Ancient Narratives of China

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Ancient Narratives of China

Yang Ye

In the Chinese tradition, fiction was, for a long time, generally considered to be lowbrow and trivial as a literary genre. The Chinese term for fiction, xiao shuo (literally “small talk”), was used as early as in the Monograph on Arts in the History of the Han, a work from the first century CE, during China's Early Imperial Period, where it was defined as “street gossip, talk of the town, and hearsay from travelers,” and those who engaged in the composition of xiao shuo were placed at the very last in the categorization of authors. Over many centuries, a large variety of miscellaneous writings fell under the genre of xiao shuo, or fiction, including mythology, fable, anecdote, and the supernatural tale.

Compared to other forms of fiction, the novel was a latecomer in the Chinese tradition, as it remained unknown until the end of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279—1368), the first of two imperial Chinese dynasties when the Chinese people were governed by an ethnic minority. From the beginning of their rule, the Mongol monarchs abolished the civil service examinations, which had been a major channel for the educated Chinese to get appointed in government since the Sui Dynasty (589—618). Even when the examinations were resumed later, they had lost their significance to the learned Chinese who were thus marginalized in society, as they found little use for their literary talent in the composition of poetry and nonfictional prose, long regarded as the highbrow and serious literary genres in the tradition. The decline of these genres, however, was a mixed blessing for Chinese literature, as it led to the rise of drama and fiction, especially the novel, in the period.

The first Chinese novel, the Sanguo yanyi (1522, known in the West as Romance of the Three Kingdoms), was generally attributed, not without some controversy, to Luo Guanzhong, about whose life little is known except that he was active at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. The novel takes the reader through nearly a century of the chaotic history of Early Imperial China, giving an exciting account of the numerous historical events up to the year 280 CE, ranging from intricate court intrigues and sweeping warfare, beginning with the downfall and disintegration of the Han Empire, the subsequent rise of three imperial states—each claiming to hold the heavenly mandate for the entire nation—to the eventual reunification of the country under the Jin Empire. Another early novel, the Shuihu zhuan (1614, Water Margin), which tells the story of a fraternal band of philanthropic robbers during the Northern Song Dynasty (960—1126), was also attributed to Luo Guanzhong, though with considerable revision by another author, Shi Nai'an.

As represented by these two works, the rise of the Chinese novel in the fourteenth century developed from the profession of storytelling which, as a form of popular entertainment, dated back to the Song dynasty. Professional storytellers learned some of their NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE from the missionary activity of Buddhist monks during the earlier Tang Dynasty (618—907), who would elaborate on the stories from the Sanskrit sImagetras while preaching to a general audience. Such elaborations developed into a kind of prosi-metric text, the bian wen (“Transformation Text”), which bears some similarity to the medieval European chantefable, a mixture of verse (singing) and prose (storytelling).

Unlike their European counterparts, early Chinese novelists, such as Luo Guanzhong and Shi Nai'an, did not have anything like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (ninth or eighth century BCE) as their classic narrative models from antiquity. The earliest anthology of Chinese poetry, the Shi jing (Book of Songs), was used by Master Confucius (551—479 BCE), the great educator and a central figure in ancient China, as one of the primary texts in his curriculum. It contains a few songs which tell the stories of ancient tribal leaders. Categorized as “Dynastic Legends” by their renowned English translator, Arthur Waley (1889—1966), these songs may be considered as mini-epics in content. For example, poem #245, Sheng ming (“Giving Birth to People”), tells the story of a legendary leader named Hou Ji. After treading on the big toe of God's footprint, his mother gets pregnant and gives birth to him. Deserted and left in the wild, he is protected by cattle, sheep and birds. Then he grows up to become the founder of agriculture. However, in limited length of no more than sixty to seventy lines, these songs are rather undeveloped as narratives. For their primary source of inspiration, China's earliest novelists relied on a body of ancient narratives, contained primarily in works of history.

