Novels of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties
Novels of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties
Genre of realistic fiction with popular appeal that developed around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in China.
The Chinese novel as a genre and art form flowered in the late Ming and early Ch'ing Dynasties, roughly between 1550 and 1800. Its roots can be traced to a long storytelling tradition throughout the Middle Ages, especially as storytelling became a favored entertainment for the leisure classes in urban centers in the Sung era (960-1279). Lengthy storytelling performances came to require notes or outlines, called hua-pen, and these sometimes developed into booklets to be read separately from the storytelling experience. The following Yuan Dynasty, however, was not an auspicious time for fiction: Chinese society was less stable, and the Mongols threw their support behind the development of the drama. The stability and prosperity brought by the Ming in the mid-fourteenth century, however, could sustain a variety of arts, and written stories in the vernacular language again became popular. By the mid-sixteenth century, moreover, technological advances had greatly increased the capacity for printing, and international trade had expanded the size of the known world. Scholars also increasingly accepted popular art forms—such as novels and drama—as valid literary genres worthy of serious consideration. These factors set the stage for what has sometimes been called the golden age of the Chinese novel.
The father of the movement is often considered to be Lo Kuan-chung, whose San-kuo-chih yen-i (Romance of the Three Kingdoms; ca. 1400-1500) stands as the earliest historical novel in China, written during the early Ming Dynasty. Like many Ming and Ch'ing novels that followed it, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a mix of accurate history and imaginative fiction; it is an epic story involving hundreds of characters, focusing closely on warring factions and political strife. Lo is also assumed to be the editor of Shui-hu chuan (Water Margin; sometimes translated as All Men are Brothers or Outlaws of the Marsh; ca. 1400-1500), which was possibly authored by Shih-Nai-an. The publication history of Water Margin reflects the episodic nature of the early Chinese novel as well as the lack of emphasis on the original voice of the author. Editors of versions published throughout the Ming and Ch'ing eras deleted and added material, reordered sections, and rewrote portions of the work. The Kuo Wu-tin version of the sixteenth century is very nearly an entirely new work, improved (according to some) in style and substance. An expanded version of the Kuo Wu-tin Water Margin appeared in the last years of the Ming era, and early in the Ch'ing era the most popular edition was published, with thirty of the original one hundred chapters cut from the end.
The Wan Li period of the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620) saw the publication of two more of the great masterworks of the Chinese novel, each a representative of a distinct genre of fiction. Hsi-yu chi (Journey to the West; ca. 1573-1620) is a novel of magic and the supernatural, quite distinct from the historical fictions preceding it. The journey of the title is one to find Buddhist sutras, and it is punctuated by encounters with monsters and demons. The story suits the tenor of its times, when the Taoist Emperor Wan Li appointed alchemists and magicians to high office. The realism of Chin p'ing mei (The Golden Lotus; 1610), the other major novel of this period and among the most important Chinese novels in history, stands in contrast to the fantasy of Journey to the West, but is nonetheless similarly a product of late Ming culture. Graphic descriptions of the corruption and decadence of the ruling class characterize The Golden Lotus, which despite its often pornographic tone has been hailed as a major artistic achievement.
Even with the eroticism of works like The Golden Lotus and such later Ch'ing examples as Jou p'u-t'uan (Carnal Prayer Mat; 1705), novels of the Ming and Ch'ing eras were characteristically concerned with moral correctness and traditional Chinese culture and values. The Ch'ing satire Ju-lin wai-shih (The Scholars; 1750), considered by some the best of its kind, similarly emphasizes a strict moral vision in its portrayal of corrupt society.
Most Ming and Ch'ing novels tie together several story lines involving hundreds of characters in order to represent a broad tableau of Chinese culture. The importance of understanding the individual in terms of his network of relationships reflects the philosophical underpinnings of the genre, which diminish the value of individualism and celebrate loyalty to family and respect for authority. Hung-lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber; 1791), the Ch'ing novel often highlighted as the culmination of the Ming-Ch'ing flowering of the novel form, often presents its hero Pao-yü with a choice between attaining his own desires and remaining steadfast to his family and community. Pao-yü's eventual decision to cut himself off from his society is thus his tragedy—no matter how corrupt or cruel that society may be.
