Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, Part 3

Where we left off yesterday: “Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Many critics look at the changes in the approach to fiction as a progressive thing, beginning, in all cultures, with a story told by one person to another person. The story might be fiction, but is just as likely to be a true story, or a true story that evolved into a legend. Then, there someone with a pen, stylus, stick, hammer and chisel and some surface (wax, stone, papyrus, whatever) who writes these stories down just as they’re told. Maybe they’re eventually printed (as in China) and story tellers can buy these printed stories and use them to tell their stories better, to help them remember all the episodes and to learn new stories. Then, perhaps someone else with writing tools or a printer will sit down and allow his mind to act imaginatively on the old tale as it’s told. Yet, he retains in the structure of his revision the structure of the original oral story. It accrues, simply by being written, a kind of authority the oral tale cannot possess. 

From this comes the completely imaginative novel which might still be written in the style of the oral story, or letters, sermon, poem, opera, epic, ballad. From there some other person will realize that there are many new and different things he can do; that this written fiction is a completely new form, not necessarily related at all to an oral story. Presumably, all of this “progress” is related to generalized literacy in a civilization. A nation without a literate population has little use for printed stories. 

In China, the oral tradition endured, and in super-modern China, teahouses with story-tellers have enjoyed a rebirth of popularity. That said, the persistence of what has been regarded in some cultures by some critics is considered a “backward” literary form, has made it difficult for modern Chinse scholars to reconcile the Chinese tradition to the Western tradition (Martha in 2021 doesn’t know why they should…) which is considered more “sophisticated” and “advanced.” What many scholars view as an evolution of the novel has been stymied somewhat in China because Chinese Communist policy insisted for some time that foreign things and values are bad, and only truly Chinese things are good (notwithstanding a huge Soviet influence on Chinese fiction during the mid-twentieth century). This has led to the (possibly) unreasonable insistence that Shui Hu Chuan is as good as any novel produced in the West. (For what it’s worth, 21st century Martha thinks it might be and thinks this judgement depends on who’s looking…)

As C. T. Hsia said in his introduction to Chinese Classical Fiction:

Whatever the critical fashion in Communist China, it seems to me self-evident that we cannot accord the Chinese novel full critical justice unless, with our due awareness of its special characteristics that can only be fully understood in historical terms, we are prepared to examine it against the Western Novel…The modern reader of fiction…expects a consistent point of view, a unified impression of life as conceived and planned by a master intelligence, an individual style fully consonant with the author’s emotional attitude toward his subject matter. He abhors explicit didacticism, authorial digression, episodic construction that reveals no cohesion of design, and clumsiness of every other kind that distracts his attention. But, of course, even in Europe the conscious practice of fiction as an art was a late development, and we cannot expect colloquial Chinese fiction, with its humble oral beginnings, to have been designed for the cultivated modern taste. (Hsia)

The general human tendency to regard new things as more developed than old things prejudices us in favor of the new, but maybe the long, episodic novels of old China truly ARE difficult to read, even for Chinese.

After writing continually for five or six weeks, I felt really discouraged and could not continue. All those shallow and stupid novels of interminable length, they really couldn’t get me interested and I haven’t written about them since. (Hsia)

(Twenty-first century Martha has read a few of these interminable novels and they interested me enough to read a couple of them in more than one translation. C.T. Hsia’s education and training was similar to mine [if you don’t make a big deal out of the VERY prestigious schools he attended and at which he taught and the VERY notable exception that he was Chinese.] You can read about him here:

But if art is an imitation of life, isn’t life difficult to read and difficult to follow? Does life have a consistent point of view or “cohesion of design”? If it does, it is not apparent to any of us living our lives.

Because the written novel has lost some of the sensory power and involvement that was part of the oral novel it must simplify itself  so it can be as understandable as the story teller’s tea-house version. The second question involves someone looking at the Classical Chinese story/novel in relation to the Western novel. Is a novel written to tell a story or to illustrate a form? Some modern critics have devalued the story, but Pearl Buck did not. She believed — based on her close relation to Chinese fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s as well as her personal experience — that story is the most important part of a, well, a story. It should teach something, challenge assumptions and be entertaining. She wrote:

No, happily for the Chinese novel, it was not considered by the scholars as literature. Happily, too, for the novelist. Man and book, they were free from the criticisms of these scholars and their requirements of art, their techniques of expression and their talk of literary significance and all that discussion of what is and what is not art as if art were an absolute and not the changing thing it is fluctuating even within decades! The Chinese novel was free. It grew as it liked out of its own soil, the common people, nurtured by that heartiest of sunshine, popular approval and untouched by the cold and frosty winds of the scholar’s art. (Buck, Pearl S., “The Chinese Novel,” Nobel Prize Speech, 1938)

The novel throughout the world has had an interesting history. Once I thought it was a very interesting coincidence that it emerged in various places at the same time, but that wasn’t it. It was simply labeled “the novel” at the same time. The word “novel” itself means “new” like we have gotten to enjoy the company of a novel virus for the past two years.

The first REAL novel in English is considered to be an 18th century product. It’s debated, of course, but it’s generally thought to be Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. When I was in grad school in a course on “The Early Novel,” I was told it was Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Older stories are contenders (because it’s important to be first, right?) including The Monte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory written in 1485.

