Maria Trigoso*


In the Chinese tradition History and Literature cannot be understood as two separate areas, as in Western tradition, because they function together as a pair of complementary opposites. There are two main reasons for this.

As well as being seen traditionally as a branch of Literature, as much as Poetry was, History has always been present in Literature through its contents. The colloquial short story stemmed directly from the oral tradition, which, apart from Buddhist themes, was mostly composed of episodes from History: the colloquial novel is directly tied to the tradition of historiography. As for classical Prose, lyrical though it tended to be, the themes were generally contemporary 'real' ones. Poetry was also rooted in History, in the tradition of the Shujing (Book of History).

Literature, from the other viewpoint, is present in History, in its literary style and by the frequent use of poetry for description. In other words History used Literature as its body or substance, to travel in time and space, (to reach all classes, at every age) while Literature used History as its inspiration, both for subjects and style. In Chinese tradition History has always tended towards a literary art form, as much as Literature has always tended towards a historical art form; ever mixing together and transforming one into another to the extent that their meaning as art forms can only be complete when seen against each other. They only make complete sense through their complementary opposition, which could be summed up as the interplay between 'historicity' and 'fictionality'.


The initial activity of 'registering words'1 and events, that comprises History, was never to be completely separated from the much later activity of deliberately 'inventing' them. Literature, either historical or fictional, in vernacular language or in classical language, realistic or fantastic, was always written and read as something deeply rooted in the common ground of Reality, which is the basis of History.

The existence of this dynamic non-contradiction between literature-as-fiction and literature-ashistory, can be regarded against the background of the everlasting discussion between modem scholars, about the right to include certain ancient literary narrative texts in Fiction, as for instance, the ones included in Shishuo xinyu (Talk of the World: New Conversations). 2

Yoshikawa Kojiro has raised the question in a way that accounts for both the Chinese traditional context and the modem perspective of literary studies. Although leaving the question open, he seems to suggest a way of overcoming the (more Western?) contradiction between fiction and reality. He suggests that fiction can be defined in two different ways [very much like a small vehicle versus a large vehicle]. The bigger one could accommodate not only the natural kind of zhiren, as represented by Shishuo xinyu, but also its supernatural counterpart, the zhiguai. 3

Kojiro writes that the zhiren are not fiction, if you define fiction as "[...] an imaginary construct of words with no direct basis in reality." But, he continues that they are fiction, if fiction is defined as "[...] the imaginative rendering of felt reality, regardless of the historicity of the events described. 4

Style can also be used to raise the so called contradiction between Literature and History. Direct speech, for instance, which is the most realistic way of rendering real speech, is a formal feature inherited by traditional Chinese fiction writing from the style of written History. It comes into Literature from the writing tradition of the Shijing.

The question arises (more among Western scholars I believe) concerning the effects of using the form of direct speech. In regarding History, one can wonder about historical verity — who was there at the moment of the deliverance of speech to record the words that were pronounced?

In Literature one is not, at least in modern times, worried about the truth in the sense of literalness but with its veracity and the convincing quality of its colloquiality. For a dialogue to seem true it must be colloquial but how can this colloquial effect be achieved in an archaic language, no longer spoken, existing only in its written form and so serving only as Literature? Richard Mather raises the problem, also without a solution, in consideration of the zhiren texts: "How can one record actual conversations in a purely literary medium, especially when the literary language was as far removed from everyday speech as was the case during the period covered by these anecdotes (ca 150-420AD)?"5

In its dual origin, Poetry has to be considered in two ways regarding the relationship between Literature and History inherent to it. On one hand, most of the content of the founding pair, the Shijing (Book of Odes/Songs) and Chuci (Chants of Chu), is historical themes, whether from the past or from the present. On the other hand historical chronicles such as the famous Zuozhuan, the most famous of the three commentaries of the historical chronicle Chunqiu, 6 renders many conversations of the diplomatic meetings that it registers as exchanges of poems, or lines of Shijing poems.

It is interesting to note that it was not the daya poems that were to become the language of historical diplomacy. These were the narrative poems of historical events designed to be chanted by nobles at court, (in fact the Chinese epic, or “Aeneid”, as C. H. Wang7 calls them). The poems that the recording of History took to were the simpler and more poetical ones; the feng, or songs, initially sung by the common people. This may have been due in part to very practical reasons, the daya being simply too long to be quoted. But in any case it is my opinion that one should not forget that the feng, in spite of being in a lyrical form, often refer allegorically to political-historical events or to political-historical personalities, the implication of which would have been clear to any literate. And if it was not, there was always Mao Zedong's commentary at hand to explain. This explanation is nothing but their placement in History.

