Comparison of Chinese-Western Narrative Poetics: State of the Art

Chinese narrative poetics has attracted considerable scholarly enquiry over the past several decades.1 In the world of literary theory and criticism, this surge in interest might be explained by two major factors. First, the quantity and quality of Chinese narrative literature, both pre-modern and contemporary, have been remarkable enough to make a continuum of Chinese narrative poetics self-justifiable. Many scholars have therefore begun to survey, in the light of contemporary narrative theory, the Chinese narrative repository for “gems”—both lustrous and hidden. Second, Western structural narratology, with all its intricate systematic- ity, has been questioned from a growing diversity of perspectives amid new theoretical trends. In this sense, it might be said that comparative studies have taken vantage points rightly upon the inadequacies of the structuralist approach, which Terry Eagleton critiqued as “the ironic act of shutting out the material world in order the better to illuminate our consciousness of it” (1996, 95).

A polemical view as such would be unfair in the sense that the foundation of any theory always presupposes and entails a certain form of “anatomy.” Nevertheless, Eagleton’s critique is still meaningful for an impartial reflection upon the possible limitations of structuralist narratology. As is widely agreed, the structuralist approach to narrative can become biased by analyzing structural elements and principles independently of a larger socio-cultural context. Narratologists have now generally agreed on the decisive role of context in narratological criticism as well as in narratological theorizing. In an effort to harmonize classical and post-classical approaches to narrative, Dan Shen,2 for example, has argued that “contextual narratologies and formal narrative poetics have nourished each other over the past twenty years or so” (2005, 142).3 Moreover, through the struc-

  • 1 Aware of the fact that there is already a well-developed narrative theory, or narratology, in the West and that there was only a scattered distribution of narrative thought in a vast body of critical discourse in pre-modern China, this article uses the word “poetics” in a general sense to accommodate the two sides in comparison. It should also be clarified that what is meant by narrative in the present context is primarily narrative in its literary and verbal form, particularly the novel.
  • 2 This article presents Chinese personal names in two forms: a) for names prior to the 1980s when China began to reopen, family names precede given names, as in the case of Jin Shengtan; b) for names known after the 1980s, family names follow given names, as in the case of Longxi Zhang.
  • 3 For more on this topic, see Shen’s contribution to this volume.

DOI 10.1515/9783110555158-018

turalist lens, which focuses exclusively on the deep structure and surface level of texts, certain subtle transactions essential to the processes of narrative creation and interpretation might not have been addressed with due attention or importance. For instance, how do we view the death and/or “return” of the author? How do we think of the author who has “fathered” a piece of work through his choices, design, values and intentions? How do we understand the affective force of a narrative? To what extent can the author, or even an intrusive critic, make use of his “license” for generic or stylistic experimentation? Can there be permutations that defy or deviate from structuralist narrative categorization? Might there be a message beyond what is implied in narrative structuring? The list could go on.

Traditional Chinese narrative poetics, for its part, has explored in its own right the issues of authority, literary mind, narrative craftsmanship, moral and philosophical underpinnings, superstructure and macrostructure, psychological sophistication, unity in miscellaneousness, the real in the unreal, etc. In clear contradistinction to Western structural narrative theory, however, traditional Chinese narrative poetics highlights the following three aspects. First, instead of being “apt to beat over matters,”[1] [2] it places particular emphasis on literary intuition, pleasure from punctilious (sometimes repetitive) critical reading and fluidity of the aesthetic-appreciative process. It is interesting to note that these factors are also important for the interpretation of many other forms of Chinese art. Second, there seems to be a perennial interest in the socio-historical meanings of narratives which has led to the common use of meta-narratives by the author and an assiduous quest for, and construction of, authorial intentions and images by the reader-critic. Needless to say, representative masterpieces of Chinese fiction such as Dream of the Red Chamber, The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms are all structured and narrated around certain Chinese philosophical hypotheses about social reality or human existence.5 Generations of critics have been obsessed with revealing the personality of the author not only through the niceties and nuances of what’s been said but also through what might have been unsaid by the author and what is implied by the macro-structure as well as in the style,6 that is, the ineffable. Third, instead of establishing a critical terminology, traditional Chinese narrative poetics shows only a conservative interest in theoretical innovation and complication. The method was simply to enlist and invigorate those pre-existing notions which are essentially transgeneric and mostly metaphorical. There seems to have been a well-measured though paradoxical scheme to both bring out the generic particularities of narrative fiction and blur its boundaries with the other genres of literature and art. This feature is manifested in both narrative discourse and narrative criticism. In terms of narrative discourse, Chinese fiction, through the prominence of storytelling, also serves as a “melting pot” or “symbiotic site” for the fine features of many other genres such as historiography, mythology, street storytelling, drama, poetry and belles-lettres. Such a hybridity of genres has shaped not only the unique Chinese experience of novel reading but also its taste for “masterworks”7 or “books of genius.”8 In terms of narrative criticism, one easily finds that Chinese fiction has assimilated the same set of critical vocabulary that was originally intended for drama, poetry, painting and calligraphy, embroidery or even garden architecture and “wind and water” geomancy. Based on the above understanding, it can further be observed that Chinese narrative poetics, while giving due importance to narrativity and literariness, has prioritized the importance of “heart” or “literary mind”9 which, in principle, is communicable among the ideal author, the ideal critic and the ideal reader and is capable of mediating and adapting critical notions and appreciation across different artistic genres. In addition, Chinese narrative poetics has developed from and reinforced a reading habit in which narratives become something more in that the interest of the reader-critic is quite naturally split between the the Red Chamber which states that “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”

