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Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays

Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays

by Andrew H. Plaks (Editor), Cyril Birch (Editor)

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Although Chinese narrative, and especially the genres of colloquial fiction, have been subjected to intensive scholarly scrutiny, no comprehensive volume has provided a framework that would permit an overall view of the tradition. The distinguished contributors to this volume have taken an important first step in making possible the consideration of Chinese


Although Chinese narrative, and especially the genres of colloquial fiction, have been subjected to intensive scholarly scrutiny, no comprehensive volume has provided a framework that would permit an overall view of the tradition. The distinguished contributors to this volume have taken an important first step in making possible the consideration of Chinese narrative at the level of comparative and general literary scholarship.

Originally published in 1977.

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Chinese Narrative

Critical and Theoretical Essays

By Andrew H. Plaks


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06328-7




If we may define narrative in its broadest sense, as literature that consists of both a story and a storyteller, then early Chinese literature certainly contains a variety of narrative forms. In addition to the more obvious forms, such as early myths, legends, and historical writings, many of the pre-Han philosophical works as well — the book of Mencius, for example — might be read as "stories" relating what a given philosopher did, said, and thought. A full and detailed treatment of early Chinese narrative so defined would of course require a book-length study, something far beyond the scope of the present essay. What I propose to do here is to select just one such work, the Tso-chuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and consider it in some detail. The Tso-chuan, as is well known, is one of the earliest and most notable examples of Chinese historical writing and, more important, one that has exerted considerable influence on later narrative works. A closer look at this work will therefore not only enable us better to understand early Chinese narrative, but it will also shed light on the narrative tradition as a whole.

Even in limiting myself to the Tso-chuan, I can really do no more than make a few rather tentative and impressionistic remarks based on an initial reading of a very difficult text. As we all know, there are a number of outstanding questions about the book that still await final answers: How did the text come to be composed? Was it written by one man or was it simply compiled from already existing materials, and by whom? What was the nature of the text? Was it meant to be an independent work or was it intended to be a commentary on the so-called Spring and Autumn Annals? Since a full study of the Tso-chuan text and of these important related questions would require a far more thorough investigation than I have been able to complete, this essay is intended instead to test a simple analytic scheme for dealing with early Chinese narrative literature. It is hoped that the following discussion may serve to stimulate more systematic study of early Chinese narrative works, leading in the direction of eventually evolving a general theory of Chinese narrative, and thus more meaningful comparisons between the Chinese narrative tradition and narrative traditions in other literatures.

The analytic scheme I have in mind is actually one that has been widely used among Western critics. Basically, it involves the breakdown of narrative into its most essential components or elements, which are in turn examined one by one to see how they function and interact in a particular work, or group of works under study. It does not matter exactly which narrative elements, or how many of them, we choose to identify. As a matter of fact, critics often differ in their listing of these essential elements. E. M. Forster, in his still useful study, Aspects of the Novel (1927), for example, discusses the nature of the novel under six headings: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, and pattern or rhythm. Wellek and Warren, in their Theory of Literature, discuss "The Nature and Modes of Narrative Fiction" (Chap. 16) by breaking it down into the elements: plot, characterization, setting ("tone," "atmosphere"), world-view, point of view (how the story is told), etc. The important thing is simply to have such a series of headings. For the moment, the four categories set up by Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg in The Nature of Narrative seem to me to be the absolutely minimal and irreducible elements found in any kind of narrative, anytime and anywhere. These are: plot, character, point of view, and meaning. In what follows, I would like to look briefly at these various narrative elements, and see how each one operates in a work such as the Tso-chuan.


Plot is the arrangement of a sequence of events, whether mental or physical, that has "followability." Two features immediately stand out in such a definition. First, as a sequence of events, plot necessarily involves a process of change. Change takes place in time. The movement of time thus becomes an integral part in the formation of a plot. The movement of time, however, need not be linear, as we are accustomed to expect, but can be circular, or even vertical. Indeed this is exactly how the late Nicholas Berdyaev has characterized what he considered to be the three basic categories of time-history: cosmic (circular in nature), historical (linear in nature), and existential (i.e., psychological, which is vertical in nature). Thus by taking the movement of events in time in a story as a basic frame of reference, it might be possible to distinguish roughly between three kinds of plot: circular (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber, or other stories involving the rise and fall in the fortunes of an individual, a household, or an entire state), existential (the Hsi-yu pu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], for example, and other stories based on dreams, in which either the time sequence is conflated or a whole series of events take place in no more than a few moments of clock time), and linear (most other stories).