Ancient Narratives in Early History Classics

In ancient China, the boundaries between history and literature were rather blurred. Both served as narrative discourse that interacted with their historical situations, authors, and readers. As late as the sixth century CE, as evidenced in Liu Xie's (ca. 465—ca. 532) monumental work of literary criticism, the Wenxin diaolong (Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons), history was placed, along with other forms of writings which included the Confucian classics and poetry, under the general category of wen, a word which etymologically referred to “pattern,” although it gradually evolved in later ages into a Chinese equivalent for the English word “literature” in the latter's more strict usage. Just as the sun, moon, and stars constitute the “celestial pattern” (tian wen), and the mountains and the rivers the “earthly pattern” (di wen), all forms of writings form the “human pattern” (ren wen), or the pattern of human mind.

It was during the reign of Emperor Wu (“Martial Emperor,” r. 141—87 BCE) of the imperial Han Dynasty (206 BCE—220 CE) that Confucianism gained its dominance over other schools of intellectual thought in Chinese civilization. Ancient texts, presumably used by the Master himself for his students, were canonized as jing (“Books” or “Scriptures”), and became part of the basic education of aristocrats and government officials.

Two works of history were among them. The Shu jing (Book of Documents, pub. in English The Shoo King or the Book of Historical Documents) includes different types of speeches given by leaders of the state, chronologically arranged, from the ancient royal dynasties. The Chun qiu (Spring and Autumn Annals, pub. in English The Ch'un Ts'eu, with Tso Chuen), a chronological history (722—481 BCE) of Confucius's native Lu Dukedom, was the very first of its kind in China. None of these two works, however, may be considered as narrative in nature. The former, one of the earliest texts from antiquity, was composed in an abstruse language which had become obscure even to scholars of the Han Dynasty. The latter, in its brief, laconic accounts, is to the modern eye no more than a simple table of historical events. However, one of the works generated by the latter, the Zuo zhuan (Zuo Commentary on Spring and Autumn Annals), turned out to be China's earliest narrative history.

Attributed to Zuo Qiuming, a younger contemporary of Confucius, Zuo Commentary is widely accepted by scholars today as an “authentic” text from no later than the fourth century BCE, containing material from even earlier times. It consists of protracted accounts, or rather “elaborations,” of the events listed in Spring and Autumn Annals, much enlivened with dialogues and descriptive details. For example, from a one-line register in Spring and Autumn Annals, “Count of Zheng prevailed over Duan at Yan,” Zuo Commentary offers a lengthy, complicated and dramatic account of the Count's ambivalent relationship with his mother owing to her preference that his younger brother Duan should be the ruler, the conflict and struggle between the brothers, the triumph of the Count, and the eventual reconciliation between the Count and his mother. In particular, the accounts of the five major wars which took place during the period are strong in literary elements. They tell a vivid story of the complex causes and effects of the wars and the interrelations of the various political parties engaged in them, covering both the maneuvering prior to the warfare, as represented by intense diplomatic activity, and its aftermath. In addition, many historical figures of the period come alive from the characterization in the episodic description.

Another work of strong narrative nature appeared from the subsequent period of Warring States (476—221 BCE), when China entered an era of division before its eventual unification under the Qin Empire, China's first imperial dynasty (221—206 BCE). During this period, some of the more powerful feudal states began to annex smaller neighboring states to consolidate their rule, and later, the leaders of these states began to give themselves the title of “king.” In their constant struggles for dominance, they relied on the advice of professional political strategists, who used wit and eloquence as their “selling points” in persuading the rulers. The Zhanguo ce (Records of the Warring States), a book about the activity of these strategists, was compiled by Liu Xiang (ca. 77 BCE—6 BCE) of the Han Dynasty, who was said to have direct access to the archives of the imperial library. It was based on various early sources from the archives, especially the work of Kuai Tong, a scholar who lived in the early years of the Han Dynasty. Conventionally categorized as a work of history, much of its content is more fictitious than factual. Notwithstanding its highly dubious historical authenticity, the book contains lively dialogues and speeches of the strategists and some other historical figures of the time, with much rhetorical flourish. Not infrequently bombastic and flamboyant in expression and tone, the speeches sparkle with sharp wit and sardonic humor, displaying the personality of the speakers. In particular, the book provides a model for later writers to use DIALOGUE for characterization.

Both Zuo Commentary and Intrigues of the Warring States became a part of the required reading for educated Chinese through the ages, and their influence went beyond that of average works of history. In fact, the Dong Zhou lieguo zhi (Records of the Various States of the Eastern Zhou), a popular historical novel attributed to Cai Yuanfang of the eighteeenth century, incorporated a large amount of material directly from these two works.