I have not seen or heard of any studies on the eventual effect on Historical writing, of this early usage of the feng in Zuozhuan, that is the effect of using images of the natural world (what Chinese literary criticism calls 'xing') as symbols for moral concepts and things of the human world, as the language of diplomacy among the nobles. But I dare say that it may well have contributed to 'rooting' the perspective of History into the natural world, even if, as the Chinese thought, Chinese historiography has never departed from a natural perspective. Anyway, it certainly accounts for the constant usage of metaphors from Nature that we can even see in contemporary Chinese political discourse.

As for the Chuci the romantic, individualistic and linguistically exuberant one of the pair (derived from the realist, socially oriented and verbally concise Shijing) and born at a different time and place; most of its poems are also rooted in History; namely through the life of Qu Yuan, its most celebrated author, apparently running parallel to his writings. In the long narrative poem Lisao, in spite of all the magic atmosphere achieved by the persecuted poet, by luxuriant descriptions of fantastic flights through the air and rides through water and meetings with deities and shamans, the theme — the banishment of a loyal minister and his doubts on what to do about it —, arises from the world of reality which is the historical context of the kingdom of Chu and the banishment of the minister Qu Yuan.

We can still evoke the direct relationship between History and the literary genre fu, which is named after the Chinese word 'fu' ('to describe'). This sort of poetic prose, without equivalent in the European tradition, or prose incorporating rhyme and alliteration, parallelism, antithesis and other characteristics of verse, owes its name to its long, elaborate and verbally exquisite descriptions of this world's magnificence, (as opposed to the other-worldly magnificence described in the magic-shamanistic poetry of Chu, from which the fu is derived).

Using the pretext of describing either an Imperial park, the beauty of a woman, or the pleasures of the cool Royal breeze (in contrast to the torturous cold wind of the commoner), most of its themes are contemporary political issues, i. e., the real stuff of History. The relationship with History lies in their purpose — it is often the fact that the Emperor has ordered the poet to compose a fu at Court to commemorate a historical event, whether it be one of his palaces, one of his dreams or one of his conversations, which allows the poem to perform its own (in Western terms, non-literary) function which is to remonstrate and criticise political power in such a way as to morally reform the ruler, for the benefit of the people.


The differences between the Tang chuanqi8 and their predecessors, the zhiguai from the Six Dynasties, have to do with the fact that now the stories are written as deliberate literary pieces, no longer as a mere record of singular occurrences, as were zhiguai. These early Chinese supernatural stories, as well as their natural counterparts concerning humans, the zhiren, were understood as history but as the other side of History, a sort of lunar side, as if to parallel the official history.

Artistically more elaborate in structure, style and language than their predecessors, the chuanqi also made full use of literary devices to create the feeling that the reader is reading actual History. The characters are always identified fully by names, places of origin, by all sorts of official and private dates and historical periods. It is also common practise to state in the preamble that the story was written down directly, with nothing added, nothing invented — a true story to which the narrator is related in some way that apparently authenticates it: or one of the characters may have discovered the allegedly real manuscript where this story had been recorded, being now re-published without any editing at all. More than trying to produce the effect of veracity, (difficult since they deal mostly with supernatural themes) they try to produce the effect of historicity in very much the same way that the historical novel does much later, during Age of Romanticism in Europe.

As important to their imitation of history as their stylistic characteristics, is their origin. The majority of them are not invented, (as the general recognition of their belonging to fiction might imply) but are the literary rewriting of earlier stories or incidents, taken from either oral or written sources. If this period truly saw the birth of Chinese traditional fiction, then the fact that it was born as a Literature of recreation rather than of creation, is very pertinent to its future development and the ultimate meaning of fiction and reality in Chinese tradition.

As for the imitations of chuanqi, from the second half of the Ming, they were still more associated with history, since the popular stories that used to be their inspiration were then replaced by historical material and contemporary stories. A good example is Li Yu's The Loyal Citizens {sic}, which describes the people of Suzhou in their contemporary struggle against Wei Zhongsian.

Only the publication in the seventeenth century of Pu Sonling's short stories, Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio) marks a departure from this recreational tradition. Written in an imitation of Tang chuanqi, in classical Chinese, all the bizarre or supernatural events seem to be a total invention of the author. Maybe this is the reason why these stories are the first to enable humans to mingle happily with non-humans.

Though born in the Tang, it was only in the following Song dynasty that Chinese fiction started to expand, due to the development of a Literature written in baihua, in opposition to the yanwen (classical Chinese) which was used by the literati. But although the language differed the themes went on being inspired from the same source — History. Liu Wuchi writes that the storytellers were "[...] vulgar didacticists interpreting history and legend in strict accordance with the concept of moral retribution."9 And so, when it could have been expected, at least from the Western tradition's viewpoint, that Literature would naturally separate from History (since it was now written, for the first time, in another language and for another public, the non-literati), Chinese Literature turned instead back to historical stories.

