Rediscovering Chinese narrative tradition: an introduction
Rediscovering Chinese narrative tradition: an introduction
Pe´ter Hajdu 0
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China
0 Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences , Budapest , Hungary
Narratology tends-or at least used to tend-to claim universal validity. If it provides a theoretical toolbox with which all the narratives produced by mankind can be described and categorised, there is no need for local, national, areal, or historical versions of narrative theory, though this does not imply that one should deny the existence of local, national, areal, or historical narrative traditions. However, narrative theory does not evolve in a vacuum; its purpose has never been to elaborate a purely theoretical system that can be adapted to every possible narrative, be they long forgotten narratives of the past or ones that are to develop in the future. Narratology is supposed to describe real(ly existing) narratives, and it has always been driven and inspired by the analysis of real narratives, well known by the analysers, obviously. Real narratives necessarily belong to some particular traditions, and therefore some particular traditions have to have an impact on narrative theory. Skaz may be a case in point since it is a notion that is defined in every lexicon of narratology in any language. As a Russian or Eastern-European oral folklore genre of narrative, however, skaz became a key term of Russian formalist stylistics to mean any ''literary style imitating oral monologue.''1 Once used as an abstract concept of literary criticism, it was adaptable to literary phenomena outside the Russian or East-European tradition. It can thus be argued that Ring Lardner's ''Haircut'' or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn,2 as well as the ''Cyclops'' episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, William Faulkner's first version of Spotted Horses, and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye are also examples of
skaz.3 The study of Russian folklore narrative forms resulted in general insights
about the possibilities of a special kind of narrative that can be applied to British and
American4 works of highbrow literature.
The example of skaz, however, seems uncharacteristic from the viewpoint of
adaptation. It is rarer—although not exceptional—that notions developed from the
analysis of one of the literatures Franco Moretti described as peripheral are adapted to
those that he calls core literatures.5 We can find innumerably more examples of
adaptation the other way around. Moretti spoke about European literature mostly, and
said nothing about premodern non-European literary development, which obviously
had its own core areas. But with the European global hegemony during the period of
colonization and then globalisation, the previous cores have become just other
peripheries. It is well known that Earl Miner saw major gaps between literary systems
and realised that importing western notions can only seemingly bridge them.6 The
problems of travelling theories are also widely discussed.7 Although the situation
created by adapting concepts of core literary studies to the phenomena of the
peripheries is unsatisfactory and may also seem unfair, it is still better than the other
possibility, namely that local traditions be analysed exclusively on their own terms.
Such a practice would result in isolation and an inability to dialogue.
About a decade ago a sort of movement started in China to develop a Chinese
narratology as a rebellion against the dominance of invasive Western theories.8 Let us
imagine for a moment the complete success of such a movement! All the Chinese
narratives would be analysed with a Chinese theoretical toolkit and through notions
excavated from the Chinese intellectual tradition. Such an isolated discourse could not
communicate with the outside world, which would be a loss to everyone. Only
Sinologists specialised in that particular narratology could have even a vague idea of
the characteristics of Chinese narrative traditions, while others would necessarily have
the impression that the Chinese tradition is so basically different that it offers no
access at all, and therefore cannot offer anything worth the effort, since, according to
Schleiermacher, what is not even partially familiar cannot be understood.9
, p. 693).
4 Banfield also mentions the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem, but I do not discuss them separately
since they were mostly written in Russian context, at least geographically and historically speaking. It is
probably the Yiddish tradition that makes scholars of skaz describe it rather as an East-European than a
Russian form, although Endre Bojta´r in his short entry of skaz in the nineteen volume Hungarian
dictionary of general literature [a literal translation would be world literature, but see
p. 48)] mentions the Polish gowe˛da as its equivalent
(Bojta´r 1992, p. 493)
. This argument of mine may be
weakened by Bojta´r’s mentioning another equivalent, medieval French dit, less convincingly, I think.