English-language scholarship on the Chinese novel has generally sought to make the texts accessible to the Western reader. Only a small fraction of novels are available in English translations, which requires the scholar to provide extensive translations and paraphrases in order to convey to the reader a sense of the text. Differences in morality, characterization, and poetics challenge readers accustomed to a Western emphasis on psychological portraiture and individuality. Generic studies have sought to explain the aims of Chinese fiction, focusing on subcategories such as the military romance and the historical novel. Only toward the late twentieth century did scholarship begin to focus on interpreting the works from a cultural studies perspective, including the representation of women. Despite cultural barriers, however, Western readers have appreciated both the epic scope and the attention to realistic details that mark the classical Chinese novel.
*Chin p'ing mei [The Golden Lotus] (novel) 1610
Jou p'u-t'uan [Carnal Prayer Mat; Prayer Mat of Flesh] (novel) 1705
San-kuo-chih yen-i [The Romance of the Three Kingdoms] (novel) ca. 1400-1500
†Shui-hu chuan [The Water Margin; All Men Are Brothers; Outlaws of the Marsh] (novel) ca. 1400-1500
‡Hung-lou meng [The Dream of the Red Chamber] (novel) 1791
Hsi-yu chi [Monkey; Journey to the West] (novel) ca. 1573-1620
Ju-lin wai-shih [The Scholars; Unofficial History of Officialdom] (novel) ca. 1750
*Some scholars propose Xu Wei or Wang Shizhen as the author of Chin p'ing mei.
†Shih-Nai-an is suggested as the author, but cannot be substantiated. Later editors made changes and improvements significant enough to be considered authorial—the author of the Kuo Wu-tin version (possibly Wang Tai-han; ca. 1522-1566) and later Chin Sheng-t'an (ca. 1610-1661—thus complicating the question of the date of the work. Lo Kuan-chung has been suggested as the author of the last thirty chapters of the earliest 100-chapter edition.
‡Ts'ao Chan wrote the...
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Criticism: Overviews And Historical Development
SOURCE: Ch'en Shou-Yi. “Hua-Pen to Novel.” In Chinese Literature: A Historical Introduction, pp. 479-497. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1961.
[In this essay, Ch'en outlines the historical development of the Chinese novel, beginning with the prose fiction and romances of the Sung and T'ang Dynasties. Ch'en discusses early novelists' use of legend, history, and everyday diction to create a popular, if not highly regarded, literary style.]
The evolution of p'ing hua seems to have paralleled the development of southern drama. Both types of literature appealing to the populace began making their appearance during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Both reached their zenith in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and gradually declined after the establishment of the Manchu Dynasty, which made it an over policy to sponsor research scholarship and classicism—even antiquarianism—in creative writing. Whereas southern romance was continually sponsored by outstanding men of letters, the p'ing hua type of fiction, usually written in the plainest type of vernacular, remained the main attraction to the common people of Chinese society with the result that even outstanding compositions were largely published anonymously. The origins of this type of popular fiction were diverse, some of the plots being taken from the story-root notebooks of professional storytellers of Sung times. Other...
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SOURCE: Bishop, John L. “Some Limitations of Chinese Fiction.” In Studies in Chinese Literature, pp. 237-47. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.
[In this essay, Bishop discusses the difficulty of understanding and enjoying Chinese fiction from a Western perspective. Using the masterworks of the Western literary tradition as a standard, Bishop finds early Chinese fiction deficient in characterization, morality, and rationality.]
One wonders what the general reading public has made of the translations of traditional Chinese fiction which have recently appeared in bookstores, in several instances in paper-bound series usually devoted to up-to-date novels of violence and vampires. Chinese colloquial fiction before the coming of Western influences certainly contains enough of both murder and adultery to give the average reader a sense of literary familiarity; but the thoughtful reader must be puzzled by an undefinable inadequacy, by a feeling of literary promise unfulfilled, to which even the student of Chinese stories and novels must confess. Unconsciously conditioned as are we all to the premises and achievements of European fiction, we cannot fail to weigh this fiction of another culture in the same balance and find it vaguely wanting. In the following pages I intend to isolate several of the factors which contribute to our impression of disappointment upon reading those works which have...
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SOURCE: Hegel, Robert E. “Maturation and Conflicting Values: Two Novelists' Portraits of the Chinese Hero Ch'in Shu-pao.” In Critical Essays on Chinese Fiction,, edited by Winston L. Y. Yang and Curtis P. Adkins, pp.115-150. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1980.
