Excerpt: Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction

We’ve previously blogged about Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions, a series that now runs to over three hundred titles. The books offer readers a quick overview of topics ranging from the meaning of life to folk music, covering major issues and key arguments in a lively and accessible manner (and a slim, pocket-sized volume). We, of course, take special notice when China-related VSIs come along, and were excited to see two new titles join the lineup: The Cultural Revolution, written by political scientist Richard Kraus, and Chinese Literature, authored by Smith College professor Sabina Knight. We’re pleased to feature excerpts from both books today at China Beat.

The four masterworks of the Ming dynasty

Depicting the Han dynasty’s fall and the rise of three warring kingdoms (early third century), the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國志演義 enacts material from historical sources. (The term translated here as “romance,” yanyi 演義, literally means “elaboration of meaning.”) Beginning as a fourteenth-century manuscript, the novel, first published in 1522, was revised by generations of writer-editors and is most commonly read in Mao Zonggang’s 毛宗崗 (1632–1709) version with commentary (1679). The novel has inspired elaborate filmic adaptations, including CCTV’s 1994 blockbuster series of eighty-four, hourlong episodes. The television series was China’s most costly to date, featured a cast of 400,000 and drew a record audience of 1.2 billion viewers worldwide.

Mixing simple classical narration with more colloquial dialogue, the novel’s 120 chapters give it epic length and feel. By integrating so much popular history into one long saga, the novel reinforces the notion that history follows larger patterns. Individuals, the plot implies, exercise but limited power within the workings of history’s moral order, a perspective articulated in Mao Zonggang’s preface: “Under heaven, grand affairs long divided must be reunited, and those long united must divide.”

In dramatizing historical events, the novel nonetheless powerfully depicts the characters’ personal struggles, making its heroes oft invoked archetypes for commentary about intrigue, villainy, and politics. Against the moody, ruthless poet-ruler Cao Cao, king of Wei, the novel pits Liu Bei, king of Shu-Han, and his two sworn brothers, the courageous but conceited general Guan Yu and the imperious and short-tempered Zhang Fei. Their ill-fated dream of reunifying the empire gains strength when Liu recruits the Daoist sage Zhuge Liang. At the decisive Battle at Red Cliffs, Zhuge summons southeastern winds to fan fires that rout Cao Cao’s forces, a victory sealing the tripartition of the country.

Though the novel presents Liu as the rightful heir to restore a united Han empire, his personal loyalties make him vulnerable to headstrong decisions. And because Zhuge must bow to Liu’s choices, his resourcefulness has limited effect. For all his Confucian loyalty, Zhuge cannot dissuade Liu from pursuing personal revenge. And despite Zhuge’s scruples about commitment, after Liu’s blind vengeance results in his own death and the kingdom is clearly lost, Zhuge faithfully serves Liu’s feckless son.

The novel’s emphasis on moral retribution may reinforce beliefs in historical cycles, but the upshot is less clear. Does the novel suggest that though it may take centuries, cycles of union and disunion will ultimately restore virtuous rulers? Or might the novel’s portrayal of history’s cycles shed irony on ideals of dynastic order? As a famous line from the novel reminds us, “The pursuit of goals lies in humans, but accomplishment lies with heaven.”

A second Ming masterpiece, Water Margin 水滸傳 (a.k.a. Outlaws of the Marsh, ca. 1550) portrays a gang of 108 hard-drinking, audacious bandits from the early twelfth century. The thirty-six main heroes come from all walks of life, driven to banditry by indignation over government corruption, vengeance, coercion by other outlaws, or in the case of the generous yet ruthless leader Song Jiang, a wife’s betrayal. Rich in realistic details of martial arts, claims of friendship, and appetites, the novel climaxes with a grand banquet when the band reaches the preordained number of 108 (including three women). In the name of righteousness, these loyal outlaws steal from the wealthy, defeat government troops, negotiate their own amnesty, and then defend the Song dynasty against rebels. But they show innocent children and women no mercy, and graphic descriptions of massacres, flaying, and cannibalism have led some scholars to decry the heroes’ sadism. Gang mentality rules, enforced by a harsh code based above all on revenge and misogyny. Hating women for their weakness and lust, the bandits view sexual abstinence as a sign of machismo, and the killing of women for adultery as a sign of brotherhood.