Sima Qian's Historical Records

In the Chinese tradition, Sima Qian's Shi ji (Historical Records) has always been considered not only a work of history but also a monument of literature, even after these two disciplines gradually gained their respective status and began to be considered as different GENREs of writing. In the former category, the work initiated the historiographic structure which had since become the fixed format for almost all later dynastic histories; in the latter it stands as a model par excellence for a variety of genres, from the belles-lettres prose (which, along with poetry, represents the highest form of traditional literature prior to Late Imperial China) to novels and shorter fiction, and became an inexhaustible source for later adaptations of various art forms, including drama, opera, and even modern cinema.

The author, Sima Qian, was appointed to the post of his father, the official Grand Historian of the central government, after the latter's death. Having access to the imperial archives, he continued his father's unfinished work of writing a general history. In 99 BCE, he made the political blunder of defending a military general who had surrendered to the Xiongnu, the nomadic tribes from Inner Asia who were a constant threat on China's northwestern border, and was thrown into prison and sentenced to death. Eventually he accepted the only other option: he suffered the humiliation of castration and became a palace eunuch, as prescribed by the law of the time, so as to live on to complete his history.

Throughout literary history, East or West, adversity and misfortune have often turned out to be a catalyst for masterworks. The eventual completion of Sima Qian's monumental book was a personal triumph for its author. In its quintuple structure of five parts, it covers the history of nearly three millennia on a comprehensive scale, covering political, military, cultural, and economic aspects. The first part consists of twelve Basic Annals, with the first five devoted to the prehistoric legendary kings and dynasties from the ancient royal Xia Dynasty to the imperial Qin Dynasty, and the other seven devoted to individual rulers from the First Emperor of the Qin to the Martial Emperor of the Han, under whose reign the author lived. The second part is made up of ten Chronological Tables, covering various historical periods. These are followed by the third part in eight Monographs, each of which gives a diachronic survey of specific topics such as Rituals, Music, Legal Codes, and Astronomy. The fourth part includes thirty chapters on Hereditary Houses, devoted mostly to feudal lords of various periods but also, interestingly, Chen Sheng (d. 208 BCE), the leader of the revolt which led to the termination of the Qin dynasty, and Confucius (551—479 BCE), the towering cultural figure. The last part consists of seventy chapters, mostly biographies of historical figures and a number of social groups, six accounts of frontier regions that include Xiongnu, Korea, Ferghana, and Vietnam, to be concluded by a Self-Account of the author himself.

While earlier works of history, including Zuo Commentary, concentrated on events, Historical Records shifted the nucleus of attention to people. Many of the chapters, especially the part concerning the more recent history of the Han, provided an emotional outlet for the author's pent-up indignation at social injustice. This is most evident in some of the biographies in the work—his constant love and sympathy for those who, like him, encountered misfortune in life, his hate and anger toward those who prospered through inflicting pain and suffering on others—all these may be regarded as Sima Qian's response to the challenge of his personal tragedy (see LIFE WRITING).

Historical Records as Ancient Narrative: A Comparison with Classics of Western History

As ancient narrative, Historical Records bears more comparison with ancient works of Greek history such as Herodotus's Histories (fifth century BCE) and Thucydides's Peloponnesian War (fifth century BCE) than with the Homeric epics. All these works of history, East or West, went through a kind of “pregeneric plot structure” and a “poetic process” (1979, 60—61), in Hayden White's terms (1979, Tropics of Discourse, 60—61), in the manipulation of their material (which reminds us of the Russian Formalist concept of fabula and sjuzet; see FORMALISM). They all use various literary devices to create dramatic effects, and share a concern with the didactic import of the account, an emphasis on the importance of the individual, skepticism of and relative lack of interest in the supernatural, and a heavy reliance on semi-fictitious—sometimes simply fictitious—conversations and speeches placed in the mouths of their historical figures like characters in fiction. Most importantly, they all present their story in a kind of dramatic “plot” which, as White argues, “is not a structural component of fictional or mythical stories alone; it is crucial to the historical representations of events as well” (1987, Content of the Form, 51).