5 Namely English and French:
7 I am obliged to refer to Edward Said’s much quoted paper
, but what I have in mind is rather
its reception; Said analysed the travel of a theory from the periphery to the core, while many after him
were concerned of the imperial bias of theories travelling to the peripheries.
, pp. 639–640).
9 ‘‘…und freilich, wenn das zu Verstehende dem, der verstehen soll, ganz fremd wa¨re und es gar kein
beiden Gemeinschaftsliches ga¨be: so ga¨be es auch keinen Anknu¨pfungspunktfu¨r das verstehen.’’
‘‘…wenn alles schlechthin fremd wa¨re, die Hermeneutik ihr Werk gar nicht anzuknu¨pfen wu¨ßte.’’
(Schleiermacher 1977, pp. 313–314.)
It does not need much argumentation to see that most of the basic notions of
narratology (like e.g. character, plot, scene etc.) can be easily adapted in any
narrative tradition. When in some narrative traditions we find phenomena that
cannot be satisfactorily described with the current theoretical toolkit, then we see,
on the one hand, the uniqueness of those traditions, and on the other, the need to
further elaborate the system of narrative theory—maybe by enriching it with new
notions imported from the local scholarly tradition that has tried to cope with those
phenomena in the past. If some of our general ideas (which we would like to regard
as universal) do not work for a (local, national, areal, or historical) kind of narrative,
that again tells us something about both the given kind of narrative and the
supposedly universal ideas.
Contributors to the mini-cluster on ‘‘Rediscovering Chinese narrative traditions’’
convened by Biwu Shang read the Chinese narrative tradition from the dual
perspective of current Western theories and former Chinese philology, which
reveals some peculiarities of the analysed Chinese material and may help to refine
the theories applied. This dialectics is most visible in Yuzhen Lin’s paper
‘‘Fictionality as a rhetorical resource in Zuozhuan,’’ which tests the usability of the
rhetorical theory of fictionality first proposed by Richard Walsh10 in understanding
the strategies of presentation in a highly important source of ancient Chinese
history. According to her this source, which probably goes back to the fifth century
BCE, is the first Chinese work that can be rightly called historiography. She also
bases her analysis on the philological achievements of generations of Chinese
scholars discussing that intriguing text. Lin uses Xiuyan Fu’s description of the five
types of ‘‘mysterious events’’ in Zuozhuan,11 and then takes the rhetorical theory of
fictionality (as formulised in a collaborative paper from the 2015 issue of
Narrative)12 to prove that they can rightly be called the fictional elements of the
narrative, which are also innovative additions to the former tradition of Chinese
historiography. Rhetorical theory of fictionality proves to be a useful approach to
ancient Chinese historiography, while the paper highlights the importance of a
historical perspective for that theory.
If fictionality is a rhetorical device that can be applied to perform a function in a
given communicative situation, written communication must have some peculiar
features, especially a written communication in which the time of writing and the
time of reading are ages apart. Lin regards as fictional all cases of communication
between human and divine spheres and apparent divine interventions in the human
world (‘‘divinations, omens, apparitions, acts of mysterious justice, and dream
[revealing the future]’’). If we imagine a reader contemporary to the composition of
Zuozhuan, we have to conclude that in his or her communication with the text these
features were not fictional. For the present-day reader, educated in a secular society,
such stories cannot be accepted as factual reports. A text can change its
factual/fictional status due to changes in the context of communication.
, pp. 202–207).
Nielsen et al. (2015)
For me as a western reader who is more familiar with the development of
European historiography, it is particularly interesting that in China stories of divine
intervention appeared in a later phase of historical records as (fictional)
embellishments. In Rome the earliest annual records (the annales) already contained the
prodigies of the current year and natural catastrophes (also regarded as omens) as
‘‘events of public concern’’ along with the names of the magistrates, treaties or
declarations of war.13 This tells something about the attitude of the respective
educated classes, which had a monopoly on the production of writing. While the
Roman elite functioned as a communication interface between humans and the
gods,14 and therefore were highly interested in omens, premonitions and prodigies,
the Chinese elite, it seems, mostly appreciated truth, i.e. facts that can be checked.
