Chinese Short Fiction Analysis


(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...

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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 editors, and prolific writers.

Feng Menglong is best known for his three collections of short stories (Sanyan) entitled Yushi mingyan (c. 1620; illustrated words to instruct the world), Jinghi tongyan (c. 1624; common words to warn the world), and Xinghi henyan (c. 1627; constant words to awake the world). Feng’s subject matter covers a wide range of social and moral issues: loyalty, patriotism, heroism, noble-minded leadership, scholars’ active participation in politics, and the natural order of reward and retribution. Whatever its subject matter is, a story by Feng invariably concerns itself with a single character in a single action and begins with a preamble or prologue to direct his reader to a Confucian moral interpretation....

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Baihua Short Fiction Before 1949

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Chinese short fiction underwent tremendous changes at the beginning of the twentieth century, when China was on the verge of total disintegration under the dual pressure of an incompetent government and Western and Japanese imperialists. Many writers used their pen as a powerful tool to mobilize the masses of people to save their ancient motherland and revitalize her. One prominent writer after another appeared on the scene: Lu Xun, Lao She, Mao Dun, Ba Jin, Ye Shengtao, Bin Xin, Ding Ling, Yu Dafu, and Qian Zhongshu, to name but a few. Ironically, the very artistic techniques and narrative structures they employed to accomplish their patriotic mission came from the Western world. The language they used to save their ancient land was not wen-yan, the classical literary language, but Baihua, the common spoken language, which overcame all the linguistic barriers created by numerous mutually unintelligible vernaculars or dialects.

One of the earliest and most influential writers in twentieth century China is Lu Xun, whose collections of short stories include Nahan (1923; Call to Arms, 1981), Panghuang (1926; Wandering, 1981), and Gushi xinbian (1935; Old Tales Retold, 1961). Realistic, indigenous, satirical, his stories serve to arouse the masses of people by relentlessly exposing their numbness and indifference, their ignorance and superstition, “My Native Place” and “Medicine” bring to light the sloth, superstition, cruelty, and hypocrisy of some small town residents. “The Diary of a Madman” details the protagonist’s discovery of the two words “Eat men!” between the lines in a history book advocating benevolence, righteousness, truth, and virtue. “The True Story of Ah Q” portrays a character engaged in self-deception and self-aggrandizement under distressing and humiliating circumstances. Though many of his stories are based on people who lived in his native Shao-hsing, in Zhejiang, in the last decade or so of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), his careful choice of events and situations, his matter-of-fact narrative style, and his moral seriousness combine to make his stories mirror the general physical decay, emotional paralysis, and spiritual decline in China.

Like Lu Xun, Lao She saw all the ugliness and suffering in the lives of people tormented by brutal forces both domestic and foreign; however, he also saw the dignity and perseverance his people displayed in such adverse conditions. Therefore, he angrily denounces people’s indifference to their own country’s tragic fate in stories like “Getting a Prescription” and “Democratic World”; at the same time, he enthusiastically hails the heroism and self-sacrifice of all those resisting Japanese aggression in stories like “Of One Heart” and “Enemy and Friends.” Lao She was also acutely aware of the innocence and spontaneity of his people as well as the deeply entrenched moral codes that aimed to suffocate these admirable attributes. However, he firmly believed that innocence and spontaneity would triumph and lead individuals to inner peace and contentment. This kind of awareness and belief is...

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Baihua Short Fiction After 1949

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, all writers became members of writers’ federations under the control of the ruling communist party. Paid fixed salaries as ganbu (cadres), they were required to follow the policy laid down by Mao Zedong: Art and literature should serve the party’s political agenda and the broad masses of people—workers, peasants, soldiers. As a result, writers spent more time on ideological reform than on literary creation, and those who had established themselves before 1949 became very quiet.

Most of the short stories published by the party-controlled presses during the period of 1949 to 1976 were those glorifying Mao or revolutionaries under Mao’s leadership. The only manner of representation writers were allowed to use was what Mao called “revolutionary realism combined with revolutionary romanticism.” Both Lao She and Ba Jin wrote a few stories along the party line. Lao She’s stories mostly focus on the heroes in the Korean War and a story by Ba Jin, “Song of Life,” recounts the efforts to save a burned steelworker who dedicated his life to the building of socialism. Their stories were not as enthusiastically received by the party’s propaganda department as was Ru Zhijuan’s “Lilies.” Ru’s story presents the broad masses of people under Mao’s judicious leadership in a life-or-death struggle against the nationalists in the civil war that followed immediately the defeat of the Japanese. It was hailed as a shining example of “realism combined...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Anderson, Jennifer, and Theresa Munford, trans. Chinese Women Writers: A Collection of Short Stories by Chinese Women Writers of the 1920’s and 30’s. Hong Kong: Joint Pub., 1985. Discusses the social life and customs of women in China during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Includes examination of selected stories by Ding Ling, Bing Xin, Luo Shu, Ling Shuhua, Wu Shutian, Lu Yin, Xiao Hong, Feng Keng, and Feng Yuanjun.

Bishop, John Lyman. The Colloquial Short Story in China: A Study of the San-Yen Collections. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. History and criticism of Chinese short stories translated into English....

(The entire section is 557 words.)