  • 6 This unique tradition of authoring—and, correspondingly, interpreting-literary and historiographical works is famously known as the “technique of the Chunqiu or the “diction of the Chunqiu.” It is generally believed that, when compiling the Chunqiu, translated as the Spring and Autumn Annals, Confucius was very deliberate and skillful in his marshalling of language as well as its proportions in order to transmit subtly his moral message and historical evaluations.
  • 7 An equivalent for qishu ($*, in Chinese).
  • 8 An equivalent for caizi shu (^?S, in Chinese).
  • 9 The notion of “literary mind” (wenxin, &?') was first put forth by Chinese literary theorist Liu Xie (465-520) in his 50-chapter theoretical masterpiece, Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons [Wenxin diaolong,

enigma of the author and the specific socio-historical situations that his narrative may fit into.10

With its unique features, categories and experience, Chinese narrative poetics may shed some new light on today’s narrative research, both classical and post-classical. The complementarity between Chinese and Western narrative poetics makes it necessary for comparative studies to be conducted so that not only a fuller picture of narrative theorizing can be revealed but also in order for a cross-culturally intelligible theory to be constructed so as to meet the growing global awareness and evolving landscape of world narrative practice. Over the past decades, this impervious domain has been penetrated by a growing cohort of Western scholars.n However, as the field remains largely underexplored, especially by narratologists, and since it precludes synchronic comparisons/2 delineating major research phases and orientations becomes quite challenging. In pondering a solution, I was inspired by the lexical morphology of the Chinese verb jiejian (НЙ) which, being pragmatically equivalent to “learning from” or “drawing on,” comprises the character jie (H), meaning either “to borrow” or “to lend,” and jian (Й), meaning “the mirror.” This led me further to an association with M. H. Abrams’s well-known metaphors of the “mirror” and the “lamp.”i3 I thus decided to build on these two metaphors to bring out three different but interrelated approaches in the field, namely, “borrowing a foreign mirror,” “polishing one’s own mirror” and “lighting a lamp for inter-illumination.”

  • 10 While bringing with it the benefits of literary imagination, such bifurcation also risks running amok under special circumstances. Chinese literary history has a series of heavy lessons to offer, from the intellectual disaster in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), when “books were burnt and Confucian scholars were buried alive,” to the height of the “literary inquisition” during the Manchurian-ruled Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) and to unchecked literary censorship and persecution during the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76).
  • 11 Western scholars whose works I have referred to for this study include, among others, Birch (1977), Bishop (1966), Cai (2000, 2002), Gu (2006), Hanan (1981, 1988), Hegel (1981, 1998, 1985, ed.), Hsia (1968, 1998, 2004), Liu (1975), Lu (1990, 2004), Mair (1983, 1994, ed.; 2001, ed.), Owen (1992), Plaks (1976, 1977a, 1977b, 1977c, ed.; 1995), Rolston (1997, 1990, ed.), Roy (1990) and Yu (1988, 1997).
  • 12 Indigenous Chinese narrative poetics reached its peak during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1840).
  • 13 M. H. Abrams used the two metaphors for the title of his seminal work The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953), alluding to William Butler Yeats’s line “the mirror turn lamp.” In Chinese Buddhism, “lamp” evokes “a superb wisdom illuminating the life journey of sentient beings.”

  • [1] In his essay Of Studies, Sir Francis Bacon wrote “If he be not apt to beat over matters, and tocall up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases” (2006 [1597],226).
  • [2] There are hypotheses in such works about social life and human destiny at different levels.For example, in terms of “power and order,” there are those who believe that “The Empire, longdivided, must unite; long united, must divide,” as in Romance of the Three Kingdoms and in TheWater Margin. In terms of “ethical codes,” there are those that either proclaim “Within the FourSeas, all men are brothers,” as in The Water Margin, or warn that “Karmic retribution is swift andcertain,” or speak of “The four evils of wine, women, wealth and wrath” (disputable as this maybe by today’s standards), as in The Water Margin and in The Plum in the Golden Vase. In termsof the “ultimate truth or vanity of human life,” there is the well-known epigram in the Dream of
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