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  • From Deluge to Discourse: Myth, History, and the Generation of Chinese Fiction
  • Patricia Sieber (bio)
Deborah Lynn Porter . From Deluge to Discourse: Myth, History, and the Generation of Chinese Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. xviii, 284 pp. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 0-7914-3034-0.

In this provocative and original study, Deborah Lynn Porter examines what has generally been considered one of the earliest examples of Chinese fiction, the Mu Tianzi zhuan (MTZ), a narrative of the early Zhou king Mu's journey to the West. Given the text's originary status, it is perhaps not surprising that Porter's study does not simply examine this foundational text, but attempts to present a general theory of the generation of Chinese fictional texts. A psychoanalytically informed but historically particularized interpretation of the MTZ is at the heart of Porter's book; however, in the concluding chapter, Porter seeks to broaden her insights beyond a single case study. In particular, she seeks to account for other foundational moments in the history of Chinese fiction, namely the emergence of tales of the strange during the period of North/South division and the generation of vernacular fiction in the Ming. The strength of the book lies in its integration of a clearly defined psychoanalytic framework with an acute awareness of historical particulars on the one hand and rigorous attention to textual detail on the other.

Porter's framework is indebted to the philosopher and psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham's theory of the symbol. As Porter explains in chapter 3, according to Abraham, symbols cannot simply be reduced to a given meaning, but must be interpreted as an encoding of the particular trauma that led to the generation of the symbol in the first place. Hence, symbols are predicated on an act of silencing, and can only be properly read if the circumstances surrounding that act are reconstructed. In short, what precipitates the generation of symbols is what Porter terms an "obstacle to being." Thus, in her view, such symbols represent a discursive mode that always inscribes its own production.

Porter proceeds to provide a context for a trauma-based, literary reading of the MTZ. Earlier studies of this text, which Porter discusses in detail in chapter 1, primarily concerned themselves with questions on the date of composition, textual transmission, and the historicity of the events described. By contrast, while extensively resorting to philological analysis, Porter seeks to locate her study of the MTZ in the context of the broader historical and intellectual issues of the Warring States period. Since she believes that the force of her arguments depends on her ability to reconstruct the mythic framework in which the story of the MTZ is embedded, she devotes chapters 3 and 4 to an analysis of some of the key myths during that era. Her main contention is that some of these myths, especially the Yu flood myth, were formulated in response to a cosmogonic crisis. As the precession [End Page 518] of the equinoxes made the seasonal function of a particular constellation obsolete, a cosmogonic crisis arose, resulting in differing reactions among early thinkers. While formal philosophy sought to erase this cosmogonic trauma, myth incorporated an awareness of the crisis through its use of symbolism. In particular, key figures and sites in the MTZ, namely Kunlun Mountain, the River God Hezong, and Xiwangmu, were all associated with the cosmogonic crisis outlined above. Porter suggests that Kunlun represents a boundary between chaos and a new order. Hezong functions as a vehicle of transportation across a watery divide. Xiwangmu represents a figure with the power to rejuvenate life through transformation. In view of this sustained interlacing of symbolism within the MTZ with a broader mythical framework, King Mu's journey should not be understood as a historical narrative, but as a symbolic journey involving rebirth.

In chapter 5, Porter addresses more specifically what she sees as the motivating event for the generation of the MTZ. King Zhao, King Mu's father, drowned with his entire army during a military and mining expedition. This catastrophic event called into question the legitimacy of the Zhou court...


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