More thoroughly colloquial than Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin ’s heavy use of stock phrases and popular songs made the novel accessible to more readers, and raised the stakes for commentators seeking to control the novel’s social effects. Readers debate whether the novel celebrates peasant rebellion, or offers a cautionary fable about the sinister terror of gang mentality. (Since multiple authors and editors crafted the novel, it may not have a consistent ideology.) Even if they idolize the novel’s rebellious adventurers, it is hard for readers not to come away chastened by the destruction and chaos that ensue when vengeance is untempered by Confucian morals.

Such novels evolved through processes of accretion, and, as with the rewriting of poems, scholars often appropriated earlier versions for ideological purposes. To enhance both didactic and commercial value, major novels were typically published with “how to read” essays and interlinear, marginal, and chapter commentaries that tended to impose Confucian interpretations. (When necessary, inconsistencies would be explained as hints to read more carefully.) Highlighting natural patterns, ethical acts and consequences, and the workings of retribution, critics and editors also addressed Buddhist and Daoist themes, as well as strengths and weaknesses of structure, style, and pacing.

By treating fiction as serious literature worthy of exegesis, these commentaries radically expanded the scope of literary theory, previously devoted almost exclusively to poetry. Some editors also substantially altered their material, as Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆 (1608–61) did in abridging a 120-chapter version of Water Margin to 70 chapters (1641). Divergent commentaries led to serious debates, as in the case of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Whereas some interpret the novel’s portrayal of bravery and loyalty as promoting these cherished Ming values, others see the characters’ fateful overconfidence as subtly critiquing Ming imperial propaganda.

Possibly the most retold East Asian classic, Journey to the West 西遊記 (1592) satirizes social ills through recrafting the tale of the historical monk Xuanzang’s (596–664) perilous pilgrimage to India. Developed out of the monk’s travelogue, biographies, prosimetric legends, and dramas, the hundred-chapter adventure novel (possibly by Wu Cheng’en 吴承恩, ca. 1500–82) is nonetheless more unified than earlier novels. Abandoned in infancy after a bandit abducts and rapes his widowed mother, the Xuanzang of the novel is plagued by fears and anxieties. But he ultimately triumphs, bringing back and translating three canons of Buddhist sutras (the “Three Baskets” of his other name, Tripitaka).

The picaresque novel endows the dutiful but apprehensive monk with four superhuman companions: a clever but impetuous monkey, a lustful pig, a “Sand Monk,” and a white horse. Most important is Monkey, whose full name means “the Monkey Awakened to Emptiness,” and whose early life opens the novel. Clever and resourceful, he is, like the human mind, wild and restless until controlled through Buddhist discipline. A popular hero later reincarnated in countless cartoons, films, television series, and video games, Monkey frequently rescues the group with his magical transforming rod. Yet his ill-focused energies risk everyone’s safety but for Xuanzang’s control.

Read as allegory, Xuanzang is a spiritual seeker, Monkey his heart-mind, the white horse his will, Pigsy his bodily desires, and Sand Monk his connection to the earth. The journey represents the cultivation of the heart-mind, and the novel’s perils and monsters stand for distortions that obscure the path to Enlightenment. Scholars debate the degree of irony in the novel’s presentation of spiritual quest. Is it an epic or a mock-epic? Does it champion Buddhist salvation or advocate for synthesizing Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist beliefs?