The same happened with huaben, the storyprompt books used by the storytellers of the Song. Apart from the tradition of the Buddhist narratives, they used mostly historical episodes or short anecdotes of historical or contemporary people. The same was true of theatre, since most plays that developed in the Song and flourished in the Yuan had historical themes, being generally rewritten from previous texts.

As for the novel, which started in the Ming, it developed from the oral tradition (which we have seen so tied to historical themes) and from historiography itself. From the so called si da ming (great master-pieces) of the Ming, all, with the lone exception of Jin Ping Mei, rewrite historical events in one way or another — and all rewrite earlier texts or recreate older creations.

Jin Ping Mei, which exemplifies the novel of manners, or social critique, is not an example of historical re-creation, (although it is an example of literary re-creation). But its direct anchorage in social and political contemporary reality (direct enough for its author to decide to remain in the shadows) connects it with the zhiren, or anecdotes of famous people. Perhaps we will never know if Xi Menqing was a real person, much less whether he was the person he has been identified with, but the very fact that the discussion went on for so long is a proof of the habit of looking at fiction as 'imitation' or re-creation of real persons and tells us a lot about the Chinese traditional perception of fictional Literature. The same will happen with the most classic of all the classics, the Qing Hongloumeng, taken as an architypical concealed biography or, later on as actual autobiography.

Xiyouji (Journey to the West), an example of the fantastic novel, and that some see as a religious and esoteric allegory, takes up the historical theme of a real Tang monk who travelled to India to fetch the Buddhist scriptures.

In Shuihuchuan· (The Outlaws of the Marshes), an example of the heroic novel, the relationship with History is particularly interesting. According to traditional criticism Liangshan Marsh, the site where the one-hundred and eight bandits 'live' in the novel, was indeed the headquarters of some out-laws in relation to the peasant revolt in Shandong province at the end of Song dynasty. However, there is quite a possibility that this traditionally loose connection between the literary piece and History runs much deeper: it is now claimed that the novel is a unique example of political propaganda Literature, in the sense that some of its heroes were not only involved in the historical facts that are related but also in their creation and delivery. This thesis comes from Philip S. Y. Sun, who proposes that these “desperadoes ”, associated with the popular militia that fought the Jurgens or Mongols, in the period between the moving south of the Song court and the forming of the Ming "[...] told, wrote down and made up more Liangshan tales for the populace in the hope of attracting recruits and support on one hand, and on the other to provide entertainment and a guide for action for their own rank and file."10

As an example of the historical novel, Sanguozhi (The Three Kingdoms) represents a radicalisation of the trend to use 'fiction' to render history. In fact, much fiction written in the early Ming was a sort of reaction against the historical infidelity of story-tellers, and claimed to rely on official histories. Reactions to this vary: contemporary appreciations, coming from the 'purer' literary point of view, complained11 that Sanguozhi "[...] is pedantic because it sticks too closely to historical facts [...]" and later critics, like Zhang Xuecheng in the Qing, considered it confusing due to its having "[...] three tenths of fiction mixed with seven tenths of fact [...]."


Only very late in the history of Chinese Literature did Fiction come to be recognised as part of it. For a very long time, Literature was only comprised of History, as the record of words and events (in the tradition of Shujing) and of Poetry, as the record of emotions (in the tradition of Shijing). The trivial and common matters that failed to elevate the reader morally had no place at all in this eminently didactic-Confucianist corpus.

However, outside this engaged-Literature, as we have seen, Literature-for-Literature's-sake has always been running parallel, either rejected as non-official History, or denounced as xiaoshuo (minor talk) because its words were designed to entertain and not to elevate morally. Xiaoshuo came to designate 'Fiction in general', that is what we in the West at present classify as 'Literature'.

The fact is that even nowadays, this western generalisation is not entirely possible within Chinese language-culture, where Literature would never be conceived to be mainly xiaoshuo. Added to which xiaoshuo cannot be applied to any text written in classical Chinese just because it tells us a story. So should it be History versus Literature or History versus Fiction? Maybe the best solution would still be to form a new pair of complementary oppositions: Literature-as-History and Literature-as-Fiction. But that formulation leaves out Poetry, which has played its role (not only in the theatre, which, in Chinese always alternates verse/singing with prose/speech) in keeping the past rooted in the present, making sure it stays alive.

The question remains — is Chinese xiaoshuo more Fiction and less History or less Fiction and more History? Once in a while, allegedly historical incidents in Chinese plays have been denounced by scholars as non-Historical, that is non-existent or totally invented by playwrights. But the reply and counter-argument comes that if the Chinese people had been building them on stage for so long, this act in itself made them a real part of History. Fiction can become unidentifiable from History.