[In this essay, Hegel focuses on the frequently appearing character of Ch'in Shu-pao, also known as Ch'in Ch'iung, a military hero of the seventh century. Hegel examines depictions of this historical figure in novels from both the Ming and Ch'ing eras to demonstrate key philosophical changes reflected in the development of the novel. Note that in the following essay, Chinese characters have been silently removed.]
Ch'in Ch'iung, better known to generations of Chinese readers and theater-goers by his familiar name Ch'in Shu-pao, was one of the military commanders who assisted in the founding of the T'ang state early in the seventh century. During his rise to prominence Ch'in frequently demonstrated remarkable daring and resourcefulness in the face of the enemy; as a trusted subordinate of Li Shih-min (600-49, reigned as T'ai-tsung, 627-49) he was accorded highest honors both during the later years of his life and at his death. The details of Ch'in's life are little known—his biographies in the official histories are extremely brief.1 However, his became one of the most commonly seen portraits in old China: legend has it that...
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Criticism: Major Works—Overview
SOURCE: Liu Wu-chi. “Great Novels by Obscure Writers.” In An Introduction to Chinese Literature, pp. 228-46. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1966.
[In this essay, Liu provides an overview of the major novels of the late Ming and early Ch'ing dynasties: Journey to the West, The Golden Lotus, Dream of the Red Chamber, and The Scholars. With the exception of Journey to the West, Liu finds that an unflinching, even graphic realism characterizes the masterworks of the early Chinese novel.]
Contemporaneous with the short story, the Chinese novel flourished from the middle of the Ming dynasty to the end of the Ch'ing (sixteenth to early twentieth century). Many writers devoted their time and energy to the writing of fiction and their output was impressive, particularly in the late Ch'ing period. This effort was noteworthy because, in spite of the recognition of the novel as an established literary genre, it was still considered a minor art form compared with poetry and nonfictional prose. For this reason as we have seen earlier, the authors preferred to remain anonymous and used only their pseudonyms; of the known novelists, almost all lived obscure lives unrecorded in dynastic history. The most recognition they achieved was minor official positions and local fame among small groups of friends. An undertone of frustration and bitterness seems to have prevailed in their...
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SOURCE: Hsia, C. T. “Chin P'ing Mei.” In The Classic Chinese Novel, pp. 165-202. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
[In this excerpt, Hsia uses the story of Lotus, a novel within the novel Chin P'ing Mei (The Golden Lotus), to illuminate the strengths and the moral attitude of the text. The extreme obscenity of some portions of the novel are, for Hsia, a key aspect of its forceful “moral realism,” and they represent some of the best writing in the work.]
One cannot expect a work to possess ideological or philosophical coherence when it manifests such obvious structural anarchy. Yet, before one can properly appreciate the finer aspects of Chin P'ing Mei, one must attend to its often mutually contradictory moral and religious assumptions. On the whole, the novelist shares those ambivalent attitudes commonly seen in the colloquial tales of the Ming period: outward conformity with Confucian morality versus a covert sympathy for lovers and seekers after individual autonomy; belief in the Buddhist doctrine of karma and retribution versus an undisguised contempt for monks and nuns; envious disapproval of the rich and powerful versus merciless snobbery toward the lowborn and unfortunate. These remain attitudes rather than components of a consistent world view because, like the professional storytellers, the author seems incapable of resolving the contradictions in his own...
(The entire section is 9965 words.)
SOURCE: Roy, David T. “Chang Chu-p'o's Commentary on the Chin p'ing mei.” In Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Andrew H. Plaks, pp. 115-23. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
[In this essay, Roy suggests that Chang Chu-p'o's commentary on Chin p'ing mei (The Golden Lotus) represents an early Chinese poetics of the novel. Chang Chu-p'o's assessment of the novel focuses on the style, structure, and technique of the work and de-emphasizes the issues of allegory and morality for which The Golden Lotus was notorious.]
In 1644 Chin Sheng-t'an (d. 1661) published an edition of the Shui-hu chuan, the text of which was accompanied by his own critical commentary.1 Although rudimentary commentaries on works of vernacular fiction had appeared as early as the second half of the sixteenth century, this work of Chin Sheng-t'an eclipsed all its predecessors in popularity and established a vogue that resulted in the production of commentaries for all the major novels. As a result, from the late seventeenth century until the 1920's the most popular works of vernacular fiction were nearly always published with accompanying commentaries, and it is safe to assume that the way in which they were read was influenced by the viewpoints the commentators expressed. This large body of practical criticism must have exercised a considerable...
