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  • Flower in the Mirror and Moon in the Water:The Problem of Chinese Allegory Revisited
  • Xuan Wang

In the context of the rise of deconstructive criticism, it may not be a mere coincidence that from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, a series of articles and books in Sinology (comparative literature) demonstrated a preoccupation with rhetoric, paying special attention to the Chinese concept of metaphor and allegory.1 The Western sense of allegory/metaphor,2 as these articles and books invariably suggest (Saussy 24), is absent from Chinese poetics and its literature.3 To quote Andrew Plaks's description of this difference between East and West, "Representatives of the Chinese and European traditions are accorded a particular privilege of neat, even antipodal, contrast" (vii). While the Western sense of allegory/metaphor implies disjunction (Plaks 7; Owen 63; Yu, Reading 17; Yeh 250), its Chinese counterpart embodies a totalizing (Plaks 7, 109), coherent whole (Owen 23). Pre-established (Yu, Reading 33), historical (Owen 15, 57), and organic (Owen 42, 45, 59; Yeh 252), the Chinese allegory/metaphor is a synecdoche (Plaks 110; Owen 60; Yeh 238), not the substitution (Owen 60; Yeh 239). Given the milieu of deconstruction's remarks on language–the demystification of symbol/concept on the one hand and the corresponding rehabilitation of metaphor/allegory on the other–this series of books and articles, now in hindsight over thirty years later, seems an interesting phenomenon that deserves further examination.4 To take stock of this "neat contrast" between China and the West, we must first return to this body of published scholarship.

Andrew Plaks is probably the first Sinologist to embark on the topic of allegory and Chinese literature at great length. In his 1976 book, Archetype and Allegory in the Dream of the Red Chamber, he attributes the lack of the Western sense of allegory in Chinese literature to the absence of the Western "ontological disjunction" in the Chinese worldview. Plaks has brought up such an argument as early as in the introduction when he discusses the meaning of the Dream of the Red Chamber: [End Page 465]

Turning to a detailed inquiry into the nature of allegorical writing in the European tradition, with specific critical attention focused on the works of Dante, Chaucer, and Spenser, we find that the two-level ontological disjunction on which this mode is based in the West does not apply in the monistic universe of Chinese literature.


Plaks's thesis entails two premises: that China is known for its ontological monism as opposed to ontological dualism of the West, and that the allegories in Dante, Chaucer, and Spenser are founded on the "two-level ontological disjunction." If we could set aside the age-old debate on whether the Chinese worldview is indeed monistic and involves no transcendence,5 the second premise, that ontological dualism serves as the foundation for the two-level structure of allegory, still invites reexamination. According to Plaks, the dichotomy between narrative and meaning in allegory is a "mimesis" (87, 93, 94) of the (Platonic) dichotomy between the physical and metaphysical. The allegorical fiction, in other words, is founded on the concrete, finite, visible, sublunary world, while the allegorical significance points to the truth of a transcendental nature (84-94). But as long as the Platonic dichotomy implies the concrete and the abstract, which could be found in the structure of allegory, this philosophical structure also entails the dichotomy between the perfect and the imperfect, the good and the bad, the original and the copy, which are not reflected in the structure of allegory. Rather than further explaining this premise of the structural similarity between the literary device and the philosophical vision, Plaks then goes into detail about the dichotomy within the narrative, the dichotomy between light and darkness, true and false, for example, in order to show the allegorists' mimesis of the ontological duality (95-108). The two levels of allegory, unlike the two levels in the platonic imagination, are nonetheless bounded because of their similarity (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1404b). Because of its monism, as Plaks concludes, which can be taken as a "spatial vision of totality," the Chinese literary universe correspondingly resembles "a single, total...


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