Like Herodotus, in his life Sima Qian traveled widely and showed a strong interest in regions beyond the central empire. As Burton Watson has pointed out, he was restricted by the limitations of geography and means of transportation, and was therefore unable to witness any foreign culture that was (or that he could have considered) more “civilized” and had a longer history than his own, as Herodotus had during his trip to ancient Egypt. Even so, some modern Russian scholars of the history of China and Inner Asia have pointed out the significant scholarship and trustworthiness of materials as displayed in the accounts of northwestern border regions in Historical Records. In terms of research and scholarship, however, Sima Qian is somewhat closer to Herodotus than to Thucydides, as he had an inclination to rely on anecdotes and hearsay without verifying them with concrete historical evidence.

The structure of Historical Records is different from that of the Greeks, partially because the Greeks were primarily writing about a certain period only, while Sima Qian tried to cover a much longer history. The best part of the Chinese work, though, is in the sections related to the founding and development of the author's own Han Dynasty, which count among them five Basic Annals, three Chronological Tables, all eight Monographs, about ten of the Hereditary Houses, and some sixteen Biographies. Among these, the reader may find much that is overlapping, but never redundant—one of the greatest merits of the work. In particular, the narratives about Emperor Gaozu (256—195 BCE), the founder of the dynasty, show the author as a great master of storytelling. In describing each of the historical figures of this period, including Gaozu and his major rival, Xiang Yu (232—202 BCE), as well as the numerous consultants on both sides, the author keeps shifting his angles of observation and perspective in the various chapters and sections. It is almost like watching a traditional Chinese landscape in the form of a long horizontal scroll; instead of a central focus, as in European painting since the Renaissance, what we have is a kind of “shifting perspective.” In such a polycentric, even polyphonic structure, the capitalized, singular History has become a number of small-case, plural histories. Without resorting to the numerous usages of digressions and asides, as we so often find in the straightforward, primarily linear narration of the Greeks, Sima Qian presents a lively panoramic view of the age, and historical figures that come alive through his multilayered description. Such a special feature of Historical Records certainly offers a source of inspiration, in later ages, for China's professional storytellers and early novelists to treat complex stories with multiple plotlines.

Sima Qian also shares an interest with Plutarch (46—119 CE), whose Vitae consists of twenty-three pairs of Greek and Roman figures. Quite a few of Sima Qian's biographies are that of two figures in the same field, juxtaposed for the sake of comparison. For example, two literary authors, Qu Yuan (ca. 339—287 BCE) and Jia Yi (201—169 BCE), who belonged to two different historical periods, are placed in the same chapter. A chapter of the biographies of good, worthy officials is followed by one of the cruel, evil ones. However, Sima Qian differs from Plutarch in a number of ways. Plutarch was obviously interested only in the elite statesmen and military generals whom he saw as symbols of noble character and heroic personality; even Aristotle was left out from Vitae, probably from the author's Platonic view that poets should be kept out of the ideal Republic. Sima Qian's interest was far more comprehensive. Not only did he include poets and other literary authors, but he also devoted much of his work to other types of civilians and obscure people of humble social status, such as businessmen, court jesters, chivalrous warriors, herbal doctors, and even fortunetellers.

In terms of style, Sima Qian seems to be more terse and matter-of-fact in comparison to the Westerners, especially to Herodotus. The Greeks already had the great Homeric epics as a model of narration, and they were able to describe group and collective scenes as well as individuals, whereas Sima Qian's narration seems to concentrate on the latter. It would be difficult to find in Historical Records such detailed and vivid scenes as in the last few books of Herodotus, like the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae and the sea battle at Salamis between the Greek and the Persian navies, or the moving description of the ill-fated Sicilian expedition in Books 6 and 7 of Thucydides, which was acclaimed by John Stuart Mill (1806—73) as “the most powerful and affecting piece of narrative perhaps in all literature” (1867, “Inaugural Address”).

