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

By David L. Rolston | Go to book overview

6
Liberating Fiction from "Reality"

As we have seen in the previous chapter, Chinese fiction was often taken to be a subcategory of history yet was subject to charges of being "unhistorical." Fiction also needed a defense against the charge that it was "untrue." In this chapter we will see how fiction critics, for a variety of reasons, defended or even championed fictionality.

The reality portrayed in a fictional work must exhibit certain differences from the reality around us. The very granting to life a beginning, middle, and end and to human beings a recognizable and fairly consistent "character" is precisely what we do not experience in reality. But at the same time that fictional worlds exhibit more shape and closure than found in ordinary life, they are also incomplete and imperfect. No novelist can include all the information available in even the most cursory of glances but instead makes do with a few significant details and leaves the rest to us. Some hold that this kind of incompleteness is precisely what differentiates fictional from actual worlds ( Doležel, p. 194). We therefore end up with the rather confusing idea that the fictional world is both more and less complete than actual worlds.

The crudest conception of the relation between a fictional world and reality is reflectionism, that is, the literary work does (or should) present nothing more nor less than an accurate and impartial reflection of the world, and the author is a passive reflector or mirror. In the Western tradition, although Plato denigrated representational art as twice removed from "true" reality, being but the imitation of perceivable objects already mere imitations of ideal forms, the faithful representation of the world as perceived by the senses, as in a mirror, was long held to be the highest goal in art. This was so even though Plato himself pointed out the superiority of the mirror over humanity at this game ( Abrams, pp. 30-35).

In mainstream Chinese aesthetics, little emphasis was placed on the description of the outside world for its own sake. Details from the outside world were incorporated into literary works as part of the symbolic ex-

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