NINETEENTH-CENTURY FICTION is very far from the stagnant genre it is sometimes said to be.1 The finest nineteenth-century authors were both creative and experimental; their novels show significant changes well before the date (1902) at which Liang Qichao issued his call for a “New Fiction.”2 In this chapter I propose to examine these authors’ artistic experimentation in terms of one key element, the narrator.
The narrator in fiction is usually defined in terms of his degree of knowledge (omniscient, restricted, external, etc.) and his reliability. Viewed from that angle alone, the pre-modern Chinese novel is bound to appear somewhat static. Not until Wu Jianren’s Ershinian mudu zhi guai xianzhuang (Strange things observed over the past twenty years, 1903–10) or, by a more stringent definition, Qin hai shi (Stones in the sea, 1906), does one find the consistent, restricted narration that is a virtual signature of the modern sensibility in fiction. But there are other aspects of the narrator—his identity; his nature; his relationship to text, author, and editor; the situation in which he narrates and the audience whom he addresses; as well as his attitude toward and judgment of the events narrated—that show constant, significant change throughout the nineteenth century.
The clearest distinction between the two meanings of “narrator” is that given by Gérard Genette, who considers the latter under the heading of “voice” and the other under “perspective,” summing up his distinction with the aid of two questions, “Who speaks?” (voice) and “Who sees?” (perspective).3 Perhaps because of the residual power of the storyteller simulation in China, the concept of voice has particular relevance for pre-modern—and even for modern—Chinese fiction.
The narrator is responsible for delivering the whole of the work to the reader or listener and, strictly speaking, the work should be considered as a whole. However, for my present purpose I shall take advantage of the traditional novel’s tendency to mark the narrator’s various functions with formulaic phrases and confine myself to those functions as marked. One purpose of the phrases was to sectionalize the text, since the traditional format did not allow for paragraphing, but they do much more—they call attention to the narrator’s discourse, i.e., to the various other functions he performs in addition to that of narrating events. These are inevitably intertwined, but it is still helpful to try to separate them. Genette divides them into directing, communicative, testimonial, and ideological. Let me group them somewhat differently, to suit the Chinese case: management (of time, focus, etc.); formal description, especially in set pieces; explanation; metanarrative, i.e., commentary in the text on the novel’s composition and progress; interaction with narratees, simulating dialogue with an audience; evaluation, reflecting ideology; and personal revelation. The last two functions will largely determine the reader’s image of the narrator.
I present the various developments of the narrator in roughly chronological order.4
The Personalized Storyteller
One important nineteenth-century trend is backward, toward the simulation of oral storytelling—an odd development, considering that even in the seventeenth century novelists frequently mixed up the terms that properly belong to either oral or written narration. The new kind of storyteller, however, is far removed from the old anonymous practitioner dispensing his received wisdom in unspecified circumstances—he is now a sharply personalized figure with his own individual opinions. In theory there are two narrators in each of these novels: the simulated oral narrator who delivers them, and the narrator in the text that the “oral narrator” is purportedly using; but in practice, as we shall see, the functions of interaction, explanation, evaluation, and personal revelation are all presented as the contribution of the “oral narrator.”
The outstanding example of the personalized storyteller is Wen Kang’s Ernü yingxiong zhuan, whose title should be translated as either “moral heroism” or “moral heroes and heroines.”5 Surely no previous Chinese novel has ever had so lively, exuberant, and loquacious a narrator!6 Its forty chapters contain hundreds of significant utterances by the narrator, some of which run on for pages, explaining and giving background information, as well as analyzing and evaluating the progress and quality of the narrative. Most of the interventions—the word is amply justified in this case, for the narrator uses it himself (da cha)—are specifically addressed to his listeners, whom he calls “gentlemen,” referring to himself as either “your storyteller” or “I, your storyteller.”
In the prologue chapter we are told by the author, Yanbei Xianren (The Idler of Yanbei), how he came to write the book. One day he was suddenly transported from the classroom in which he was studying the classics to the tribunal of a god who was on the point of sending down a new batch of souls to earth. The Idler watched as the souls lived out their earthly existence; then he awoke and wrote down as much as he could remember. His book was revised by someone else and evidently published, because in the next chapter we find a storyteller at work with this novel as his material. (The storyteller does not have exclusive use of it, however, for he mentions having heard the tale told somewhere else.)
The storyteller-narrator interacts constantly with his audience, keeping us aware of both his and their presence. At one point he worries that latecomers may not be up to date with the story (chapter 23, p. 401). He stresses that he is merely relating a text and explains that his knowledge is limited (23.405, 31.592). He plays with his audience’s expectations, as in the following example from chapter 6. Someone has fallen down. Is it An Ji, the young hero? The narrator at first teases his listeners with the thought that An Ji might be dead, then says he is afraid that his audience has not been paying attention:
“Now calm down, will you. It wasn’t young An at all. How do I know that? Well, he was tied up to a pillar, so just think for a moment—how could he possibly slump to the ground? Well then, since it wasn’t him, who do you suppose it was?” (6.87)
He also counsels patience when he (or rather the text) is delaying the action, as frequently happens. On at least one occasion, something reminds him of a lengthy joke, which he proceeds to tell. At the same time he keeps up a running commentary on the text, defending and explaining, but also criticizing its progress, technique, and structure. His remarks amount to an internal critical commentary, the most striking case in Chinese fiction, even more striking than Li Yu’s in the seventeenth century. Generally he defends the author, sometimes by referring to the example of other fiction and even of classical prose, but he also criticizes him for his deviousness, for playing games with the reader (13.200). He inveighs against the use of a narrative cliché like yisu wuhua (“there’s nothing further to be said about the events of that night,” 37.771), but then proceeds to use it himself (38.773).
