This is not the first occasion on which I have considered the emergence of a modern literature in China.1 There can be no more fascinating subject in the history of Asian literatures than the profound rift separating the modern from the traditional literature and an examination of its causes and significance. Analysis of the nature of this cataclysm dividing two epochs also enables us to penetrate more deeply into the essence of the phenomena surrounding it.
My earlier considerations of this subject dealt with its more general aspects, such as the change in the role of the author in the literary process, the new attitude toward the heritage of the past, i.e., to literary tradition, and the new approach to reality found generally among the modern writers; in this paper I have taken a narrower and therefore more concrete question, the actual character of the changes in the literary structure to be observed during this process of transformation from a traditional to a modern literature. I have chosen the plot as the object of my study, in an attempt to answer the question whether it is possible to distinguish changes in the structure of the plot in the new literature compared with the traditional structure. I would emphasize that it is only the structure of the plot, and not the choice of subject, that will concern us here. We shall not discuss the well-worn question of what subjects were chosen by the writers of the new epoch; I feel that analysis aiming at the very essence of the literary work can tell us most about the nature of the change that came over literature at this time and the main forces that brought it about.
I shall limit my investigation to a single modern Chinese writer, Lu Hsün, and primarily to a single work, the story “Huai-chiu” (“The Past”), written in the winter of 1911 and published in the periodical Hsiao-shuo yüeh-pao under the pseudonym Chou Ch’o JЦ 0 (for this rare graph, see Morohashi, Dai kanwa jiten, No. 38947). Lu Hsün himself probably forgot that this story existed, and so it was not included in any of the collections of his stories. It was reprinted for the first time in the seventh volume of his collected works in the “Collection of Items Not Included in Any Collection” (Chi wai chi shih-i ).2
This story was written eight years before the May Fourth Movement began and is thus an isolated phenomenon which cannot be explained in terms of the general tendencies of the time. This fact of uniqueness makes it a “pure,” one might almost say a “clinical” case for study; it is not bound by relationships which would limit it to a certain context and force us to interpret its features in accordance with those relationships. The story is written in wen-yen, the traditional literary language, so that not even in this respect is it comparable with the literature produced under the influence of the May Fourth Movement. Nevertheless, as we read it we feel quite clearly that it is a work entirely of the new modern literature and not the literature of the preceding period.
I shall not discuss here the fact that although this story is purely literary, and not factual, it is cast in the form of a personal reminiscence. In the older literature this form was used only for the record of actual fact from a historical point of view; the author noted down facts which he felt might interest future historians. Here, as we shall see, we are not dealing with facts at all. We are concerned with an imaginative story, although one of a very unusual type.
The first difference between this and traditional stories lies in the structure of the plot. This is the reason for our choice, since the story is a good illustration of certain more general observations. Both the stories drawing on the old narrative traditions (hua-pen) and therefore written in the vernacular for a broader public, and those inspired by the ch’uan-ch’i of the literati of the T’ang dynasty, to which P’u Sung-ling gave new life at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are based on a definite plot, the solution of which provides the end of the story. The scope of the story is thus consistent with the peripeteia of the plot. There is no need to quote examples of this, for any collection of Chinese stories offers them in abundance, for instance the Chung-kuo tuan-pien hsiao-shuo chi collected by Cheng Chen-to (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1933).
What is the plot of Lu Hsün’s first literary effort? It opens with the narrator recalling an unpleasant teacher under whom he had suffered as a child and describing the bad methods of teaching used. (We shall not discuss whether the narrator and the author are to be presumed one and the same, as it is irrelevant here.) The teacher expects the boy to compose parallel couplets although he has not explained to him the principles involved and the need for the tones of the words to correspond. The boy has no idea of the differences in tone between the different words. The finishing touch to this portrait of a pedantic and unpleasant creature shows him bending his bald and very shiny head so close to the book that, dampened by his breath, the paper tears. Thus, instead of a plot we have reminiscences of childhood and the evocation of a mood.
Not until well on in this description do we meet with anything that could be called a plot. The lesson is interrupted by the local rich man, a miser no less objectionable than the teacher and stupid into the bargain, incapable of understanding even ordinary expressions. The teacher treats him with great respect, however, for when by the age of twenty-one the miser had not yet produced an heir, he bought three concubines; in the teacher’s view the worst sin against filial piety is to remain without descendants.
The miser brings frightening news that the “long-haired rebels” are approaching the city. At first the teacher doubts that this can be so, since the T’ai-p’ing rebellion (of the long-haired ones) had been crushed forty years before; but when the rich man declares that he has heard the news from “the third gentleman,” the teacher drops his disbelief; he respects “the third gentleman” more than the sages of old.