However, Sima Qian's language is also vivid and fresh in his own way, demonstrating that the great historian was also insightful about the human psyche, as his monumental work is fully expressive of the spectrum of human emotions, to convey the gamut of the “Seven Emotions”—in Buddhist terminology—of joy, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hate, and desire. As the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804—69) has argued, a true classic is from “an author who has enriched the human mind and increased its treasures ... revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered ... who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style that is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time” (1850, “What is a Classic?”). In that sense, it is no wonder Historical Records has been placed in the highest echelon in the Chinese literary canon, and served as a model for the early Chinese novelists.

Ancient Narratives in Works of History after Historical Records

After Historical Records, the first work of history modeled on its structure was the Han shu (History of the Han Dynasty), a labor of love from two generations. It was started by Ban Biao (3—54 CE), who wrote a sequel to Historical Records in 65 chapters on events after Sima Qian's lifetime. His son Ban Gu (32—92) continued on the basis of his father's work, adopted a large amount of material from Historical Records, and contributed with his own expansion. Eventually it was completed, under imperial commission, by Ban Gu's younger sister, Ban Zhao (ca. 49—ca. 120). Considerably longer than Historical Records, it focuses solely on the Han Dynasty, from the founding of the empire to the death of Wang Mang, the Usurper, covering the period from 206 BCE to 23 CE. In this way it became a model in its own right for all later dynastic histories in China. Both Historical Records and History of the Han Dynasty have been celebrated as classics and reached a wide audience, and for a long time, from the later Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, the latter even found more admirers among its readers than the former.

The next work in the long line of official histories, the Sanguo zhi (History of the Three States), became the direct model of inspiration for China's first novel. It was written by Chen Shou (233—97), who witnessed a large part of the chaotic period of the so-called “Three Kingdoms” of the Wei, the Shu, and the Wu, but lived well after the reunification of the nation under the Jin Dynasty. Of the five parts found in Historical Records and History of the Han Dynasty, Chen Shou adopted only the Annals for the sovereigns, and the Biographies and Accounts, treating nearly five hundred individuals and a few neighboring countries, including Korea and Japan. He originally composed the work as three separate histories, and it remained as such until it was first printed as one single work in the Song Dynasty. More than a century after Chen Shou's death, the work was greatly enriched and expanded by the Commentary, completed in 429, by another historian, Pei Songzhi (372—451), who incorporated valuable material from hundreds of various sources found during his lifetime, much of them narrative in nature; many of the original sources are no longer extant today. Like his predecessors from Zuo Qiuming to Sima Qian, he included anecdotes and hearsay in his work. The history and the attached Commentary, a combined effort of Chen Shou and Pei Songzhi, laid a solid foundation for China's first novel; indeed, many of the dialogues and detailed descriptions in the latter have been found to be cited directly from the former.

Ancient Narratives in Other Early Chinese Works

Of course, ancient narratives were not restricted to works of history only, but also were found in other classics from early China. The Lun yu (Analects), a book about Confucius compiled by the Master's disciples and the disciples' disciples, contains in its twenty sections a total of nearly six hundred passages; while most consist of the Master's sayings or his conversations with disciples and followers, some offer details of his manner and way of living, including the way he sits and walks, even his idiosyncratic eating habits. These seemingly fragmented passages, like a thousand pieces of broken mirror, provide a vivid picture of the Master himself as seen in the eyes of his contemporaries when assembled. Because of the celebration of Confucianism in the Han Dynasty, the book gained great popularity. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1126—1279), the great Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130—1200) made it one of the “Four Books,” the essential texts for his students. Starting from the early fourteenth century, the “Four Books” became part of the basic curriculum required for the civic service examinations. Analects was thus integrated into China's collective consciousness.

The subsequent period of Warring States was not only one of constant warfare, but also known as an epoch of “A Hundred Schools of Contending Thoughts,” and some of the books that emerged in the period, from the numerous thinkers and their disciples, also contain ancient narratives which became models for later writers. Of these books, the Zhuang zi (Zuangzi), attributed to Master Zhuang Zhou (369—286 BCE) and his disciples, has long been acclaimed for its strong literary merits. Like the Dao de jing (Book of Integrity and the Way), attributed to Laozi (fifth century BCE) or Master Lao Dan, an older contemporary of Confucius, but probably also from the Warring States period, Zhuangzi has been considered a classic text of Daoism which, along with Confucianism and Buddhism, formed the Three Teachings in Chinese civilization. Unlike Book of Integrity and the Way, which is terse in language and cryptic in content, Zhuangzi is marked by its fertile imagination and abundant usage of fable and myth. In its numerous conversations and stories, it creates a vividly graphic picture, largely fictitious, of Master Zhuang himself, who may be regarded as the persona of the work.