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SOURCE: Yang, Winston L. Y., Peter Li, and Nathan K. Mao. “Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin,” and “Journey to the West and Flowers in the Mirror.” In Classical Chinese Fiction: A Guide to Its Study and Appreciation, pp. 39-51, 71-78. London: George Prior Publishers, 1978.
[In these excerpts, Yang, Li and Mao first outline the importance of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin as foundational texts in the history of the Chinese novel. They address the evolution of the texts through the seventeenth century and the differing approaches to history taken by each author. They also note the varying interpretations that have been applied to the later work Journey to the West, noting its author's strengths in satire and characterization.]
ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS AND THE WATER MARGIN
Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin are important landmarks in the history of Chinese fiction. Popular in China, they represent significant achievements of Chinese literature. They are often treated together or compared with each other by scholars because of their obvious similarities. Despite their differences in design and in other areas, the two are grouped together for discussion in this essay.
A. ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS (SAN-KUO CHIH...
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SOURCE: Hsia, C. T. “A Dream of Red Mansions.” In Approaches to the Asian Classics, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, pp. 262-73. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
[In this essay, Hsia introduces Hung-lou men, translated often as The Dream of the Red Chamber or as A Dream of Red Mansions, to a Western reading audience. Hsia argues that the novel is the culmination of the development of the Chinese novel through the Ming and early Ch'ing period, drawing from earlier landmark works including Chin p'ing mei.]
The Chinese novel Hung-lou meng is customarily known in English as The Dream of the Red Chamber (with or without the initial particle) because earlier partial translations bear this rather enigmatic title. Today, however, its continuing use is unjustified since we have a complete translation in three volumes by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978-80) under the apt title A Dream of Red Mansions. Another complete translation in five volumes by David Hawkes and John Minford is called The Story of the Stone (New York: Penguin Books, 1973-86), which accurately renders the novel's alternative title Shih-t'ou chi. However, since the work is best known in Chinese as Hung-lou meng, A Dream of Red Mansions should be its preferred title in English even though the Hawkes-Minford version...
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Criticism: Genre Studies
SOURCE: Hsia, C. T. “The Military Romance: A Genre of Chinese Fiction.” In Studies in Chinese Literary Genres, edited by Cyril Birch, pp. 337-78. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1974.
[In this excerpt, Hsia attempts to define the genre of the military romance, distinguishing such novels from historical novels that focus on a popularized retelling of events. Hsia bases his arguments on novels from the Ming and Ching dynasties that detail, with some embellishment, the battles of the T'ang and Sung eras. Note that Chinese characters in the following essay have been silently removed.]
Students of traditional Chinese fiction have customarily divided historical novels into two categories: those which approximate the spirit and form of a popular chronicle and those which, despite their celebration of historical personages and events, make no pretensions to be serious history. Most, if not all, of the titles forming the latter category could be properly called military romances insofar as they tell of an individual, a family, a brotherhood, or a new dynastic team engaged in a large-scale campaign or a series of such campaigns. The popular chronicle, too, has frequent occasion to depict military engagements, but it rarely employs the language of fantasy which stylizes the battle scenes in a military romance. Nor does it concern itself with such engagements to the undue neglect of other...
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SOURCE: Ma, Y. W. “The Chinese Historical Novel: An Outline of Themes and Contexts.” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (February, 1975): 277-93.
[In this essay, Ma examines examples of historical novels in order to determine the themes that appear most often within the genre, including dynasty building and national security. Ma also notes an emphasis on self-abnegation and on instruction in the genre.]
In China, as in the West, fiction is a late development in the literary scene and serious fiction criticism is correspondingly a recent endeavor.1 The similarity goes further in the case of the historical novel, which critics of Chinese and Western fiction alike have either consciously avoided or customarily regarded with critical disfavor. In the Chinese case, the San-kuo chih yen-aa (The Three Kingdoms) is the only historical novel which has received constant serious attention, but many of its features are exceptions rather than rules.2 One will look in vain for anything as essential as a general survey of elements basic to works of this genre.3 For a genre so numerically significant, the unavoidable sketchiness of such a preliminary outline as the present one may be compensated for by a selective coverage. Here the main concerns are the most important themes and certain related contextual characteristics.
