- Recent Chinese Literary Histories in English
What is a literary history for? When do we reach for such a book? We might want to look up a name, a date, or a title (which of Kong Shangren's 孔尚任 plays was written first?), to check a line of inference (were Tao Yuanming's 陶淵明 official writings lost?), to gauge the consensus on some topic (does anyone think Zhu Xi's 朱熹 poetry is worth reading?). Such uses are practical, short-term, and transactional: the user interrogates the book, gets an answer, and goes back to writing or thinking. Chinese literature is vast, and anyone who engages with it knows the shock of venturing into a period or genre stocked with hundreds of unfamiliar names and titles. Literary histories map out the [End Page 231] terrain. They show the way from what you know (say, the Three Hundred Tang Poems) to what you do not (say, Lu Xun's 魯迅 early prose or the Hanshu 漢書 "Yi wen zhi" 藝文志). Should you be tempted to delve deeper into an area, a literary history will suggest some preliminary readings, perhaps offer an anthology of representative passages, and briefly characterize the context, laying out a period's aspirations and trouble spots. In this capacity, too, a literary history is an invitation to knowledge, not that knowledge itself.
Like anthologies, literary histories select: they cannot cover everything, so their authors decide what is important or discussion-worthy. How many pages for Sima Qian 司馬遷? How many pages for Gan Bao 干寶? In a history of Chinese visions of the supernatural, Gan Bao would merit more coverage than Sima Qian, but since the literary history's task is to give a picture of the whole field of Chinese writing during some more or less long stretch of time, "importance" cannot be defined topically but must derive from the meanings the author assigns to the term "literary." How does a text contribute to the growth of literature? If it initiates a genre, theme, or stylistic procedure, if it becomes a model or is targeted for suppression, it will feature proportionately in the literary chronicler's story.
In the story—here is an unannounced principle of selection. For a history is a more or less continuous narrative—this principle holds even for what Geoffrey Hartman once called "those picaresque adventures in pseudo-causality which go under the name of literary history, those handbooks with footnotes which claim to sing of the whole but load every rift with glue."1 What goes into a history must contribute to the overall plot at the risk of dispelling its coherence. Consider the case of ancient manuscripts that have come into view only recently. They can be integrated into our existing picture of early Chinese letters with ease only if they resemble the documents that are already part of that history. Otherwise, they call for large-scale revisions to our idea of what was talked and written about, by whom, when, and why—and this revision is precisely what makes some of these discoveries valuable: their power to upend previous consensus.
The expectation that literary history will tell a story—tell a story and tell one story—is the dimension where this genre shows the [End Page 232] greatest fragility, where it becomes most nakedly ideological and thus most liable to rejection from readers who do not share its interests and perceptions. Recent literary histories have become self-conscious on this...