Decline and Revival
The golden age of traditional Chinese fiction criticism was the seventeenth century, when Jin Shengtan, the Maos, Zhang Zhupo, Wang Xiangxu, and Huang Zhouxing were active.1 In the previous chapter we examined some of the trends that eventually brought fiction commentary into disrepute: forced allegorical and suoyin interpretations. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the production and reading of commentaries on fiction increased, but the quality did not. In this chapter we will look at trends and examples from these two centuries and the fate of the enterprise in the twentieth century.
Along with the decline in the quality of fiction commentary, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also saw a decline in the quality of the fiction being written. With the exception of perhaps two masterpieces (the Honglou meng and the Rulin waishi) and a number of flawed but interesting works, the bulk of the novels and short-story collections from this period are rather undistinguished. One probable reason is the popularity of writing sequels and imitations of classic novels. Some of this energy had previously been invested in rewriting and editing those same classics, but with the acceptance of the seventeenth-century commentary editions as standard texts, this was no longer an option.
Traditional Chinese drama and fiction had always had a tendency to return again and again to the same stories ( Liu Hui, "Ticai neirong"). Perhaps this is related to Confucius' self-characterization of his activities as trans-____________________