CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 12, December 2007


Books Hidden Away | China Heritage Quarterly

Books Hidden Away

The following is a review by the translator and Sinologist John Minford of a recent book on reading traditional Chinese fiction. We have chosen to title this essay ‘Books Hidden Away’, a reference to Cang shu 藏書, a work by the iconoclastic Ming-dynasty writer and novel critic, Li Zhi 李贄. — GRB

Ming Dong Gu, Chinese Theories of Fiction: A Non-western Narrative System, SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. xvi + 286 pp.

Having just finished teaching a semester-length course on traditional Chinese fiction in translation, I came to this book with a certain amount of curiosity. My own experience had been that students were already sufficiently jaded with their diet of post-modern literary theory, and were only too glad to put theoretical considerations aside and go straight to ‘something totally different’. It seemed to work well, to confront them with varied, carefully selected and well translated texts—in this case stories, long and short, and extracts from longer novels—and just see what happened. I was delighted. In every case there was an immediate and intense fascination with the material, leading to animated debate on a wide range of themes. To my surprise, the most successful (with this audience) were the shorter ‘strange tales’, the whole tradition of zhiguai 志怪. My provisional conclusion is that Chinese fiction needs very little, really, to get across to today’s readers. It just needs to be well translated, reasonably (cleanly) presented, and read. I was amazed at the ease and pleasure with which these young readers took to the Chinese mode of storytelling. This was especially gratifying because they were reading not just the usual fare offered in such courses (rattling good storytellers’ yarns written in the vernacular), but also solid servings of fiction translated from the literary language (from the Shanhai jing 山海經, through Soushen ji 搜神記, to Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋志異). It was a wonderful proof of the pudding. It was fiction doing its job properly, entertaining and enlightening. As the author of China’s most famous work of fiction Cao Xueqin himself wrote: ‘My only wish is that men in the world below may sometimes pick up this tale when they are recovering from business worries or a fit of the dumps, and in doing so find not only mental refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in the deterioration of the vital forces’ 只願世人當那醉余睡醒之時,或避事消愁之際,把此一玩,不但洗了舊套換新眼目,卻也省了些壽命筋力,不比那謀虛逐妄 (The Story of the Stone 石頭記, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, Penguin Classics edition, vol.I, chapter 1, p.50). Or as the editor of the Stone-continuation (Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹/Gao E 高鶚) puts it: ‘It would be a pleasure to share this with a few like-minded friends, to help the wine down after a meal or to while away the solitude of a rainy evening beneath a lamplit window’ 樂得與二三同志,酒余飯飽,雨夕燈窗之下,同消寂寞 (Stone, vol.V, chapter 120, p.375).

This new book by Gu Ming Dong follows upon his earlier Chinese Theories of Reading and Writing: A Route to Hermeneutics and Open Poetics (SUNY 2005). In recent years, in these books, and in a series of journal articles, Dr Gu has shown himself to be a scholar with a mission: to ‘make it possible for the lost voice of a time-honoured aesthetic tradition to be heard.’ I am totally and enthusiastically in favour of this endeavour. My own interest in this dates from the 1970s, when John Wang 王靖宇 was writing so excellently about Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆 and the Red Inkstone 脂硯齋 commentary on The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber). Since then there has been a huge amount of useful work done by David Rolston, Robert Hegel, Andrew Plaks and others, laying the groundwork for a relatively painless reading of the traditional Chinese critique of and commentary on fiction. Now we just need to get the novels and tales read. Most importantly of all, for the Western reader, foolhardy translators and enterprising publishers must be encouraged to continue to embark on ambitious projects. The same is true in the Francophone world, where creative translations (such as Jacques Dars’ Au Bord de l’Eau, and André Lévy’s many translations for Gallimard/Pleiade—including the entire Xiyou ji 西游記 and Jinpingmei 金瓶梅), and brave publishers such as Philippe Picquier in Arles (who has brought out Lévy’s superb complete Liaozhai), have already created a wide and growing readership for Chinese fiction. These same translators produced an excellent little volume, Comment Lire un Roman Chinois (Picquier, 2001), an anthology of translated and annotated Prefaces to ‘anciennes oeuvres de fiction’.

It is striking how absent from the pages of this last book is any mention of the new French criticism. The authors (all of whom were practising translators—Dars, Chan Hingho, Jean Levi, etc) clearly knew about it all, but felt (as I do) that this ‘how-to-read’ Chinese material can stand perfectly well on its own feet. My reservations with Dr Gu’s book begin and end there. I do not see the need to buttress traditional Chinese aesthetics (be they of art, music, theatre, poetry or fiction) with the accoutrements of Derrida, Lacan and all the rest. If there was one thing that distinguished the traditional Chinese critics (writers in the shihua 詩話 and cihua 詞話 tradition), it was their own ability to write wittily and poignantly, their eagerness to participate in the text, their refusal to stoop to dry dogma. They were writers and partners, fellow-artists. This is what characterises the Chinese novel-critic. This is the sort of thing that our contemporary reader might actually find helpful, uncluttered with Baudrillard, Foucault & Co. These French gentlemen were sometimes scintillating in the original French, but alas they lost so much in translation. And when dragged in to serve as ‘reviving agents’ for the long lost Chinese tradition, I am afraid that they have the reverse effect. In his masterful study Rereading the Stone (Princeton, 1997), Anthony Yu achieves the virtually impossible: he welcomes this motley French crew on board (to meet Plato, Aristotle, Zhuangzi and Red Inkstone), and manages (through sheer personality, and passionate commitment to the highest aims of literature) to keep the sparkling ‘conversation’ alive. It is a tour de force. The skipper is at the helm, and literature is the order of the day.

Dr Gu's book leads up to the enunciation of an ‘open hermeneutics’, and a system of ‘open fiction’. He quotes Umberto Eco with approval. He points to parallels with Finnegan’s Wake. Gu’s claims of originality are made a little less convincing by his failure to include any reference to Zhang Longxi’s influential 1992 study The Tao and the Logos: Literary Hermeneutics, East and West. But more importantly, the very act of reading seems somehow to have been put to one side; the joy of reading that binds together the practitioners of the very art that Dr Gu is so dedicated to bring alive, seems to have been forgotten. Instead we work our way into an ‘open space’ that then feels cluttered. What we need is more good translations, and more readers who enjoy them for their own sake. And other than that, perhaps the most helpful are the old commentators themselves, like the nineteenth-century Feng Zhenluan 馮鎮巒, sharing his thoughts on how to read the Liaozhai zhiyi: ‘Read these tales properly, and they will make you strong and brave; read them in the wrong way, and they will possess you. Cling to the details and they will possess you; grasp the spirit, and you will be strong’ 聊齋一書,善讀之令人膽壯,不善讀之令人入魔。予謂泥其事則魔,領其氣則壯 (Pu Songling 蒲松齡, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, translated by John Minford, Penguin, 2007, Introduction, p.xxvi).