The Chinese Vernacular Story

Patrick Hanan

Harvard University Press 1981
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Hanan surveys the vernacular Chinese short story from its beginnings, through the great Ming and Manchu writers, down to the end of the 18th century. He begins with the language background, which is "more easily illustrated than explained":
"The spoken language of which Feng's written vernacular is a stylistically refined development was not his native Soochow dialect but a semistandardized version of Northern. ... Feng commanded at least two spoken languages: his own dialect and an upper-class version of one of the Northern dialects. He also commanded two or three written languages: Classical Chinese; a semistandardized vernacular developed from Northern, which in his hands shows some features of the southeastern variety; and his own Soochow dialect."
The "original model [for the vernacular story] was the professional oral fiction of the Song and Yuan periods". Hanan also presents a theoretical framework for his analysis of narrative, but there is little theory in his survey.

Two chapters divide the oldest stories — found in later collections — into early and middle periods. Prominent genres include "court case", "demon", "romance", "linked", "folly and consequences", and "religious" stories. There are two chapters on Feng Menglong and chapters on "Langxian" (the author of Constant Words), Ling Mengchu, Li Yu, and "Aina" (Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor). These cover the background and other works of each writer, as well as providing summaries and analysis of their stories. Some of these get just a paragraph, but others are treated at greater length, sometimes with extensive quotes.

The exuberance of Li Yu's comic imagination was more than matched by the author of The Cup That Reflects the World (Zhao shi bei), written a few years later. But although both men specialized in social comedy, their work differs in almost every other respect. Li Yu's is the comedy of concept, in which the paradoxical idea governs the story absolutely, so that its plot is neatly illustrative and its characters are embodied attitudes. The Cup author's comedy is perceptual, arising from his observations of society. His imagination focuses on the comic scene, not the comic plot, and his stories appear loosely structured beside those of his predecessors. His fiction also lacks the element of personal reference found in Li Yu's, and although it takes a satirical view of its society, it gives no hint of the political conditions of its time.

No knowledge of Chinese is necessary to follow The Chinese Vernacular Story — and only a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture — but it is an academic work and rather dry. Newcomers should start with the stories themselves, of which a good range are available in translation, and then turn to Hanan if they want an overview of the tradition as a whole.

June 2004

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%T The Chinese Vernacular Story
%A Hanan, Patrick
%I Harvard University Press
%D 1981
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0674125657
%P 276pp