A second aspect of this issue is the fact that a mere sequence of events does not in itself constitute a plot. For such a sequence to become a plot the events involved must be arranged in such a way that they become "followable." That is, the reader desires to go on to see what will happen later: what will become of a certain character, a certain situation, whether a crisis is going to be resolved, and in what way, and so on. The degree of followability of the events naturally varies from narrative to narrative. In some cases — such as most of the Chinese crime or "court case" (kung-an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) stories — the transition from event to event may be so controlled that a causal relationship is produced. In other cases — such as the bare and straightforward chronicles and chronological biographies (nien-p'u [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) — the relationship between events becomes so tenuous that the only reason the reader would want to go on may simply be because the events or happenings are related to a person or a historical period he happens to be interested in. The important thing, however, is that even in a loosely constructed plot, there remains a certain degree of followability about its structure, without which it would cease to be a plot.

Plot, therefore, is also a pattern, a design of events taking place in time. At a more technical level this means the specific way incidents or episodes in a particular story are arranged. Thus we can talk about a tightly or loosely woven plot. At a more general level this means the total outlines the main action in a story falls into: the level at which we can talk about broad plot types. We have already mentioned the crime story, the chronicle, and the chronological biography. Other common plot types in Chinese narrative are the biography, the autobiography, the journey, the quest, the romantic story (ts'ai-tzu chia-jen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and the dramatic story (i.e., stories based on the resolution of a certain crisis).

In terms of movement in time, the plot of the Tso-chuan is linear in nature, in that it is a chronological account of the major political, social, and military events from 722 B.C. to 463 B.C., otherwise known as the Spring and Autumn Period. Within the individual episodes, however, especially the more fully developed ones, the linear movement of time is often interrupted by flashbacks and sometimes even anticipations. Flashbacks are usually (though not always) signalled by the character ch'u [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Sometimes a whole episode, such as the death of Duke Mu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Cheng in the 3rd year of Duke Hsüan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (606 B.C.), may consist entirely of a flashback. Anticipations are relatively rare, but they do occur. At the beginning of the famous battle at Ch'eng-p'u [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (633–632 B.C.) fought between Ch'u and Chin, for example, we are already informed of the outcome of the conflict.

In terms of plot pattern, the Tso-chuan is of course a chronicle: first A happened and then B. Within this overall chronological pattern, however, three other major types or sub-types of plot may be distinguished, all of which exert important influences on later narrative forms: the biographical, the journey, and the dramatic.

The emphasis in a biographical plot is obviously on character. Typically it consists of a series of disconnected incidents in which we are shown how one main character acts and reacts. I say "disconnected" because the incidents do not necessarily follow upon each other in any logical fashion or even a strictly temporal sequence. The author's main concern in this kind of plot is to reveal some dominant traits in the character of the protagonist, and the incidents are mere illustrations of these traits. As long as the overall chronology is made clear, the specific order or sequence in which the incidents occur does not particularly matter. Incident A might come before or after incident B, and it would not make much difference. The best example of this kind of plot is the story of Tzu-ch'an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Cheng told from Duke Hsiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 19th year (554 B.C.) to Duke Chao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 20th year (522 B.C.).

The only, though famous, example of a plot involving a journey in the Tso-chuan — the travels of Ch'ung-erh [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] before he became Duke Wen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Chin, narrated in the 23rd year (637 B.C.) and 24th year (636 B.C.) of Duke Hsi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] — bears some resemblance to the biographical plot, in that it too involves just one protagonist. The important difference, of course, is that the protagonist here has to be traveling from place to place. As a result, our interest is not only in the protagonist as a person, but also in what he sees and encounters on his journey. The element of action and adventure thus becomes an important consideration. Moreover, the various incidents are no longer simply thrown in haphazardly, as it were, but are connected with each other, even though still loosely, by a journey.