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SOURCE: Hessney, Robert. “Themes.” In Beautiful, Talented, and Brave: Seventeenth-Century Chinese Scholar-Beauty Romances,, pp. 158-96. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1979.
[In this excerpt, Hessney considers the themes of love and courtship, poetry and wine, and Confucian morality in the novel genre of scholar-beauty romances. Works studied include Western Chamber Romance, The Green Peonies, Yü chiao li, and Haoch'iu chuan. Note that Chinese characters in this essay have been silently removed.]
In this chapter I propose to discuss the themes of scholar-beauty romances. Although the following chapter is devoted to characterization, one should realize that this arbitrary division between themes and characters is somewhat artificial in regard to these romances. This is because the characters are generally ideal types merely serving to reinforce the themes through their thoughts, speeches, and deeds. Thus the subsequent passages of translation are frequently illustrative of both themes and characters at the same time. The authors apparently found it unnecessary to draw a line between these two aspects of fictional narrative.
I have stressed in Chapter I that the abiding theme of the entire scholar-beauty tradition is love and courtship between young people who are highly conscious of beauty, talent and bravery. Regardless of the differing emphasis...
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SOURCE: Hegel, Robert E. “Man as Responsible Being: The Individual, Social Role, and Heaven.” In The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China,, pp 105-39. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
[In this essay, Hegel examines the portrayal of individualism and self-indulgence in novels, including The Merry Adventures of Emperor Yang and Forgotten Tales of the Sui. Hegel finds that themes of fatalism and responsibility to the larger community counter individual expression for seventeenth-century Chinese authors.]
Loyalty and integrity are lost in times of chaos; uprightness and honor become obscured. Today a subject of this contender, tomorrow following someone else. People become like sojourners, taking lodging in a variety of places. Like prostitutes, in body they serve many men in succession.
Yüan Yü-ling, c.16301
The first few decades of the seventeenth century, the end of the Ming, witnessed a growth of personal expression in the arts and individual self-indulgence unprecedented in China. The contradictions between obligations to the self and to society became sharper than ever before. Belief in fate and divine retribution, particularly the latter, was being preached around the country, but such ministries, idealistic rationales for suffering for the most part, appealed primarily to the working masses....
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SOURCE: Wu, Yenna. “Condemnation: Other Fiction.” In The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme, pp. 106-23. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
[In this excerpt, Wu focuses on cruel, violent women in seventeenth-century novels, including The Saga of Emperor Wu of the Liang, Marriage Destinies, and The Forgotten History of Buddhists. Such women contradict the social values of Confucian and Buddhist morality with outrageous and grotesque crimes, but many authors drew a complex portrait of the virago that was not without sympathy.]
While cruel palace women and officials' wives often appear in fictionalized histories, viragos from among the common people are more likely to surface in novels proper.
In excoriating the femme fatale, The Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan) expresses the fear of potentially destructive women by both the elite and the populace.1 Relatively few women appear in the novel that stresses the ethic of sworn brotherhood. Among them, two contrasting types, the physically strong, martial women and the seductive adulteresses, offer an interesting comparison. The novel's theme tends to exclude the claims of family, especially those of women, and so it shows martial women (who fight for the interest of the group) prospering, and seductresses (who act for self-interest) meeting ghastly deaths.
In the novel sexual...
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Berry, Margaret. The Chinese Classic Novels: An Annotated Bibliography of Chiefly English-language Studies. New York, Garland Publishing, 1988, 302 p.
Bibliography of recent Western scholarship and editions of six major Chinese novels from 1600-1800 includes a glossary of terms and a short history of the novel's development in China.
Hightower, James Robert. Topics in Chinese Literature: Outlines and Bibliographies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966, 141 p.
Outlines the major works in the history of Chinese fiction and other popular literature, with a brief introduction and an annotated list of critical authorities and modern translations.
Buck, Pearl S. The Chinese Novel: Nobel Lecture Delivered Before the Swedish Academy at Stockholm. New York: John Day Company, 1939, 59 p.
Overview of the development of the Chinese novel focusing on predecessors in the T'ang and Sung Dynasties.
Chin-Tang Lo. “The Changing Attitude Toward Chinese Fiction.” Chinese Culture 9, No. 1 (March 1968): 34-51.
Traces the increasing appreciation of popular fiction from its dismissal by Confucian scholars to its celebration as part of the Cultural Revolution; touches on fiction's flowering under the Ming....
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