This impression is only seemingly contradicted by the overwhelming presence of
the supernatural in the Chinese narrative tradition (in comparison to western one),
since what we would call fiction in the earlier Chinese context was in fact accurate
records of the stories and attitudes of the uneducated, superstitious masses,
information which could be useful for the governing elite.15
Biwu Shang uses unnatural narratology to see the peculiarities of Zhiguai tales.
Unnatural narratology is not a unified (sub)discipline, since its proponents have
different ideas about what makes a narrative unnatural and how to cope with
unnatural narrative or unnatural elements of narratives. What seems to connect
unnatural narratologists is their resoluteness to intentionally face up to the unnatural
and to refuse interpretive practices that ‘‘tame’’ the strangeness of a narrative in one
way or another, to explain why the seemingly unnatural features are actually
natural. Shang is closest to Jan Alber’s concept of the unnatural narrative, namely
that impossible elements make a narrative unnatural,16 and a narrative that contains
impossible elements is thus unnatural. The impossibility of things should be
measured by today’s science-based common sense. It is small wonder that Shang
finds many impossible or unnatural elements in a genre that he agrees with Xiofei
Tian to define as an eastern parallel to paradoxography, ‘‘writings about marvels.’’17
The paper offers a typology of the unnatural in those marvel stories. As he
convincingly argues, one can put a finger on the unnatural both on the local level in
single impossible elements of the story world, and on the global level of the
narrative in the characters’ crossing theoretically impenetrable boundaries of
separate spheres of existence. The unnatural elements can be non-human characters,
impossible time and impossible space. The impossible boundary-crossings can
include returning from the world of the dead, or commuting between the spheres of
spirits and humans or animals and humans.
Narrative studies tend to take it for granted that a narrative (obviously told by and
to human beings) is about the human existence, and therefore that characters of a
narrative should be humans. Of course there are so many narratives in which the
, pp. 17, 178–191)
, p. 296).
, pp. 178–181).
, pp. 1–7).
, p. 202).
characters are not that a loophole is usually provided, namely that the characters are
human or human-like. Jan Alber’s unnatural narratology, which focuses on recent
and contemporary literature, challenges this view through analysing characters like
robots, cyborgs or genetically engineered partially human half-breeds.18 Shang tries
to support this counter-argument against the presupposition of anthropomorphic
characters through showing non-human characters in old Chinese tales, like ghosts,
animals, material objects, and fairies.
The problem with Shang’s argument, I fear, is that all of his examples of
nonhuman characters are very human-like. If a female ghost marries a human being,
bears children to him and even raises them, it is difficult to argue that this is not a
human-like ghost. In all the examples collected in the paper, the non-human
characters have emotions and ambitions rather characteristic of human beings. In
many cases they have a human appearance too, so the human characters cannot tell
(sometimes for decades) that they are not actually human. In ‘‘The brindled fox at
the ancient tomb’’ a fox in human guise discusses history, literature and philosophy,
and what makes the human protagonist suspicious about its human nature is its
overwhelming knowledge of the humanities. The fox knows so much—in human
terms—that it cannot be human. Still I think that collecting this material is useful
because it highlights a central feature of unnatural narratology, namely that the
unnatural depends on focus and interpretation. The nonhuman characters have many
human traits, and a narrative analysis that is not interested in finding and facing the
unnatural can easily disregard the non-human traits, while focusing on the latter
may make the whole narrative unnatural.
