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Chinese narratology strives to foster its own style

JIANG SHOUYI | 2019-01-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Chinese Narratology (2015) authored by Fu Xiuyan Photo: FILE


For more than 40 years, Chinese narratology has made significant progress. Narrative studies in China have roughly gone through four stages: introducing and applying outcomes of structuralist theory, seeking the narrative features of Chinese literature, engaging in dialogue with Western narrative theories and striving to build narratology with Chinese characteristics. Due to limited space, this article will only discuss literary narratology centered around fiction.


Relying on structuralism
Narratology is a landmark achievement of structuralism. Following reform and opening up, structuralism, together with New Criticism and the reader response theory, received extensive attention in Chinese academia.

In 1980, Chinese translator Yuan Kejia translated The Structuralist Activity (1963) written by French literary theorist Roland Barthes, making the relation between structuralism and skill a focus of attention. From 1984–1985, the Chinese journal Report on Foreign Literature focused on the achievements of narrative studies in France. Classic essays along with the works of Barthes, French-Lithuanian literary scientist Algirdas Julien Greimas, Bulgarian-French structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov and French literary theorist Gérard Genette were translated into Chinese.

However, American literary critic Fredric Jameson’s lectures at Peking University from September to December 1985 generated a greater influence on Chinese academia. In his lectures, Jameson introduced Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Tale (1928) and used Greimas’s semiotic square to analyze two short stories in Liaozhai Zhiyi (1740), or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, a collection of classical Chinese stories created by Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling. Jameson’s lectures drew sustained attention from Chinese scholars.

The introduction of Western narratology continued up to the 1980s. Narrative Aesthetics (1987) compiled by Chinese scholar Wang Tailai and Studies of Narratology (1989) edited by Zhang Yinde presented a panorama of Western structuralist narratology. After getting a picture of Western narratology, Meng Fanhua offered a systematic introduction to structuralist narratology in the book The Arts of Narrative (1989), expounding separately on the perspective, time and language of narrative in detail and taking Chinese works as examples for analysis.

While translating the latest foreign research achievements, Chinese theorists also gradually attempted to carry out concrete studies using the theories and methodologies of structuralist narratology. Case studies focusing on works of a certain writer were most common. For example, Shao Xudong examined the narrative art in works of British novelist John Galsworthy; Meng Zhaolian probed character narratives in the classical Chinese work The Dream of the Red Chamber; and Wu Xiaodong studied the first-person narrative perspective in modern Chinese writer Lu Xun’s novels.

Meanwhile, some scholars employed narratological approaches to analyze fiction of a certain era or style. For example, Meng Yue studied the modernization of novels produced during the period of the May Fourth Movement. Among others, Chen Pingyuan’s Transformation of Narrative Models in Chinese Fiction (2010) was most influential. Drawing upon the narrative theory of Todorov and relying on Chinese literary traditions along with novels created in the late Qing Dynasty and during the May Fourth period, Chen’s book combined pure narratological research and studies of the societal and cultural backgrounds of fiction, based on the time, perspective and structure of narrative.


Seeking Chinese narrative features
After 1993, with the publication of the Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel (1993) and Chinese Narrative (1998) by American Sinologist Andrew Plaks and The Narrator of Agony (1991) by Zhao Yiheng, the unique narrative features of Chinese fiction were brought into the spotlight.

Although some works copied Western narratology, it was pointed out that Chinese narrative studies should focus on ancient novels.

For example, Yang Yi completed a distinctive Chinese Narratology (1997), making a comparison with Western structuralist narratology and constructing narrative theories with Chinese characteristics. Yang’s academic endeavor was widely recognized, but many scholars still followed Western narratology blindly at that time, so the general situation was not fundamentally switched. Nonetheless, his attempt effectively promoted the construction and development of Chinese narrative theories to some extent.

In 1999, Fu Xiuyan’s Study of Pre-Qin Narrative was published. Starting from the origin of Chinese narrative, the book held that different narrative backgrounds result in different narrative laws and features. Though shedding light on narrative in the Pre-Qin era, the author aimed at the present and called for the construction of a Chinese narratology from the origins of Chinese literature, thus further advancing the research and development of Chinese narratology.


