Chinese Short Fiction Analysis

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Origins

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Chinese equivalent of “short fiction,” “xiaoshuo,” first appeared in Han shu (first century c.e.; The History of the Former Han Dynasty, 1938) as the heading of a section consisting of twenty-seven works. Although all these pieces have been lost, a large number of other collections of short fiction approximately from that period have survived. Among these collections are Zhanguo ce (Chan-kuo ts’e, 1970; intrigue of the warring states) by Liu Xiang, Shiji (c. 80 b.c.e.; partial translation as Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1961) by Si-ma Qian (Xiao Lin, c. 500; The Forest of Smiles) by Han-dan Chun, Yu lin (the forest of sayings) by Pei Chi, and (Shi-shuo xinyu, c. 430; A New Account of Tales of the World) by Liu Yiqing. In these collections are stories of famous statesmen and military figures, tales of historical events, political anecdotes, and popular jokes.

The Six Dynasties (220-589) witnessed a growing fascination with the fantastic and the supernatural in society. Narratives of miraculous phenomena and human encounters with ghosts and spirits flourished. Predominantly secularized versions of Daoist and Buddhist tales, these narratives were usually written in the official documentary style, for their authors believed that what they recorded were actual happenings rather than imagined realities. Some of the tales present Daoist believers attaining immortality through their religious practice. Others relate events of a fabulous or mythological nature, such as a return to life after a visit to death or human explorations into outer space with no special equipment. In the Tang Dynasty (618- 907) a large number of these narratives were assiduously rewritten and refined. They were also further removed from their original religious sources, for Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism began to be integrated in the Tang Dynasty.

Of all the collections of stories of the strange and the supernatural, the largest is perhaps the Taiping guangzhi (assembled c. 976-983; extensive records from the reign of great tranquility), which preserves many important Tang-period classical- language works. Other collections include Bowu zhi (c. 270; account of wide-ranging matters) by Zhang Hua, the anonymous Lie yi zhuan (c. 320; strange tales), and Sou shen zhi (c. 320; Search for the Supernatural, 1958) by Gan Bao. There is also Yijian zhi (1166; record of yijian) by Hong Mai. Hong is the most prolific of all the authors of stories of the bizarre and fantastic; he wrote nearly all the twenty-seven hundred titles in Record of Yi Jian.

Stories of strange human encounters with supernatural beings as a genre was elevated to high art with the publication of Liao- zhai’s Record of Wonders (Liao-zhai zhi-yi) by Pu Songling. All the Liao-zhai stories, written or edited by Pu himself, are exquisite and elegant, serving a clearly stated didactic purpose. In these stories male characters often unknowingly enter into a sexual relationship with ghosts and were-beasts disguised as beautiful females. What is amazing is that these males do not even show the slightest sign of shock or surprise when eventually facing the truth. These nonhuman beings often behave like humans, displaying the very admirable moral qualities that human characters profess to embrace yet fail to practice.

Vernacular Short Stories

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) saw the rise of stories written in the vernacular. Vernacular storytellers not only searched the treasure-house of the classical language stories for intriguing plots but also turned to various aspects of the Song society—the world of commerce, the judicial system, and courtesan romance—for new materials. In the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties vernacular stories as a vehicle of popular culture gained unprecedented popularity and developed into a highly sophisticated medium of literary expression through the efforts of a number of masters. Among those masters are Feng Menglong, Lang Xian, and Ling Mengchu, all three being ardent collectors, skillful...

(The entire section is 3,407 words.)