Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing between the Lines

By David L. Rolston | Go to book overview

1
Mr. "Pingdian": Jin Shengtan and the "Shuihu zhuan"

Jin Shengtan is the single most important figure in traditional Chinese fiction criticism.1 He spent his life in Suzhou, an important cultural center in South China.2 The overabundance of literary talent there, combined with the regional quota system for the civil service examinations, may have contributed to his lack of success in the examinations, a failing commonly attributed to a lack of self-control. He seems to have supported himself by writing and teaching ( Zhang Guoguang, Shuihu, p. 91).

Jin Shengtan's role as a champion of fiction is well known, but instead of arguing that it was a new and rising genre of literature suited to the times, as had Li Zhi ( "Tongxin shuo," SHZZLHB 191) and others, he tried to associate fiction with the classics and belles-lettres. To achieve this, he cited the Confucian judgment that "fiction" (xiaoshuo) could not be completely ignored,3 claimed rhetorical flourishes in the Shuihu zhuan to be extensions of similar techniques in the Lunyu (Confucian analects; SHZHPB 10, third preface), and listed both the Shuihu zhuan and Xixiang ji as works by and for geniuses (caizi shu) together with the "Lisao" (Encountering sorrow), the Zhuang Zi, the Shiji, and the poetry of Du Fu (712-70). But his attempts to legitimize fiction by association with the past should not obscure the revolutionary character of his endeavors.

Besides pingdian-style criticism on a variety of genres, Jin Shengtan also wrote several philosophical works, most of which are particularly con

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1
The late Qing critic Qiu Weixuan said, "The idea of commenting on fiction did not originate with Jin Shengtan, but the school [pai] of fiction commentary did" ( Shuyuan zhuitan [ Prolix talks from Qiu Weixuan; 1897], Lunzhu xuan, 2: 14).
2
On Suzhou as a center for literati interested in fiction, see Hegel, "Aesthetics."
3
See SHZHPB 10, third preface, which refers to Lunyu, XDC.4. The original comment was made by Zixia, one of Confucius' disciples, and refers only to unspecified xiaodao (little ways). The association of this passage with fiction and its attribution to Confucius himself occurs most prominently in the "Yiwen zhi" (Treatise on literature) chapter of the Hanshu (see Ban Gu , p. 30. 1745).

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