Another work from the same period, the Meng-zi (Mencius), was attributed to Meng Ke or Mencius (371—289 BCE), honored in later ages as the Second Sage of Confucianism, and his disciples. Like Analects, the book also consists largely of the thinker's conversations with his disciples and various rulers, though these are generally lengthier and more complete, and they share the eloquence and wit of those found in Intrigues of the Warring States. In particular, the book provides a lively account of the thinker himself, who initiated the Confucian convention of the “pride of the cotton-clad”—of a civilian who would nevertheless maintain his dignity and pride in front of kings and lords. Along with Analects, Mencius was included by Zhu Xi among the “Four Books” and thus has exerted a widespread influence through the ages.

In the field of fiction or xiao shuo, the genre which was not as highly considered as history and the works of the masters, ancient narratives were also found in a number of works. One of the earliest of these was the San hai jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas), a book which was probably also from the Warring States period, with later revisions. It contains brief, somewhat fragmentary, records of ancient Chinese geography, products, tribes, sacrificial offerings, customs, and habits, incorporating into its narration much of the supernatural, making it a major work (and there were few of them) that preserved ancient Chinese mythology. During China's Age of Division (220—589), one of the works which fell under the category of xiao shuo but somewhat won more respect among the literati was Liu Yiqing's (403—44) Shishuo xinyu (New Account of Tales of the World), a collection of anecdotes about celebrities in history from the previous two centuries. Using some thirty-six categories such as “Virtue,” “Speech,” “Literary Talent,” “Generosity,” “Appearance and Behavior,” “Willfulness,” and “Frugality,” it provides brief but often extremely vivid accounts of these historical figures in their daily life. The same age also saw the rise of another fictional subgenre, the short supernatural tale, called the zhi guai (“records of anomalies”), which was attributed by modern scholars to the popularity of witchcraft and the rise of Buddhism during the time. Several hundred of such tales in the three collections from this period, Gan Bao's (d. 336) Soushen ji (In Search of the Supernatural: The Written Record), Soushen houji (More Records of the Search for the Supernatural)—attributed to the famous poet Tao Qian (365—427), and Liu Yiqing's Youming lu (Records of Light and Shade), provide a rich source of imaginative literature from Early Imperial China. These short tales preceded the longer short stories of the supernatural that emerged during the middle period of the Tang dynasty (618—907), called the chuan qi (“passing on the strange”). However, for a long time, these were not taken seriously as literature.

The Coming of Age of the Novel: the Decreasing Impact of the Ancient Narratives

The variety of ancient narratives in the Chinese tradition notwithstanding, works of history remained the major source of inspiration for the rise of the Chinese novel, as evidenced in Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin. However, compared to the former of these two works which used an easy and plain literary Chinese, the latter was the first Chinese novel to adopt the vernacular language, which distanced it further from the influence of the ancient narratives than the former.

During the Ming dynasty (1368—1644), civil service examinations were reestablished, and those who passed the first level, the local exams, were placed on the government payroll so that they would work toward the next level, the provincial exams, thus creating a new large social class known as the sheng yuan (“government students”). Since the exams were held at long intervals, these students had an urgent need for reading matter as a break from their engagement with serious materials like the Confucian classics (the main subject in the exams). Publishing became an increasingly prosperous business to answer such a need, and along with it the popularity of the novel expanded. With the further development and the coming of age of the genre, however, Chinese novelists began to seek new inspiration and explore more original ways of composition.

