In my paper for the Ninth Congress of FILLM in New York in August 1963, I dealt in general terms with the main features of that great revolution in the history of mankind, the emergence of modern Asian literature during the last and the present centuries. This revolution was the outcome of the impact of the literature of Europe at that time on the traditional literary structures of Asia. I sketched the chief aspects of these changes in the latter structures, pointing out the change in the degree of significance attached to the personality of the author in the new literature, the weakening attachment to literary tradition and to the set of literary standards hitherto accepted, and lastly the greater awareness of reality, which led to fundamental changes in subject matter. I suggested then that “new works do not arise as the end-product of successive changes in the traditional structure, but all at once, as new and complete structures qualitatively different from the works belonging to the previous period.” I made the passing suggestion that “certain changes which it is possible to explain as the result of contact with European literature are already to be found in works preceding the literary revolution,” but that examination shows “... that these changes in the traditional literary patterns do not in reality imply any true departure from the general character of the older literature, and that all such works belong, in character and substance, to the old literature.” In 1963 my observations were of a general nature, and it w as not therefore possible to demonstrate them and put forward any considerable literary evidence.
In my paper for the seventeenth Conference of Orientalists at Ann Arbor, Michigan, now appearing in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, I argued the thesis that new literary structures appear suddenly, as the creation of new writers with a new literary conception and gifted with a new artistic sensibility. I set out to show how as early as 1911, even before the literary revolution, Lu Hsün was writing works which were modern in every respect and in some ways even in advance of the corresponding European writing of the time.
Today I would like to approach the subject from the opposite pole, and show how changes in some elements of literary structure, even if they are sometimes the result of foreign literary influence, do not give rise to any new literary structure. Our considerations will have close bearing on the immanence of literary development in the sense that we must observe to what degree certain changes in individual elements of literary structure, and the tension caused up by them in that structure, can bring about a fundamental change in the whole structure. The material I present would appear to give a negative answer to the question, but it should not be overlooked that the Chinese writing I shall be analyzing is taken from the short period of about ten years only. Naturally fundamental changes would need a series of successive changes over a much longer space of time.
In what follows I trace the development of the function of the narrator in Chinese novels at the beginning of this century, in the conviction that changes in this function can be considered a fairly accurate pointer to changes in the literary structure as a whole, and that they have a great deal to tell us about the causes and motives of those changes. I make a distinction here between the term ‘speaker,’ the concrete and clearly defined person who recounts some or all of the story in a literary work, and the term ‘narrator,’ which is much broader. The latter is the organizing principle of the narration, which may sometimes coincide with the actual author, and at other times be no more than the indetermined and changing subject of the narration. This distinction is sufficient for what we have to consider; those interested in pursuing the subject further can refer to the extensive material in European literay theory and history.
A comparison of Chinese and, say, English literature at the beginning of modern times, and particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reveals a striking difference in the development of the character of the speaker. In older European literature, too, fiction was generally presented as the narration of a specific speaker; this is so in Boccaccio and in Chaucer, and it was so in the Indian narrative cycle of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, which became known in Europe through the medium of Arab literature. In the Spanish picaresque novel of the seventeenth century, as in the English novels of adventure of the same period (Daniel Defoe), the person of the narrator, usually without individual features (Chaucer was an exception in this respect), was replaced by a speaker using the first person. The work is then conceived as the memoirs or confessions of this speaker. At the same time there are attempts to replace the simple chronological narration by an elaborate construction, drawing the reader’s attention away from what is told to the manner in which it is told (Sterne). Here, at the very outset of the modern epoch, a new conception of literature appears, treating it as an art form, indeed as a deliberately artificial construction.