Of the three sub-types of plot in the Tso-chuan, the dramatic is the one that conforms most closely to the Aristotelian notion of plot. The emphasis here is clearly on action, which usually involves the buildup and the resolution of a crisis involving two sides of more or less equal strength. As a result, the events in this kind of plot tend to follow upon each other in a more logical and more tightly woven pattern than in the other two: one action leads into another until the conflict is resolved. The best examples are those fully detailed battle engagements for which the Tso-chuan is justly noted.


Action requires actors, and stories happen to people. Character therefore forms another indispensable element in narrative literature. To some critics, in fact, this is the most important of all the narrative elements. Forster devotes two chapters to a discussion of what he calls "people" while spending just one chapter each on the other elements. Similarly, W. J. Harvey's full-length study, Character and the Novel (1965), aims at correcting what he calls the unfortunate situation of "the retreat from character" in modern fiction criticism.

Many things can be discussed under the heading of character. For our purposes here, we shall limit ourselves to two considerations: (1) types of characters, and (2) characterization.

Characters can be grouped in various ways. In terms of their social status and moral quality, for example, we find the following major types in the Tso-chuan: the good and capable ruler, the evil and stupid ruler, the wise and loyal minister, the powerful, ambitious, and sometimes evil minister, the pathetic dolt victimized by a literal understanding of some abstract ideals, the selfless and far-sighted woman, the femme fatale, and the lowly and insignificant attendant who is willing to sacrifice his own life to defend even a wicked and good-for-nothing lord.

To describe the characters in the Tso-chuan in this way is not to reduce them to stereotypes. The Tso-chuan is of course famous for the many highly individualized characters it has created. Both Duke Wen of Chin and Duke Mu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Ch'in, for example, belong to the category of the good ruler. But they also differ in significant ways. For one thing, Duke Mu of Ch'in is more stubborn and sometimes fails to accept good advice from his subordinates. But he is always quick to see his errors and is willing to make amends for them. Still, it is useful to set up these loosely defined types as long as we remember that they are meant to be just that and nothing more. Such categorizations will not only help us to see the meaning in the work itself more clearly, but will also make it easier to compare it with later works, especially if we are interested in seeing the evolution of certain basic moral concepts. The two most outstanding qualities of a good ruler in the Tso-chuan, for example, are his willingness to accept sound advice from others, and his concern for the welfare of the people in general.

In terms of characterization, two groupings of characters may be distinguished: these are what Forster calls "flat" and "round," or what Wellek and Warren prefer to call "static" and "developmental." One of the striking things about the Tso-chuan, in particular, and Chinese narrative, in general, is the great many static characters we encounter in them. A static character remains the same throughout the entire story. We get to know his dominant traits better as we read on, but he does not make significant changes emotionally, morally, or intellectually. This is true even in the journey plot in the Tso-chuan, where it might perhaps be natural to expect such changes in the hero as he goes through various experiences on his journey. The Prince Ch'ung-erh before the travels and the Prince Ch'ung-erh after the travels remain essentially the same, even though the travels have taken him to eight different states and have lasted altogether no less than nineteen years.

In the Tso-chuan, it would seem then, once a character is cast in a certain mold, he usually stays there with very little chance of breaking out. The story of King Ling [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Ch'u provides a rather touching example of how a bad ruler tries to reform himself, but fails in the end. Among this king's many shortcomings was his insensitivity to the suffering of the people caused by his grandiose plans to expand and to dominate the other feudal states of China. Once, however, after being remonstrated by his Prime Minister Tzu-ke [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], he decided to change his wasteful and extravagant ways. For several days on end he could not eat or sleep — so anxious he was to find ways to control himself. But it proved to be too much for him, and in the end he reverted to his former habits.

The only example I can find in which noticeable changes take place in a character is that of Fu-ch'ai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], King of Wu. Significantly, it is a case involving a change from good to bad. After Fu-ch'ai's father died of wounds suffered in a battle against Yueh, he refused to forget his father's death, and had someone stand in the courtyard to constantly remind him of this, until three years later he finally succeeded in avenging his father's death by conquering Yüeh. Once this was done, however, he changed into a different man. He began to indulge in an easy, comfortable, and licentious life, and refused to listen to his loyal minister Wu Yüan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], until finally his kingdom was again defeated by Yüeh and he was forced to commit suicide.


Excerpted from Chinese Narrative by Andrew H. Plaks. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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