The rich man and the teacher take counsel how to gain the rebels’ favor. In this the former is carrying on family tradition, for his father had earned the favor of the T’ai-p’ing rebels and served them as a cook; in the end he had amassed a large sum of money which had founded the family fortune. The teacher advises him to try to gain the favor of the rebels, but not too openly, because that might lead to trouble with the government troops if the rebels are defeated. The wisest thing would be to manoeuver carefully between the two extremes. Panic breaks out in the town and everyone tries to flee. A servant describes how the rich man’s women got ready for flight as though it were a spring picnic, their appearance taking up most of their thoughts.
Soon the dramatic action which the rich man’s news seemed to have sparked fades out. While servants are retailing horror stories from the days of the T’ai-p’ing rebellion, the terrified teacher appears, followed by the rich man, and announces that it was a false alarm and had been only a band of refugees from famine-stricken parts. They all laugh happily, the teacher goes off to soothe his terrified family, and the usual evening calm returns beneath the t’ung tree (Aleurites cordata) before the gate. The old servant Wang and Li the nurse recall tales of cruelty when the villagers fled from the T’ai-p’ing rebels and then again when they pursued them, gathering up riches in the form of silver and gold coins flung down by the rebels to delay their pursuit. It starts to rain and the gossipers go home. The boy falls asleep and dreams he is talking to the teacher, while the nurse dreams of long-haired rebels.
It is clear that the action of the plot is hardly developed at all. It is not unlikely that Lu Hsün took the idea of a false rumor sending the town into a panic and revealing the gentry in their true character from Gogol’s “Inspector General.” A similar theme occurs in another of Lu Hsün’s stories entitled “Feng-po” (“Storm in a Teacup”).3 The idea seems to have attracted Lu Hsün constantly. If our hypothesis is correct, it is remarkable how undramatic Lu Hsün’s treatment is when compared with Gogol’s play. Not even the obvious explanation, that Gogol’s sharp conflicts and dramatic action were called for by stage performance, suffices to justify the subdued tone of Lu Hsün’s story, for there are dozens and hundreds of writers of short stories who tried to give their work the same dramatic structure as the pre-Chekov playwrights. Analysis of other stories by Lu Hsün shows that he deliberately re-pressed dramatic effects; we know, for example, that in the story “Pai kuang” (“White Glow’’), also included in the collection Na-han, the portrait of the mad old scholar, Ch’en Shih-ch’eng , is considerably toned down from the real-life model, the teacher Tzu-ching , who lived near Lu Hsün’s home.4 It is clear that Lu Hsün’s interest lay elsewhere than in the creation of exciting plots to arouse the fantasy of his readers.
Turning to the central problem of this study, we can consider Lu Hsün’s approach to his plot as one of simplification, a reduction of the plot to its simplest components, and an attempt to present his subject without the framework of an explanatory story. The author wants to go right to the heart of his subject without the stepping-stone of a plot. This is what strikes me as the specifically modern feature of the new literature; I would even formulate it as a principle that it is characteristic of the new literature to play down the function of the plot, even to the point of dispensing with it altogether. I would compare it to the trend in modern painting which from the time of the Impressionists at the end of the last century has declared as its aim to “paint” and not to “illustrate episodes.”
In my article “Quelques remarques sur la nouvelle littérature chinoise” in Mélanges de sinologie offerts à M. Paul Demiéville (Paris, 1966, pp. 208-223), I made this point in connection with Lu Hsün’s story “Shih-chung’ ,5 in which the plot has completely disappeared, and the whole story is a definite and painful picture of the reality to which Lu Hsün wants to draw the reader’s attention. There are a number of similar examples in the work of Lu Hsün, so that this weakening of the function of the plot can be considered one of his fundamental principles.
In this same article I quoted an exact parallel to this method in a story by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, “Story without Words,” (“Povídka beze slov”) from the collection The Cross at the Crossroads (Boží muka) (Prague, 1924). It is significant that this story comes in a volume which includes other experiments in the short story form. For a writer who devoted great attention to well-worked-out plots (the detective short story was one of Čapek’s favorite forms), we can assume that suppression of the plot was a literary experiment, a symptom of new tendencies beginning to sprout in world literature. That Čapek was right in thinking that this suppression of plot was one of the trends in modern prose is shown, too, by the fact that about the same time the Soviet literary critic V. Šklovskij devoted a whole chapter of his book The Theory of Prose (Czech translation by B. Mathesius, Prague, 1933) to “Literature outside the Plot.” Šklovskij deals here with three books by the writer Rozanov, which he describes as a completely new genre, featuring journalistic articles broken up and inserted one into the other, snatches of autobiography, scenes from the author’s own life, photographs, and so on. It could thus be said that Rozanov put all kinds of new material into his books, without attempting to fit it into the framework of a plot.
This to some extent was what Lu Hsün tried to do; he substituted sketches, reminiscences, lyrical descriptions, etc. for the traditional belletristic forms of China and Europe. These tendencies shared by the work of Lu Hsün and that of modern European prose writers could, I believe, be called the penetration of the epic by the lyric and the breaking up of the traditional epic forms.
