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Reevaluating the privilege of lyricism in Chinese Literary studies:Toward an indigenous literary analysis

By Dong Naibin | 2013-08-01 | Hits:
( Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Illustration of Tale of the Western Chamber
Within Chinese literature, both the lyrical tradition and narrative tradition have been dominant modes of expression. However, scholarship has tended to foreground the former while neglecting the latter. While a certain emphasis of lyricism bears merit, exclusively focusing on this aspect at the expense of narration will lead to an incomplete understanding of the depth and breadth of the Chinese literary tradition.
As dual two wings of human expression, lyricism and narration are deeply rooted in human nature and instinct, co-dependent and intertwined in Chinese literature. However, due to the mentality and aesthetic taste of Chinese, undue attention has been paid to the study of lyricism in Chinese literature while scholars have neglected the evolution of narrative. Additionally, few have conducted narratology studies which acknowledge and give equal weight to both modes of expression.
In the first step of literary creation, the poet gets his or her inspiration from certain life experience, then he or she render these feelings in lines and stanzas in step two, finally disseminating the end result in step three. In most cases, however, only the first step is highlighted in Chinese poetics. As is said, “Poetry is all about expressing aspirations,” and consequently the end goal of literature becomes the conveyance of personal emotions and individual will, while exposition (of a setting) and description of exterior action narration are nothing but a means, an instrument which is a subordinate to serve the purpose of lyricism. Chinese poetics follows a pattern of exploring the poet’s inner feelings through his or her work and then culminates with reflexively commentary on the poet. In the second step, both lyricism and narration should have been included; however, Chinese poetics has mainly concerned itself with careful research of lyrical methods while ignoring narration and its relation with lyricism, leading to the disproportionate development of the latter in literary composition and studies. Narration has become a shortcoming of Chinese poetics, and China has long been deemed a country of lyricism, which to me is a questionable conclusion. Is China still a country of lyricism after the literary achievements of the Ming and Qing dynasties? What changes have taken place in the lyrical tradition of China? What is its status quo? All these questions have yet to be extensively examined. Besides, does this belief deny the possibility that China may also be called a country of narration? In fact, the narrative tradition in Chinese literature is not at all inferior to its lyrical tradition, with its early origin, wide variation, sophisticated techniques and impressive achievements. Therefore, the belief that Chinese literature is all about lyricism is an incomplete understanding which demands our reflection and introspection. Only by fully understanding the dual traditions can a thorough recognition and grasp of Chinese literary history be made possible. The dissemination and acceptance of literature is not the strength of Chinese poetics, which has been observed among the scholarship and still has ample room for improvement despite the efforts that have been made. As an important aspect of the heritage of Chinese culture, Chinese poetics requires not only preservation and transmission, but also progression, development and innovation. Rote repetition of previous generations of scholarship’s conclusions is detrimental to the heath of Chinese poetics.
A new discovery of the narrative tradition in Chinese literature is needed now, and on the new path of exploring the whole Chinese literary history, studies of the status quo should be combined with the ancient literary tradition and the evolution of modern literature. While Western narratology can provide some inspiration, we could never simply import western literary analysis; rather, the exploration of narrative tradition should be combined with, and evolve from the construction of indigenous narratology. This narratology must take Chinese literature as its baseboard, lest it become clouded by and dependent on concepts imported from western literature and literary thought. Further, narratology should be constructed respectively within the various mediums of literature, such as poetry, Ci, Fu, historical biography, novel, drama and various forms of essay, since their individual requirements and research methods vary. Only by in-depth studies into the narrative practice of various literary modes can Chinese literary scholarship work toward a universal narratology, and in so doing reveal fundamental characteristics of narrative in Chinese literature. Though growing out of the analysis of fiction, Western narrative theory has expanded to encompass other literary genres, from drama to film. Chinese literary analysis cannot, and need not, adhere to the academic tide and follow this path of generalization. Considering the diversity of styles and abundance of scholars equipped to analyze these styles, we will best be served by developing separate vocabularies within each form independently, then moving toward a broader synthesis between these vocabularies. 
Simultaneously, this endeavor should be informed by ongoing exploration of the Chinese narrative tradition and its goals. Unlike Western narratology, which tends to focus mostly on the techniques and methods adopted in narration, a native Chinese narratology should also pay attention to the purpose and social functions of narration. Even a little research into narrative theories in ancient China will reveal an enduring engagement and concern with the social functions of writing. This has been a dominant characteristic of the Chinese literary tradition.
Still, we should avoid going to the other extreme by solely emphasizing narrative; rather, a mutually informed synthesis of narrative studies and lyrical studies is needed. The relation between the two, and their fluctuation relative to each other in different historical periods, should be a constant point of focus in research—whether of classical, modern, or contemporary literature. Understanding the ebb and flow of each mode of expression will help us work toward a more cohesive understanding of the evolution of Chinese aesthetics, and in turn this will stronger platform for the future evolution of a native Chinese literature.
There is also a wealth of information and ideas to be gathered from oral narrative traditions—the origin of all literature. While writing obviously helps preserve oral narration for future generations, it is sometimes an imperfect medium, and discrepancies between oral and written narration further provide fertile ground for research. Though contemporary technology has greatly enhanced our recording abilities, this does not exclude the possibility of new discrepancies arising between oral traditions, which will require further discrimination and research.
As a form of narration, storytelling and other oral traditions are live narratives inherited from history. In order to conduct the most accurate research, it is necessary to record oral narratives as exactly and unadornedly as possible. Research is indispensible to accurately recording, and in turn, recording is a form of research in and of itself. If we can conduct interdisciplinary studies by combining theories in cultural anthropology and oral poetics and strengthen international communication, a native narratology can make greater contributions to the direction of the world literary tradition.
Dong Naibin is from Shanghai University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 356. Sept 14, 2012.
Translated and edited by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne