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

By David L. Rolston | Go to book overview

5
Liberating Fiction from History

In traditional China fiction was always compared to history and usually found wanting, in terms of both fidelity to historical reality and loftiness of purpose. This chapter and the next one look at how fiction critics dealt with the problem of fiction's relation to reality. Their attempts to deal with history, the subject of this chapter, followed two basic strategies. The simplest was to claim that individual works of fiction are just like historical works in general or some historical work in particular. As this chapter will show, the historical works selected most often for comparison, the Chunqiu, Zuozhuan, and the Shiji, have particular qualities that set them off from the mass of historical writing in China. The elements of similarity between them and fiction are as often as not elements common to both as narrative forms. A less explicit and more dangerous approach was to argue that fiction is different from history and not to be slighted for that fact. In general, fiction critics made use of the prestige of history until they felt fiction had become mature enough to discard that crutch and walk on its own.


Defining and Classifying Fiction

Scholars have written much on the close relationship between Chinese historiographical writing and fiction.1 A similar relationship existed in the West, with Herodotus (fl. 5th c. B.C.) simultaneously honored as the father of both lies and history. Greek historical writing was important in the development of Western fiction, especially in the imaginative representation and narration of events. Early modern translations of Greek and Latin prose romances into European languages, as well as prose narratives influ-

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1
History has been held to have occupied the same place in the development of Chinese narrative as myth and the epic held in the West (e.g., Zhang Renrang and Niu Xueshu, p. 115). The supposedly greater influence of history on fiction in China has also been used to explain perceived differences between Chinese and Western fiction ( Fang Zhengyao, "Zhongguo," p. 69).

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