Novels of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.