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

By David L. Rolston | Go to book overview

8
Relational Characterization and Ambiguous Characters

Relational Characterization

Along with the shift of focus from plot to character came increasing interest in characterization and ways to achieve "depth" or "roundness." The "inhuman" and "heavy" characters of early vernacular fiction1 gave way to characters from ordinary life as authors turned their attention away from the "extraordinary" (conceived as different from the lives of most people) and searched for the "extraordinary in the ordinary."2

It was natural, therefore, for characters to become more human and more complex, and for characterization to become more subtle. Fiction commentators stressed that even evil characters such as Gao Qiu (of the Shuihu zhuan) and Pan Jinlian (of the Jin Ping Mel) are not completely evil.3 A comment in the Zhiyan zhai commentary argues that a truly talented and beautiful woman always has a defect, such as Shi Xiangyun's lisp, that adds to her beauty by making her more real ( ZYZ 20.382-83, jimao, gengchen, Wangfu, and Youzheng ic).

This is a far cry from earlier drama and fiction. According to descriptions of puppet theater in the Song dynasty, loyal and upright characters were given an "upright" visage, whereas evil characters were depicted as physically as well as morally ugly ( Xia Xieshi, p. 8). Drama continued to employ a rather rigid system of role types that distinguished between "good" and "bad" characters, although later playwrights such as Kong

____________________
1
The gradual disappearance of the near-mythic figures in early novels might be connected to a decline in the influence of oral culture. Ong (pp. 69-70) argues that characters in oral narrative are larger-than-life because that makes them easier to remember.
2
See Chapter 6 above. It is almost as if the novelists were working their way down through Northrop Frye's five "mimetic modes" from myth to irony as the relationship between reader and protagonist changes from inferor/superior to, in the extreme, superior/inferior ( Frye, pp. 33-67).
3
See SBZHPB 6.170, Jin Shengtan ic (which takes off from a marginal comment in the Yuan Wuyai ed.); and ZZPJPM 58.867, mc.

-209-

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