The eighteenth century in China was the age of the flourishing of fiction, and perhaps we shall come to the conclusion in the future that developments in Chinese fiction were more penetrating, or at least more profound in their character, than the corresponding changes in European fiction at that time. Wu Ching-tzu (1701-1754) developed a consistent and very exactly applied method in his writing, enabling him to present a broad and perspicacious view of the social class to which he belonged. He stressed the intellectual and cognitive nature of his writing, suppressing almost everything that would serve only to entertain his readers. There can be no doubt that in many ways Wu Chingtzu came close to the methods of the nineteenth century French realists, searching purposefully for the “humble vérité” about the life of his own class, as his French fellow-writers did a hundred years later. Even more significant was the achievement of Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’in (1715-1764), whose “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Hung-lou meng, was an attempt to present a vast metaphor of life, based on his own and his uncle’s experiences, and referring both to his own personal life and to human life in general. His combination of personal experience with a detailed objective description of the life of the time has probably no equal in the literature of the period anywhere. It is interesting to see, however, that these artistic efforts, which were made possible by the unusually high intellectual attainments of the writers concerned, opening up for literature entirely new fields of personal and social experience, fields which were not mastered in European literature until much later, were not correspondingly successful on the formal literary level. Like the whole of Chinese fiction from the twelfth century onwards both these Chinese novels were conceived in the form of a performance by an anonymous professional narrator who begins with the conventional phrase: hua-shuo, “There is a story. . . It was of course absurd to present a series of subtle portraits of scholars of the time as though it was told by a professional narrator to the crowds in a bazaar somewhere; and it was even less felicitous to present in this manner a description of the over-sensitive young members of the highest aristocracy, seen, in addition, as a symbol of the vanity and transience of human life altogether. In the former case the professional speaker should have been replaced by some form of account by an impersonal “narrator”; while the latter subject called for the form of personal confessions or reminiscences.
The fact that no such change in conception occurred in Chinese fiction proves on the one hand the strongly conservative character of Chinese literature and probably of Chinese society altogether, and on the other hand it shows the unusual strength of the creative genius of the Chinese professional storytellers, who had impressed the form of their tales on Chinese fiction so effectively that it lived on without any basic changes for seven centuries and that it took the literary revolution of 1919 to break away from it, and not even then completely.
Even the clearly political novels written at the beginning of our own century still kept to the form of a storyteller’s narration, although this form was obviously already felt to be out of date; almost all these writers attempted to modernize it, changing the traditional elements and adapting it to the new conception of a literary work as they saw it. A study of these attempts allows us to trace the effect on the whole structure of a change in one element and to analyse the degree of stability of a given literary structure. The next stage provides material for the study of whether literary development is immanent, whether it is realized by the tension originating between the elements of one and the same structure, or whether a fundamental change of structure requires to be set in motion by extraliterary impulses, or at least impulses lying outside the given literary structure.
As I have already said, we shall now trace the changes which took place during the first ten years of this century, in the function of the narrator, or the speaker, in the Chinese novel. It should be noted at the outset that all the fiction of this period is markedly political; the political struggle determined the subject and the attitude of all these works. The relation of the author to the reality in which he was writing was therefore exceptionally intense. Most of the works concerned turn away from the private life of the author and of the characters in his book, to concentrate on problems vital to the whole of society. This reflects the situation in China on the eve of the gigantic revolution of which the first phase was the abolition of the old Chinese monarchy in 1911.
In the first of a series of critical social novels which date from the first decade of the twentieth century, “The Exposure of the Official World,” Kuan-ch’ang hsien-hsing chi , by Li Po-yüan or Li Pao-chia or as is sometimes given, Li Pao-k’ai (21. V. 1867-7. IV. 1906), there are very minor changes in the traditional structure as codified by Wu Ching-tzu in his Ju-lin wai-shih, “The Scholars.” Like “The Scholars,” this critical novel is presented in the form of a traditional narration, consisting of a series of rather loose episodes linked together by character A, hitherto the chief character, meeting character B, who them becomes the chief character, and so on ad infinitum. The same construction was used by other authors too; apart from the practical advantages of this loose construction, most of the novels of the period being published serially, it offered the writers the possibility to incorporate into their works documentary evidence concerning recent history. This idea was well expressed by Tseng P’u , another of the leading exponents of the method. According to Tseng P’u,1 description of the main events should be avoided; the writer should concentrate exclusively on trivial anecdotes and incidents not recorded in history, thus bringing into proper relief the background of the main events.