The Xiyou ji (Journey to the West), with its earliest extant edition from 1592, was attributed, not without some controversy, to Wu Cheng'en. It was most likely a work that went through many revisions and elaborations of material that had evolved over a longer period of time than that of any single author. Notwithstanding the appearance of a complete translation in English, it remains better known to the Western reader in Arthur Waley's abridged version, Monkey (1943). The novel still assumes a historical framework and uses a real historical figure as one of its protagonists: the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, or Tripitaka (596—664), who singlehandedly made a round-trip pilgrimage to India in 628—45. However, it integrates much of the supernatural in the long tradition by creating for Tripitaka three disciples, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy, all with superhuman martial arts skills and other talents, as well as a White Horse which has transformed from a Dragon Prince, to keep the monk company on the journey and defend him against the numerous demons, monsters, and temptresses that they encounter. Hilarious in tone, the novel is full of wild imagination, poking fun at a pantheon of Buddhist and Taoist deities as well as at human society. Unlike Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, Journey to the West no longer relies on the ancient narratives from history as its main source of inspiration, but instead incorporates materials of a much wider variety, including shorter supernatural fiction and transformation texts. Some scholars have even argued that the creation of the image of the Monkey may have come from Hanuman in Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic (see ANCIENT NARRATIVES OF SOUTH ASIA).

The Jin ping mei (Plum in the Golden Vase), the first printed edition of which contained a foreword dated to the winter of 1617, marked a large step in the development of the Chinese novel. In a hundred chapters and of anonymous authorship, it is the first Chinese novel that focuses on daily life within the enclosed world of an urban household, telling primarily a story that involves the relationship of the wealthy young merchant Ximeng Qing and his numerous wives, concubines, and mistresses. Notwithstanding its explicit and often graphic description of sex, it is a great novel of social criticism and may also be considered as a Chinese novel of manners. The historical background, placed in the earlier Song dynasty, is largely a pretense, as much of its description is devoted to the contemporary Late Ming society. Here the trace of the ancient narratives is hardly discernible, if at all; instead, the author seemed to have incorporated materials from a vast variety of sources, many from popular culture, and made an almost clinical observation of the world around him at the time. Shortly afterward, there appeared another less known novel, Xingshi yinyuan zhuan (n.d., Marriage Destinies to Awaken the World), which tells a story of karma and retribution of two generations, with vivid portrayals of how two viragoes maltreat their henpecked husband. The publication of these two novels marked the rise of REALISM in the history of Chinese novels, and paved the ground for the emergence of Cao Xueqin's Shitou ji (1791, Story of the Stone)—also known as Honglou meng (1754, Dream of the Red Chamber), widely acknowledged as the greatest Chinese novel of all time.

See also: Gothic novel.


1. Allen, J.R. (1981), “ An Introductory Study of Narrative Structure in the Shi ji,” Chinese Literature (CLEAR) 3: 31—66.

2. Egan, R. (1977), “ Narrative in the Tso chuan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 37: 323—52.

3. Hanan, P. (1961), “A Landmark of the Chinese Novel,” in Far East, ed. D. Grant and M. MacLure.

4. Hanan, P. (1962), “ The Text of the Chin P'ing Mei,” Asia Major 9/1: 1—57.

5. Hsia, C.T. (1968), Classic Chinese Novel.

6. Mair, V.H., ed. (2001), Columbia History of Chinese Literature.

7. Roy, D.T., trans. (1993—2006), Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P'ing Mei, 3 vols.

8. Shih, V.Y., trans. and annot. (1959), Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons.

9. Strassberg, R., trans. (2002), Chinese Bestiary.

10. Waley, A., trans. (1996), Book of Songs, repr., ed. J. R. Allen.

11. Watson, B. (1958), Ssu-ma Ch'ien.

12. Watson, B. (1962), Early Chinese Literature.

13. Watson, B. (1989), Tso chuan.

14. Watson, B. (1993), Records of the Grand Historian of China, Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, rev. ed., 3 vols.

15. White, H. (1979), Tropics of Discourse.

16. Wu, Y. (1995), Chinese Virago.

17. Ye, Y. (2000), “Jin Ping Mei (Plum in the Golden Vase),” in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, ed. O. Classe, vol. 1.

18. Ye, Y. (2000), “San Guo Zhi Yan Yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms),” in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, ed. O. Classe, vol. 2.

19. Ye, Y. (2000), “Shui Hu Zhuan (The Water Margin),” in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, ed. O. Classe, vol. 2.

20. Yu, A.C. trans. (1977—83), Journey to the West, 4 vols.

21. Yu, A.C. (1988), “ History, Fiction and the Reading of Chinese Narrative,” Chinese Literature (CLEAR) 10: 1—19.