We shall not consider here how far this tendency in the work of Lu Hsün was determined or at least stimulated by the peculiar nature of the old Chinese prose in the classical language, where prose without a plot was predominant. All we shall say is that even in his early work this Chinese writer was making use of devices that European prose did not discover until much later. From this I think it is clear enough that the emergence of a modern literature is not a gradual process involving the adaptation of various foreign elements and the gradual change of the traditional structure, but that it is fundamentally a sudden process, the emergence of a new structure under an impulse from without. This new structure need not in any way resemble the structure whence the impulse came, since the imponderabilia of personality and local tradition play a major role.
As I mentioned above, the second part of the story (and it is almost half) is taken up with what the servants recall about the T’ai-p’ing rebels. These reminiscences, although they are formally justified by the rumor of long-haired rebels approaching the town, have very little to do with the central theme of the story. We have already noted that the presentation of the story in the form of remembrance of childhood experience, and the obviously deliberate intention of not developing the plot, are quite novel elements; the greatest difference between this story and the traditional form of the Chinese story, however, is to be seen in this recording of insignificant conversation. In the old form of story, dialogue was an important instrument for the development of the plot and determination of the structure. Here the dialogue is quite autonomous, not even serving the purpose of more precise characterization as it does, for instance, in Wu Ching-tzu’s The Scholars. It is simply a form of presentation of a certain atmosphere, a certain situation, or a set of human relationships, such as we frequently see in the work of such modern writers in the West as Hemingway, Joyce, or Faulkner. Fragments of conversation bring the character before us without any direct description, demonstrating relationships that could not otherwise be described, and revealing the mind of the person, his vacillations and indefinable nuances of thought, in a way straightforward description could never do. Basically it is the principal way of revealing the inner mind of the characters. This makes it all the more interesting to note that in Chinese literature it is Lu Hsün, writing in the old classical language, who sets out in this new direction, one which calls for very sensitive use of living language and the instinctive ability to hear and give expression to every tone and shade of feeling.
This leads us to another conclusion: that the fundamental requirement for the emergence of a new literature is not language, as Hu Shih believed when he declared: “My purpose . . . is simply to suggest the creation of a literature in the national language and a national language suitable for literature. Our aim in the literary revolution is merely to create in China a literature in the national language. A national language may be established only after we have produced a literature in the national language,—only after we have established a national language suitable for literature.”6 Without wishing to deny the importance of a new literary language close to and freely drawing on the colloquial language, we must admit that the fundamental requirement was not a new language, but a new writer brought up in a modern way and capable of looking at the world with modern eyes, endowed with a new and very different interest in certain aspects of reality. A revolution had first to take place in the minds of writers, and then it could find its expression in their work.
The whole atmosphere of the story we are considering here shows the affinity of Lu Hsün’s work to the newest trends in European literature. As we have already said, it is presented in the form of reminiscences and the mood is at moments very lyrical. This emphasis on the autobiographical, reminiscent aspect recalls the words of one of the greatest epic writers of our own times, Thomas Mann, who asks in his book How I Wrote Doctor Faustus (Czech translation, Prague, 1962, p. 62) whether “what we have to consider in the field of the novel is not what is no longer a novel,” quoting in his support Harry Levin’s comment on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that “the best writing of our contemporaries is not an act of creation but an act of evocation peculiarly saturated with reminiscences.”7
Even a brief glance at Lu Hsün’s work shows that Levin’s judgment can be applied to the whole of his literary production beginning with “The Past.” The predominantly reminiscent and lyrical character of his writing brings Lu Hsün, not into the tradition of the realists of the nineteenth century, but into that of the markedly lyrical prose writers of Europe between the two wars. This is further confirmation of our view that in Asia the new literature was a sudden growth, and that the sequence of its types and patterns in time was not the sequence of their Western models.
Paper read at the XVII Conference of Orientalists at Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1967. Published in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 29 (1969), 169-176.
1See “A Confrontation of Traditional Oriental Literature with Modern European Literature in the Context of the Chinese Literary Revolution, Literary History and Literary Criticism,”Acta of the Ninth Congress of the International Federation for Modern Languages and Literature (New York University Press, 1965), pp. 165-176; Studies in Modern Chinese Literature (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1964), Introduction, pp. 1-43; etc.
2See Lu Hsün ch’üan chi (Peking: Jen-min wen-hsüeh ch’u-pan-she, 1958), VII, 257-264.
3Published in the collection Na-han , Lu Hsün Ch’üan Chi, 1, 52-60.
4See Chou Hsia-shou , Lu Hsün ti ku chia (Peking: Jen-min wen-hsüeh ch’u-pan-she, 1957).
5Published in the collection P’ang-huang , Lu Hsün ch’üan chi, II, 67-72.
6“On Constructive Revolution in Chinese Literature” Hsin-ch’ing-nien 4.4 (April 15, 1918), 289֊306.
7Harry Levin, James joyce (New Directions, 1960), p. 222.