Dialogue with Western narratology
In 1998, Shen Dan’s Fiction Narratology and Style Study was published. Different from works of the mid and late 1980s that rested on the introduction of Western narratology, the book confronted and engaged in dialogue with Western scholars to a certain depth, exerting a substantive impact on Chinese narrative studies.

In the early 21st century, there were still a good number of scholars translating works about Western narratology, but compared with the 1980s, translations of the period were more synchronized with Western narrative studies. This means that those translations were not restricted to simple introductions. Their deeper aim was to enter into dialogue with the West.

At the same time, studies on the features of Chinese narrative also emerged. Zhang Shijun’s Spatial Narrative of The Dream of the Red Chamber (1999), Wang Ping’s Narrative Studies of Ancient Chinese Fiction (2001), and Zhao Yanqiu’s Study of Narrative Theories in the Ming and Qing Dynasty (2008) showcased the characteristics of Chinese narrative from different angles. The synchronous attention to Western narrative studies and the investigation into the narrative features of Chinese fiction set the stage for the in-depth dialogue between the Chinese and Western narratological communities.

At that stage, the founding of the Chinese Narratological Society marked a milestone. In 2004, the first National Seminar on Narratology was held in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province. In 2007, the first International Conference on Narratology and the third National Seminar on Narratology were convened in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. Thereafter, the meetings were held every two years. The events sponsored by Shanghai Foreign Studies University in 2017 were the sixth International Conference on Narratology and the eighth National Seminar on Narratology. These academic conferences provide platforms for deep dialogue between Chinese and foreign narratologists.


Striving to foster a Chinese style
With the deepening of narrative studies and frequent exchanges between Chinese and Western academia, domestic narratologists have not only been engaging in dialogue with their Western counterparts but have been conducting research on many fronts, striving to build a narratology with Chinese characteristics.

For example, Long Diyong emphasized theoretical construction, devoting his efforts to spatial narrative; and Tan Junqiang crossed genres to study poetic narrative, trying to find narrative elements in the Chinese poetic tradition; Zhang Kaiyan focused on comparison between China and the West, probing Chinese and Western mythology from differences in witchcraft evolution. All their works have evidenced the breadth and depth of Chinese narrative studies.

In the process of constructing a narratology with Chinese characteristics, studies of the Chinese narrative tradition deserve the most attention. If Chinese scholars want to exchange with the West on an equal footing, they should not rely on Western narrative theories, but explore the unique Chinese narrative tradition as well.

In this regard, the National Social Sciences Fund (NSSF) project “Study of Chinese Literary Narrative Tradition” chaired by Dong Naibing was approved in 2008. In 2012, the namesake outcome was included and published in the National Achievements Library of Philosophy and Social Sciences. In 2015, the major NSSF project “Study of the Narrative Tradition of Chinese Poetry” chaired by Dong was approved, and in 2017, he collected his related papers into the Essays on Chinese Literary Narrative Tradition and published the collection.

Fu Xiuyan carried on with his thinking in his earlier work Study of Pre-Qin Narrative to discuss the cultural roots of the Chinese narrative tradition. His 2015 book Chinese Narratology elaborated on the unique cultural background of the Chinese narrative tradition through the lenses of mythology, utensils, folklore and acoustic narrative.

Based on the general achievements of research on acoustic narrative in recent years, Fu has been increasingly aware of differences between Chinese and Western narrative traditions, so he has shifted his focus to comparative studies of the two traditions.

It is important to note that the above-mentioned four stages of narratology development in China are a rough division. Content of previous stages might continue into later ones. The four stages demonstrate that after more than 40 years of development, narrative studies in China have basically shaken off the shackles of Western narratology and gradually shown Chinese style and characteristics.


Jiang Shouyi is a professor from the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Nanjing Normal University.

​(edited by CHEN MIRONG)