- Classical Chinese Supernatural Fiction: A Morphological History
Xiaohuan Zhao’s Classical Chinese Supernatural Fiction: A Morphological History is a book in three parts: a detailed chronological history of the zhiguai (tales of the strange, anomaly accounts) genre, a study applying the principles of Vladimir Propp’s (1895–1970) structural analysis of fairy tales to a selected corpus of fifty tales, and extensive appendices, including complete translations of all fifty tales. As this description suggests, this is an ambitious work. The history spans the period from earliest uses of the terms xiaoshuo (tale or fiction) and zhiguai in Han and earlier texts through the eighteenth century, and the morphological study analyzes a sample drawn from the entire period.
The first section, chapters 1–5, is in the tradition of a Chinese-language xiaoshuo shi (history of fiction), with Lu Xun’s Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe as an important ancestor (1925; Zhao discusses Lu Xun’s influence on the discussion of zhiguai, p. 21). This is the first time a history of zhiguai of this chronological scope has been attempted in English; other studies, such as Robert Campany’s Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996) or Leo Tak-hung Chan’s The Discourse of Foxes and Ghosts: Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Chinese Storytelling (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999) have focused on a single period. Literary history is divided according to the periods of political history, and the historical narrative is structured in stages of origins, evolution, climax, and decline. For each historical period, Zhao presents cultural and historical background [End Page 307] relevant to literary production, discusses authors and works judged to be representative, and singles out particular stories for plot synopsis and commentary. Throughout he argues for the increasing complexity, sophistication, and literary artistry of the zhiguai genre. He charts an embryonic period from the Warring States through the Han, a formative period in the Six Dynasties, a turning point and leap in sophistication in the Tang, a derivative period in the Song, decline in the Yuan and Jin, resurgence in the Ming, and then the pinnacle reached in Pu Songling’s (1640–1715) Liaozhai zhiyi (Stories of the strange from the studio of leisure, following Zhao’s translation of titles), with subsequent decline (pp. 145–146). In its broad outlines this is an account already familiar from studies in Chinese (for example, Hou Zhongyi’s Zhongguo wenyan xiaoshuo shigao [Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 1990], and many more recent publications), but Zhao succeeds in giving the English-language reader a comprehensive overview and introducing many important works.
The literary history is based on sound research, with prudent judgment of textual questions. Some of the works discussed, such as Gan Bao’s (ca. 286–336) Sou shen ji (In search of spirits) or Liaozhai zhiyi have already received considerable attention from researchers working in both Chinese and Western languages. Others are more neglected. Zhao’s discussion of alternate texts of the Sou shen ji, and the section of the history discussing the importance of the Song-era compendium Taiping guangji to the evolution of the genre are particularly illuminating (pp. 43, 89–94). The pace of the history seems more rushed in its coverage of the Ming and Qing than earlier dynasties, and zhiguai written after the eighteenth century are dismissed altogether (p. 147).
The history raises some questions. More attention could be paid to the definition of terms such as “fable” and “parable” across languages and literary traditions. Similarly, when Zhao describes one tale as an adaptation of another (p. 56), does he mean to imply a conscious literary rewriting or a variation of shared material in the oral tradition? He refers to both Sou shen ji and Liaozhai zhiyi as encyclopedias (pp. 31, 130). Given his careful attention to the importance of Taiping guangji, what does he mean by the term at these different moments in the history of the encyclopedia (leishu )?