I do not think that any of this matters from the point of view of Literature as something for us to enjoy. But I do think it is important from the more global view point of Culture, if we are to understand the result of this long intermingling and incessant transformation of one into the other and back again.

I would say it is this dual functioning of both branches of the same literary art that makes a distinction between Western and Chinese literary traditions, and also that has been vital for the strong cultural identity of the Chinese people. Literature has never ceased its function of reenacting History. This understanding is alive amongst the majority of the population, the non- literati, and even the illiterate, in the media of the epoch: story-telling, which has survived in certain parts of China, namely Suzhou, since Song times; Chinese opera extant for the last two hundred years, television, films and most recently, the well known 'Asiapac' cartoons of Chinese classic master-pieces. All these media are more than enough, even for people who do not read books, to maintain a relationship of familiarity with a common past not found in other traditions. Every Chinese woman or man is always told who she or who he is, why and how she or he is that way, how to behave or how to feel in this or that situation; told in the most efficacious way, without any rationalisation; actually shown, rather than told.

The fact that popular and 'literary' Literature have both continuously kept Chinese people living under the control of their established meanings is beyond any comparison with Western tradition. For a Westerner conditioned to the idea of individual control it may even be seen as a negative aspect. However, since Chinese Literature, in any of its various forms, has always been much more than a medium of expression, never departing from its social function to teach the individual how to live his daily life as well as to call attention to social and political problems, I think the outcome has been, in general terms, a very good one. But I must admit to some dangers arising from the transmission of an overall meaning of History and, therefore logically of life and the human condition. However, this discussion would entail another paper.


1 The expression comes from the Confucianist classic Shujing (Book of History), a semi-historical semi-mythical register of events and announcements, considered to be of the earliest antiquity, which constitutes the literary tradition for classical prose guwen, that has run parallel with the poetical tradition of the Shijing (Book of Songs).

2 YIQING, Liu, Shishuo xinyu — A compilation of more than a thousand anecdotes and accounts from the third century BC up to the time of writing (AD403-444).

3 The zhiren and the zhiguai are the traditional names given to the types of texts that make up the corpus of early narrative, opposing the record of natural and ordinary events (ren = people) to the supernatural or extraordinary ones (guai = strange).

4 KOJIRO, Yoshikawa, BAXTER, Glen, trans., The Shi-shuo hsin-yu and Six Dynasties Prose style, in "Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies", Cambridge/Massachusetts, Harvard-Yenching Institute, 18 (1) 2 June 1955, pp.124-141. *Editor's note: This citation was not found in the mentioned article.

5 MATHER, Richard, The fine art of conversation: The Yen-yu p "en of the Shih-shuo hsin-yu, in "Journal of the American Oriental Society", New Haven/Connecticut, 91 (2) April-June 1971, pp.222-275, p.223.

6 A very laconic historical chronicle, from the State of Lu, the aura of sanctity of which — it is one of the five Confucianist classics — derives from the idea that it was organised by Confucius, who is believed to have attributed hidden moral meanings to its most laconic sentences, which many generations tried to uncover since. This work was later expanded into three commentaries that try to give the background to the events mentioned in it.

7 WANG, C. H., From Ritual to Allegory - Seven essays on Chinese Poetry, Hong Kong, The Chinese University Press, 1988, p.74 — The author considers that five poems of the daya constitute "[...] the substance of an epic [...]," very similar to [Virgil's] Aeneid, both in content and style.

8 Tang short stories about supernatural or bizarre things, written in classical Chinese.

9 LIU Wu-chi, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1972, p. [not suplied by the author].

10 SUN, S. Y., The Seditious Art of the Water Margin — Misogynists or Desperadoes?, in "Renditions", Hong Kong, Autumn 1973, pp.99-106.

11 ZHAOJI, Xie; apud LU Xun, HSUN, I. U., trans., Zhongguo Xiashuo Shilue, in YANG Hsien Yi - YANG, Gladys, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, Peking, Foreign Laguage Press, 1959, p.158ff.

* BA in Portuguese Language and Literature by the Faculdade de Letras (Faculty of Arts) in the Universidade Clássica de Lisboa (Classic University of Lisbon). Post-graduation courses in Chinese Linguistics by the Universidade de Macau (University of Macao) and language courses by the Beijing University of Language and Culture and the Zhongshan University, in Guangzhou. President of the Associação de Literatura Comparada de Macau (Macao Comparative Literature Association), Macao.

See: SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY — For the following authors and further titles for authors already mentioned in this article.

CHEN, Shih-hsiang; HO, Kenneth P. H.; KNECHTGES, David R.; YANG, V. T.; YU, Anthony C.

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