He also makes frequent reference to the author, inferring the man’s nature from the text. After complaining of the novel’s prolixity, a pointed criticism in the case of this work, he remarks:
I wonder if the author suffered a lawsuit like this himself and just wrote it all down. Or perhaps he was simply idle, with too much time on his hands. (22.391)
A few chapters later he speculates again about the connection between author and event, this time as if from personal knowledge:
What did it have to do with him? Just think of all the waste of ink, the wear and tear on brushes, the loss of his heart’s blood, the ruined eyesight.… The fellow really ought to find regular employment and try to make something of himself. (28.529)
These comments are significant as fiction criticism,7 but they also play a part in the novel itself. They claim to lay bare its workings, its composition and structure, just as the narrator’s constant interaction with his audience has laid bare the narrating situation. In addition, the transparent device of having one persona of the author relate a text by another persona offers numerous opportunities for humor, which the novel takes up with gusto.
Most of the narrator’s interventions, however, are devoted not to criticism but to seemingly endless explanations and analyses, particularly of the reactions and motives of the characters. In this respect the behavior of the narrator accords with the novel’s general discursiveness—its innumerable arguments, disquisitions, and recountings. There is no great difference between the narrator’s voice and, say, An Xuehai’s, except that the narrator’s is more lively.
It is scarcely possible to take the novel as a heroic tale. Nominally it is about filial revenge—a son and a daughter set out to avenge their fathers, both of whom have been framed by higher-ups—but without the girl’s help the boy would have failed, and she never even attempts vengeance, because her father’s enemy has already been executed. Only a few chapters—from chapter 4, when the daughter, Shisan Mei (Thirteenth Sister), first appears, until chapter 10, when we leave her—consist of heroic action directly narrated, and even in these a good deal of the action is verbal. The single flurry of fighting is confined to chapters 5 to 7, which is the section we remember, perhaps because we have seen it played out on stage. This section is certainly graphic enough, but immediately after the mayhem Thirteenth Sister sits down—and proceeds to talk about it! As the narrator says, she “spent the evening slaughtering people and then delivered herself of a long screed” (8.118). There is clearly a farcical element here, a trace of parody combined with a crude humor that we rarely find in the rest of the novel. For example, An Ji is too embarrassed to get down from the bed where he has been tied up because he has wet his pants; then Shisan Mei and Zhang Jinfeng both go and relieve themselves in the wash basin, there being no privy, but they neglect to empty the basin, with predictable results when the next person comes to use it. In fiction this kind of comedy is usually designed to undercut the dignity of the people involved.
Little of the text is dramatized, most of the serious action being recounted by the characters. The story of how Sister’s father was driven to his death by an official because he, the father, would not allow the official’s odious son to marry her—all this is told to the audience by An Xuehai! What dramatized action there is is elaborated endlessly with speeches, plans, analyses, passages of thought. There is even an element of teasing lightheartedness in this process. Facts such as the cryptic origin of Sister’s name are withheld for an unconscionably long time. The whole carefully planned and executed charade by which An Xuehai dissuades Sister from seeking revenge is, strictly speaking, unnecessary, because her enemy is already dead. In sum, the novel’s topic may be the moral heroic, but its mode is primarily discursive. The narrator’s comments are both a clue to and a major part of that mode.
It is possible to link the novel’s extraordinary discursiveness to its equally extraordinary foregrounding of fictional composition and oral delivery. “Parody” is too strong a word for what this work does, but “playful subversion” is certainly justified. It playfully subverts the norms of theme and genre, toying with the medium as well as with our expectations, displacing action with discourse.
The other well-known novel with a personalized oral narrator is Wei Xiuren’s Hua yue hen (Traces of flower and moon).8 Its narrator is characterized at greater length and even more specifically than the narrator of Ernü yingxiong zhuan, but he plays a very different role.
Hua yue hen’s opening is unprecedented in Chinese fiction. The novel establishes its simulated oral context right at the beginning, as the narrator, addressing an audience, launches into a disquisition on qing (feeling, especially love or passion). He explains that this disquisition arose from an argument he had with a schoolmaster in his hometown, a man of orthodox views who, while admitting the existence of qing, insisted in the characteristic moralist’s way that the only proper use of it was as an emotional stimulus for the practice of the societal virtues. Against this view, the narrator argues that in the present age the true man of feeling has no choice but to find an outlet for his qing in natural beauty, literature, and relations with courtesans. He goes on to distinguish people who wear masks to hide their feelings from those who show their true faces. The former do so to conform with the social proprieties, their masks being undeniably useful for success in public life. The man of feeling, however, who does show his true face or faces, is seen by others as nonconforming and difficult, and he generally ends up as a failure, although occasionally his worth will be discerned by a sympathetic courtesan. The argument amounts to an apologia for the man of feeling frustrated in his career. Its relevance becomes apparent when the narrator’s audience praises his heroes and heroines for showing their “true faces.” (This they certainly do; the courtesan Liu Qiuhen even has an “attitude”—to use a current colloquialism.) The contrast in Shitouji (Story of the stone) between Lin Daiyu, who tends to show her true face at any given moment, and Xue Baochai, who wears a social mask, will inevitably occur to the reader, and may well have been at the back of the author’s mind.
After arguing for these values, the narrator goes on to tell how he began work as a storyteller in Taiyuan in Shanxi with this book as his material. He then invites the people he is addressing to come to a certain teahouse to hear him perform. After the perfo...