. The work of Zhou Weihui (born 1973) was banned and condemned as “decadent” in China, but her autobiographical novel Shanghai baobei (1999; Shanghai Baby, 2001) has become the best-selling Chinese novel of all time, selling more than six million copies in more than thirty languages. Mian Mian (born 1970) wrote the controversial novel Tang (2000; Candy, 2003), which depicts a gritty life of drugs, prostitution, and gambling in 1990’s Shanghai.

Another movement that will shape the future of Chinese literature involves expatriate writers, who may be freer to explore historical and political themes. Yiyun Li (born 1972), for example, who moved to the United States from Beijing in 1996, writes in English about China. Her novel The Vagrants (2009), which is set in a small village in China during the Cultural Revolution, criticizes the dehumanizing effects of that period in a way that no writer living in China could hope to do.

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Categories: Chinese Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Novel Analysis

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