I have no strong opinion on any of this. My life after China took me into realms of literature that weren’t taught in any school I ever attended. But I have to bless Wikipedia (to which I give $6/year to keep going) for a really cogent and concise discussion of what makes a novel a novel. Here’s everything Wikipedia has to say and it’s pretty much exactly what I learned in graduate school.

Differing definitions of the novel

There are multiple candidates for first novel in English partly because of ignorance of earlier works, but largely because the term novel can be defined so as to exclude earlier candidates. (The article for novel contains a detailed information of the history of the terms “novel” and “romance” and the bodies of texts they defined in a historical perspective.)


  • Critics typically require a novel to have a certain length. This would exclude Oroonoko, arguably a novella.

Content and intent

  • Critics typically require a novel to be wholly original and so exclude retellings such as Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically make a distinction between collections of short stories, even those sharing common themes and settings, and novels per se, which typically has a single protagonist and narrative throughout. This might also lead to the exclusion of Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the romance, which has a heroic protagonist and fantastic elements, and the novel, which attempts to present a realistic story. This would, yet again, exclude Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the allegory (in which characters and events have political, religious or other meanings) and the novel, in which characters and events stand only for themselves, and so exclude The Pilgrim’s Progress and A Tale of a Tub‘.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the picaresque, made up of a connected sequence of episodes, and the novel, which has unity of structure, and so exclude The Unfortunate Traveller.

Owing to the influence of Ian Watt‘s seminal study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Watt’s candidate, Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe (1719), gained wide acceptance.

I’ve also been thinking about episodic structure in a novel. It’s really a lot like life.

I was thinking about my friend, Alex, who recently died after suffering Alzheimers for several years. I didn’t know him when he was himself, but what I knew of him I liked very much. Last year he and his wife bought themselves one of my paintings. Each of us lived our whole lives without knowing each other, but then our lives converged to a limited extent and then, at the conclusion, I came home with all of his paints, which judging from the care with which he stored them, meant a lot to him. I thought “out of the thousands of episodes in our lives, the whole thing ended with me cleaning an old tackle box to get the cat pee smell off of it, giving up, and putting the paints with my own.” It might not be over. I took photos of the box as it was given to me and IF the enzymatic cleaner works, I’ll put everything back, meanwhile, I have on my windowsill a carpenter pencil onto which he carved his name. It’s ONE story comprising several episodes. The story could conclude (and might!) with me using Alex’ paints to do a painting of one of his favorite places to climb and giving it to his wife.

The difference between an episodic novel and a collection of short stories is that an episodic novel is ONE story that (apparently) digresses from time-to-time to follow a character. This means that it can jump back and forth in time, sort of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” but it will end in a timely resolution that satisfies every subplot/episode Music does this all the time; a melody can vanish and re-emerge later, changed, maybe, slightly, but carried through an entire symphony. We even name the episodes of a symphony.

Personally, I like the episodic structure, and one of my novels — The Brothers Path —uses it (best-selling writer that I am). :-p I was briefly in a writers’ group at the time and was told by everyone (except the teacher!) NOT to do that. My classmates had totally bought into the arbitrary definition of what a novel is supposed to be. I think the word “novel” needs to be changed; it isn’t “novel” any more.

The review recently posted about As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, about the year I spent teaching in China, said this and it made me very happy. It says:

“There is no chronological story here – the anecdotes jump around the timeline as fancy (and photo prompts) take the author, and the author also carefully restricts herself to only discussing events and situations within her own personal experiences, which does leave some anecdotes unfinished and some questions unanswered, but gives the reader total confidence that she refrains from straying into speculation for the sake of tidying the story… real life is messy and we don’t always find out what happens next!” )

The next section in this adventure is about what the Chinese DID revere as literature back in the day, and the day was really long. 36 year old Martha has written about old Chinese examination system, it, itself, and how it was viewed by the writers of Chinese fiction. Please let me know if that interests anyone at all. I am totally capable of writing in stream of tedium, and I don’t want to. 🙂

Here are pretty pictures from Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong Lou Meng.

12 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, Part 3

  1. I have exactly the saem Drema of Red Mansions books. The Chinese version was still on index then – I bough mine in Hong Kong. At that time I thought one day I would be able to read it in Chinese 🙂

    • What a wonderful thing that would be to be able to read it in Chinese. My Chinese friends insisted it is untranslatable, but whatever. We do what we can. It’s one of my favorite stories.

  2. Beautiful illustrations and cards.
    I enjoyed how you wove in the story of the man and his, now your, paints. It struck a cord with me. Now mixed in with yours, I hope you continue creating beauty from both his and your spirit.

  3. All of this is delightful! I love to hear the M36 version of you along side the MAK that is writing the post. You sent me to wiki world and then brought me back then sent me to search for the definition of a novel and all the permutations… I’m feeling like my head is very full of new information (which usually means I’ll be writing more poetry)!

    • 21st century Martha managed to interject only a couple of times — 3 times but she moved one of the interjections until after the text. I’m trying to respect that much younger woman because she really does deserve it. 🙂

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