In the work of Li Pao-chia, however, a weakness of this method of which Wu Ching-tzu was not yet aware already becomes apparent. The traditional narrator, into whose words the story is put, played a passive role—or rather, a neutral one. He simply related a story to his audience without taking up any personal attitude towards it. Where he did express an opinion, it was usually the generally accepted view—consensus оmnium—and not his own. This suited Wu Ching-tzu perfectly, for although he set out to be critical, his aim was an objective, calm and judicious picture of his own class, only slightly colored by irony. This was not enough for Li Po-yüan, however, writing at time of rising political passions. He needed a vehicle for his hatred of the imperial officials who provided him with his subject; he wanted to rouse his readers against the corrupt bureaucracy whose sins he was recording. He wanted to rouse public opinion in order to achieve an improvement. Thus his aim is at variance with objective approach of the narrator in the traditional novel. He loads his work with author’s notes, commentaries, observations and résumés which disturb the traditional epic objectivity and conflict with the established narrative form. It is clear that Li Po-yüan required quite a different form in which to present his work, with much more scope for individuality, and a far more personal narrator. This new conception of the narrator appeared in the work of another member of this group of writers, Wu Wo-yao (1866-1910), who cast his principal work “The Events of the Last Twenty Years,” Erh-shih nien mu-tu chih kuai hsien-chuang , in the form of personal reminiscences recounted in the first person. It is evident, however, in this case, that the transformation of the traditional narrator into a clearly defined speaker using the first person singular and presenting all the episodes as his own experience, lived through or heard, was not a functional change. The introductory chapter tries to create the impression that the author of the episodes recounted was a man anxious to give vent to even more passionate indignation at the wickedness of the world than was the preceding author. We soon realize, nevertheless, that this is only a pose and that the author had no other aim in mind than to put together a collection of stories and anecdotes to captivate and entertain his readers. The artificial framework of a writer disgusted with the world, receiving from another equally despairing soul the manuscript of the stories which follow, strikes us as an artificial and superfluous stage setting. The persistent effort to create natural situations for one or another of the episodes strikes an equally artificial note. The author could certainly have dispensed with all these artificial settings and introductions had he really recounted his subject matter in the first person, or presented it as a series of disconnected incidents. It seems to have been impossible, however, to put such heterogeneous material in the mouth of a single narrator—the author; on the other hand the author did not aim at a series of independent tales. The writers of this period seem to have been fascinated by the idea of a “great work” in the tradition of classical novels like Shui-chu-chuan, “Water Margin,” Hsi-yu-chi, “Journey to the West,” and Hung-lou meng, “Dream of the Red Chamber,” 100 to 120 chapters long. They therefore made every effort to transform the series of loosely connected episodes, which is all their novels really are, and make it a homogeneous whole. This explains the quite non-functional framework given the whole book and the separate episodes. Wu Wo-yao was a skilful though superficial writer who was well aware of the effectiveness of various literary approaches. In his crime story “A Strange Revenge for Nine Lives” Chiu ming ch’i yüan for instance, he begins his narrative with the culminating episode of the story, a very impressive scene describing the attack of a band of ruffians on the abode of their enemies, in the course of which eight people were burned to death, and thus gains an imposing introduction. As I showed in my paper in New York, however, this is a typical case of a formal change in structure incapable of effecting a change in the over all conception of the work. After this brilliant opening the whole novel unfolds in the simple chronological sequence used by all earlier narratives.
