This book addresses a basic fact: for several centuries prior to this one, the Chinese read their fiction in commentary editions. The comments were printed right next to the section of text they referred to. They were not of a merely supplemental nature. The commentators who produced them were trying to reorient (sometimes in quite radical ways) the reading of the fictional works they chose to comment on. Although the fiction commentary tradition in premodern China might not differ in kind from other commentarial traditions around the world, in terms of longevity and influence, it differs a great deal.
The ramifications of this unusual tradition, particularly its relationship to fiction composition, have not been fully explored or appreciated. This is partly because the fiction commentary tradition in China was largely scorned or forgotten for the bulk of this century. It is only within the past several decades that real scholarly attention has turned to this native and independent discourse on fiction, but much of the work to date has focused on the help individual commentaries can provide in understanding the works to which they are attached or has remained at the introductory or descriptive level. How to Read the Chinese Novel, which I edited and contributed to, was one such introductory text, even if it was and remains the only comprehensive attempt to introduce this material in English. A very important question has not been addressed: How did the existence of this tradition affect the way people wrote and read fiction in premodern China?
In the fifth and final part of this book, four different solutions by authors of fiction in premodern China to the challenge of this commentarial tradition are outlined and examined through specific examples. Ample "Introductory" sections prepare the reader for Part V: the Introduction presents a concise summary of the book and contextualizes the Chinese fiction commentary tradition both globally and within traditional Chinese culture. Part I introduces the most important trends and commentators and discusses their mutual influence on each other in the course of surveying