As a western reader I also find this material to be a good basis for comparison,
and I would like to formulate some tentative ideas for future analyses. (1) Although
the non-human characters of Chinese stories are rather human-like, a different kind
of anthropomorphism seems to work here from the western tradition. A speaking
animal is an allegory of a human being. The speaking wolf in Phaedrus’ fable is the
allegory of an aggressive, unjust, powerful man, while the lamb is the allegory of
the innocent. A fox that takes the form of a man and discusses philosophical
dilemmas, or takes the form of a woman and spends years happily married to a man,
cannot be interpreted allegorically. Animals are also regarded as more powerful
than humans in a totem culture—and the idea is based on the primary experience
that animals are stronger, faster and have more developed senses than humans; but
here the animals have superpowers and they are better even in things that only
humans do. (2) The idea that a creature can behave as a human but be an animal, a
ghost, a fairy etc. in reality—a reality hardly accessible to human beings—can be
connected to the absence in eastern cultures of the basic principle of western logic
of the excluded middle. In western context a creature is either a man or an animal,
while in many of the tales presented by Shang, the unnatural lies in creatures being
both at the same time. (The werewolf might be a counterexample in western
folklore, but as I see it a werewolf is a human that is sometimes transformed into a
wolf. There are many stories about them, but as far as I can see, the principle of the
excluded other still works, since the creature is completely human when in human
, pp. 104–148).
shape and loses humanity when in animal shape). (3) This uncertainty about certain
characters’ real essence gives the idea that many stories tell something about human
cognition—or about its limited nature. The story of the man who ‘‘out of curiosity’’
looks at his young wife by night and learns that from the waist down she is a
skeleton—being the deceased daughter of a prince—tells us something not only
about the sexuality in medieval China but also about what was thought of the
hierarchy of senses in human cognition in that time and place: through tactile
experience the man could not perceive anything strange about the woman, while
seeing makes him realise that there is a problem. In many tales, however, seeing is
not a real help either. (4) A few stories have an explicitly didactic character, which
brings us back to bridging gaps between different literary systems by using western
terms. If we use the English category of the tale, we may obscure the didactic
character of some pieces that should rather be called fables.
Marshall McLuhan tells the story of how the alphabetic writing formed western
civilization, since the ‘‘civilized’’ (McLuhan’s quotation marks) man’s visual bias
‘‘derived from only one source, the phonetic alphabet,’’ and ‘‘alphabetic writing at
first, and print later, led to the analytic separation of interpersonal relations and
inner and outer functions,’’ but also to the ability to ‘‘organize all […] activities on a
systemic lineal basis.’’19 What if a culture does not have a phonetic alphabet?
McLuhan can only see the negative consequences, namely that such a culture
necessarily stays tribal, and cannot achieve the ‘‘notions of space and time as
continuous and homogeneous,’’ although the alphabetisation of their script may
help, as the Chinese are presently ‘‘determined to’’ do.20 Even if the implied
evaluations seem a bit biased, the ideas may show the cultural impact of phonetic/
ideogrammic script. Xiuyan Fu explains the beginnings, or at least the prehistory of
Chinese narrative tradition from the Chinese writing, analysing the ornaments of
archaic bronze vessels.
Even in this context, in which the ideogram is both ornamentation and text,
picture and writing at the same time, Fu makes use of both Chinese and western
thinkers (Hobbes, Kant, Barthes) to understand the development of Chinese culture.
It is especially illuminating when in the chapter ‘‘Fear/Joy’’ he applies Hobbes’
concept of the Leviathan to explain Bronze-Age Chinese mentalities. This may give
us the impression that Hobbes managed to describe something really universal about
fear as a social factor, and that his thoughts can thus help understand even early
When this happens, one may feel satisfied, but as I have tried to show, when the
adaptation of a theory of universal claim does not work smoothly, that can be both
useful and thought-provoking. On the one hand, when the adaptation of a theory
works only partially, with sometimes essential modifications, this may give an
impulse to further elaborate the theory; on the other, it highlights the peculiarities or
even uniqueness of a different culture. Contemporary narrative theory helps
rediscover the Chinese narrative tradition, and this rediscovery contributes both to
the versatility of narrative theory and the understanding of Chinese tradition.
, pp. 108, 152, and 138).
20 Ibid. 48, 152.
Acknowledgements This work was supported by the National Social Science Fund of China (Grant No.
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