Nor was Tseng P’u, mentioned above, more successful in his attempt to form a new structure for the novel. His experiment was all the more significant because he was the only writer of the first decade of our century who knew a European language—in his case French—and therefore had direct access to European literature and was not dependent upon translations, which generally distorted the original form of the work. He himself translated, for instance, Victor Hugo’s “93”—but this was after he had written his own novel. We can be allowed to assume that his conception of the novel was inspired by European literature; the story of the chief characters was to be considered the main axis of the novel, onto which varied espisodes and anecdotes would be linked in order, as I mentioned earlier, to present a picture of the preceding period in its entirety. There are plenty of examples, in the literatures of Europe, of the story of one or more principal characters becoming the vehicle for the description of a whole epoch. It is enough to mention “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo, an excellent example, for even historical episodes like the battle of Waterloo or the July revolution in Paris are given a very independent status in the structure of the novel. The way Tseng P’u linked the individual story of his heroes with historical events, however, is a perfect example of how the mechanical combination of heterogeneous material ends in artistic fiasco. The axis of Tseng P’ü’s novel is the romantic story of two real people, the famous scholar Hung Chün and the no less famous courtesan Ts’ai-yün better known as Sai chin hua Sai-chin-hua played a certain part in the Boxer rising of 1900, becoming a popular character both in folk tales and in literature. The story of this great couple, the well-known scholar who was China’s ambassador to the courts of Berlin and Petrograd, and the famous courtesan, provided the novel with an interesting and romantic subject. The author revealed stylistic skill and showed that he had learned some of the European techniques by which to express the mental state of his heroes. Unfortunately his attempt to insert into this unified and romantically conceived narrative incidents showing the struggle of different nations for freedom was an utter failure. All these episodes remain alien elements artificially tacked on to the main plot. Tseng P’u, for example, had an excellent excuse for introducing the story of the Russian revolutionary Sarah Aizenson into his narration when one of his chief characters, Count Waldersee, and his friend were preparing to attend her trial. Instead, he interrupted the story (Chapter XVI, p. 101) and began a completely fresh episode: “But we shall expose in detail the history of Sarah. Her name was Aizenson. . . .” Equally forced is the inclusion of the story of the Korean Party of Eastern Learning while that of the Chinese revolutionaries under Sun Yat-sen is chronologically misplaced in addition. Into what was an interesting and skilfully written romantic story of a glamorous couple the author has clumsily inserted a number of episodes that have nothing to do with the plot either in fact or in spirit. The main weakness of the book is thus the great disparity we feel between the two unharmonized elements. The romantic story of an exceptional couple, and the style used, with its archaic turns of phrase and passages of poetry, in the manner of the old “romantic tales of strange things,” ch’uan-ch’i , goes ill with descriptions of patriotic Japanese gangsters and fanatic Annamese “black flags.” In the mind of the author the unifying element was probably his admiration for heroes of all kinds, but he did not manage to find adequate literary expression for this admiration. It is clear that in this case, too, the attempt to create a new literary structure—perhaps inspired by the social and historical novels of Europe—was not successful.