Numerous sequels and midquels added to the novel’s influence and fame. Like its parent novel, Supplement to Journey to the West 西遊補 (1641) offers a trenchant social satire combined with a masterful Buddhist allegory about the ways passions ( 情 qing ) can imprison the heart. Ensnarled by Mackerel ( 鯖 qing, a homophone for passion) in a series of hallucinations, Monkey broadens his perspective to see the nature of desire, its delusions, and his own conditioned tendencies. As he does, the point of view shifts from his perspective to more omniscient narration, just one of several consciously crafted literary techniques. Short by the standards of the time, this sixteen-chapter midquel features a Tower of Myriad Mirrors, a group of space-walkers chiseling a hole in the firmament, and other surreal elements that make the novel ripe for psychoanalytic readings as dreamwork on anxiety. Another supplement, the Later Journey to the West 後西遊記 (1715) tells of the heroes’ pilgrimage to a mountain with seventytwo pits of demons’ temptations, all ultimately related to the seven emotions and six desires. (Pigsy falls prey to flattery, and Monkey to ambition.)

The last of the four Ming-dynasty masterpieces, The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅 (literally Gold, Vase, Plum , 1618), notorious for its sexual passages, colorfully portrays a community obsessed with money, status, and sensual indulgence. One of the earliest novels of manners, its attention to social settings, roles, and expectations shows how class mores and conditioning determine individual feelings and behaviors. Within the novel’s hundred chapters, six wives compete for the attentions of the unscrupulous drug merchant and influence peddler Ximen Qing. The novel borrows its setting, Qing, his concubine Golden Lotus, and several other characters from an episode in Water Margin, but its parody frees the novel from the mythic frameworks that characterize that work, Three Kingdoms, and Journey. Now desire itself motivates the action. And though set in the twelfth century, the domestic drama is situated within an exhaustively detailed sixteenth-century milieu.

By delaying the bandit Wu Song’s revenge against his adulterous sister-in-law and her lover for murdering his elder brother, the novel allows Qing to sow the seeds of his own destruction. (Legend has it that a traditionalist author wrote the novel to pursue a vendetta against the corrupt son of the man who executed his father.) After Qing’s affair with his neighbor Ping’er (the Vase of the title) results in her husband’s death, Qing combines their properties to construct an ostentatious garden to showcase his wealth and station. Though Qing is himself functionally illiterate, his garden “study” has all the trappings of literati culture. Yet his indiscriminate display of overnumerous paintings betrays his poor taste, and the political machinations and debauchery that ensue there reveal his philistine pretensions. After Ping’er becomes Qing’s clear favorite, the resentful Lotus spies on them copulating in a garden pavilion and learns of Ping’er’s pregnancy. Later that day Qing uses Lotus’s footbindings to spread-eagle her in the garden’s notorious grape arbor, then inebriates and ravishes her, and the chastened Lotus returns to her room with just one of her slippers.

Though less focused on explicit sex than Li Yu’s 李漁 (1611–80) comic-erotic The Carnal Prayer Mat 肉蒲團 (1657), the novel’s graphic sadomasochistic passages explore lust’s power to corrupt, the insatiability of desire, and the pain of power exchanges. After the jealous Lotus causes the death of Ping’er’s son, and Ping’er dies of grief, Lotus uses aphrodisiacs from an Indian monk to lure Qing to die through sexual overexertion. “Be judicious in your use of these remedies,” the monk counsels Qing, but this caution only piques Qing’s licentiousness. After Qing’s excesses precipitate his death, his entourage of manipulative social climbers can do little but eulogize their departed patron, and his son by his principal wife, born at the moment of his death, becomes a monk.

For many commentators, these workings of retribution offer sustained lessons in Buddhist and Confucian ethics. For some, the novel’s juxtapositions of heterogeneous elements (earlier songs, Buddhist stories, dramas, and novels) result in ironic moral critique. Following the model of the Confucian Great Learning, Qing’s moral failings not only sow disorder in his household but also contribute to larger social decline and the dynasty’s political collapse. Commentators often attribute such a coherent design to a single author, although it might also result from plural authorship. And what may be ironic distance on the characters’ stereotypical worldviews might protest rather than uphold Confucian practices.

Though many modern leftist scholars claim that such vernacular works reflected the masses, most of the best fiction was literati fiction. From the seventeenth century on, novels tended to rewrite, parody, and subvert earlier works in a kind of literary game.

© 2011 Oxford University Press, USA

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