In my opinion the only writer of the time who succeeded in moulding different components into a relatively homogeneous work was the fourth of the notable names of the first decade, Liu О (1857-1909). He achieved this not so much by the inner logic and causal unity of various parts of the plot, but by infusing into his work a single sensibility and giving it a unified conception, what Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in 1894 considered the fundamental requirement for artistic unity: “People little sensitive in matters of art often think that a work of art forms a simple unity because in it the actions of one and the same group of people are described, because everything pertains to one and the same plot, or because the life of one and the same man is recounted. That is not correct. It is the impression of a very superficial observer. The mortar which binds a work of art into one single unity and creates the illusion that it is a reflection of life itself, is not the unity of characters and situations, but the unity of the specific relation between the author’s conscience and his subject.” In themselves the elements which went to make up Liu O’s novel Lao Ts’an yu-chi , “The Travels of Lao Ts’an,” are even more diverse than those in the other novels discussed here. Around the simple description of the wanderings of Lao Ts’an, the old type of doctor, through the hills and towns of the province of Shantung, Liu О has gathered descriptions of an enthralling performance by folk singers, a poetic description of the scenery of the Clear Lake in Chi-nan-fu, the story of the cruelties perpetrated by the regional governor, a description of the Yellow River in flood, philosophical discussions in a mysterious palace in the mountains, a lyrical scene by moonlight on the banks of the frost-bound Yellow River, a detective story about finding the true culprit in a case of mass poisoning and setting the innocent suspects free, climbing the holy mountain of the east, T’ai-shan, the love story of a nun who overcame the temptations of the flesh, etc. The author does not even try to minimize the contrast between these various elements; on the contrary, he stresses it, in accordance with his view of the world as a constant conflict between opposing elements alternating contrasting episodes. Yet as we read his book we do not get the impression of a jumble of disparate elements, but seem to move in an atmosphere of one single mood. This is certainly partly due to changes in the structure of the work: the author holds to the traditional presentation of his work as a narrator’s creation, introduced by the conventional “There is a story . . .” and even at some points follows the habit of interrupting the story to divide it into chapters at the moment of greatest tension—occasionally artificially worked up—but otherwise the traditional convention plays the role of an insignificant cliché here. The intergrating function of the whole work is given to the hero, Lao Ts’an, who is hinted at in the Prologue as representative of the author. Not in the sense that he is identified with the author, of course, recounting incidents from his own life; Lao Ts’an is a novel character in his own right, with his own invented life which differs considerably from that of the author. The creation of this link between his character and himself, however, enabled Liu О to look at things with his own eyes, express his own views and feelings, and put his own experience into his book. The artificial barrier which exists between an author and a completely fictitious character, in novels where the hero has no connection at all with the author, has disappeared. This approach enabled Liu О to give his whole work a highly subjective atmosphere which is particularly strongly felt in the lyrical scenes, which make a far more authentic impression than those conceived as objective reports on matters outside the scope of the author’s personal experience and purely artifically constructed. Considerable sections of this prerevolutionary work are not certain but evocation, in the sense of my remarks on Lu Hsün’s first writings in 1911 in the paper mentioned above. How powerful this subjective atmosphere and unity of mood is, impressing a unified character on the whole work, can best be seen in those parts where the author for reasons of his own replaces his hero by another character, without our feeling any break in the spirit of the book. Only this single sensibility and single approach enables Liu О to introduce real people into his book, adapting them to his fundamental conception, and making their stories an integral part of his work.
Of all the works of this period the “Travels of Lao Ts’an” is probably the closest to modern literature, and this is probably the reason why it was most favorably received in the West and repeatedly translated into many languages. Yet even this book is essentially a work of the old era, very different from the writings of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when modern Chinese literature really came into being. This is all the more interesting since there was an interval of no more than seven years between Liu O’s book and the work of Lu Hsün. The emergence of a new literary structure is not only a question of genius, but a new social and literary situation.
All the changes I have tried to describe in this paper were essentially formal in nature; they were to change, improve or get rid of those features in a literary structure which were felt to be unsatisfactory, and replace them with others or with a combination of others. Although these changes in literary structure took place against a background of lively political change, we cannot seek their origin outside the literary sphere. Our discussion has remained within the bounds of Chinese traditional fiction. We may ask ourselves whether these changes in the traditional literary structure would have led to its transformation and to the creation of something quite new and quite distinct. We can put our question this way: would the phenomena which emerged from the literary revolution and the imports from the West from 1918 onward have appeared even without that revolution, as the result of the immanent literary development? We cannot give an answer to this question, but the sudden appearance of new structures fully developed and perfected, emerging not as strata evolving in a different period but as works written practically in the same period but differing in a qualitative sense, would suggest that the formation of a completely new structure is probably impossible merely as an immanent development in one sphere of culture, without external impulses.
Lecture given at the XI. Congress of FILLM in Pakistan in September, 1969. Published in Archiv Orientâlni 38 (1970), 169-177.
1Tseng P’u’s introduction to Nieb hai-hua , January 6th 1928.