Darko Suvin                                                                                               (1983-86, 12,000 words)

0. I would like to do two things simultaneously in this paper. First, to test and develop an approach to agential analysis of narrative which is based on a hypothesis explained at some length in other places. (1) Second, to test the yield of that approach and hypothesis when applied to–very selected–instances of agential systems in Chinese classical prose (which would at a later stage lead to a longer test confronting one classical European and Chinese novel). I realize how imprudent this latter attempt is for somebody as fully ignorant of the Chinese language and as largely ignorant of its cultural intertext as I am, and I can only hope to offset this by concentrating on aspects and macro-proportions I understand somewhat better.

1. For a System of Narrative Agents

1.0. The first meta-problem that cannot be avoided is one of pertinence. Is it useful to use the complex and sometimes clumsy machinery of (even a non-scientistic variant of) narratology or narrative semiotics to analyze such well-known works as a novel  by Wu Jing-zi (or by Balzac)? (2) My answer is conditionally but clearly positive. Positive, because narratology is, within a cluster of young disciplines such as the theory of literature–or if you wish fictional anthropology–one of the youngest and least developed, so that it cannot afford to refuse illumination of its domain wherever the light might be coming from. Only conditionally positive, because it has to be conceded that the highly interesting cognitive potentials of semiotics have up to now, at least in dealing with narrative agents, been dominated by an a-historical universalism and scientism, by a syndrome I have elsewhere–in the  longer critique referred to, which I must here again do without–called glossocracy (or, if one prefers it, linguistic imperialism). I hope we shall be able to build upon the historical fundaments of agential analysis in Aristotle and Propp, who proceed by means of socio-historical induction from precise cultural processes such as genres and discursive traditions, as opposed to unchecked deduction from very dubious “universal laws which constitute the unconscious operation of the spirit.” (3) Should it prove possible to use semiotics as an analytical technique rather than a technocratic ideology, then it may take a useful, perhaps even a key, place within the polyphony of critical approaches. Particularly within a domain (the agential theory) that has to cope with such vexed knots as character and type, we are in dire need not so much of new as (be it said with some sadness) of coherent and encompassing views. With that in mind, I would like  to  define narrative agents in a first approximation as all nouns or nominal syntagms that can be imagined as separate animate entities, and thus (in contrast to the inanimate objects) as able to undertake an action in a given textual universe. This is not a fully formalized definition perhaps, since it begs a number of unresolved questions: and foremost, what is an action? Nonetheless, it seems to me that its mixture of intuitive and verifiable elements should be sufficient for a first approach.

1.1. If some such delimitation of this field is accepted, the  first significant fact that stands out is its grave underdevelopment. From Bakhtin to Chatman and Culler, two full generations lament the scandalous blanks in even a theory of surface-level agents, the characters. This lament maintains that practically the only advance in this field between Aristotle and the end of the 1970s  was E.M.

Forster’s distinction between “round” and “flat” characters. (4) A possible exception might perhaps have been the attempts of French semiotics and its theory of actants, beginning with l966 (the date of Communications no. 8 devoted to the analysis of récit and of Greimas’s first book). However, in my Versus article mentioned, I have been forced to conclude that, despite its stimulating and pioneering opening of prospects, its only achievement has been to renew the old insight that agential analysis has to encompass several levels. (They were called pratton vs. ethos, viz. function vs. dramatis persona, already in Aristotle and Propp; Propp and Souriau were also perfectly clear about the possibility of distributing participation in their metatextual or deeper agential level among several textual agents, and viceversa.) My conclusion rests on two basic objections to Greimas’s theory.

     First, Greimas articulated the level which he called the actants–the level of function in the action or plot–by means of an undue extension of Indo-European sentence syntax into an eternal analogy to the workings of the human brain. He forgot  his patron-saint’s warning that “there is no language whose vocabulary can be deduced from the syntax,” and that therefore in narrative entities, a fortiori, grammar and vocabulary do not even operate on distinct level but “adhere to each other on their whole surface and completely overlap,” (5) i.e. that in narrativity everything is simultaneously both syntax and vocabulary. Thus, in this domain  Souriau’s pre-semiotic account of “thematic forces” (with due translation from his astrological vocabulary into the pragmatic vocabulary of–as I propose–the Protagonist, Antagonist, Value, Mandator, Beneficiary, and Satellite) seems much more useful. Second, following the master, all Greimasians hesitate between using two and hinting at more (usually three) levels of agential analysis. That possible third level was already mentioned, though not systematized either, by such precursors as Bogatyrev (type) and Souriau (rôle and rôle pur), most succinctly and authoritatively within the vocabulary of the time by Frye (stock type):

All lifelike characters, whether in drama or fiction, owe their consistency to the appropriateness of the stock type which belongs to their dramatic function. That stock type is not the character but it is as necessary to the character as a skeleton is to the actor who plays it. (6)

 The French semioticians simply transferred the whole discussion onto the field of universalist syntax and called it rôle and rôle  actantiel in Greimas, (7) rôle both in Alexandrescu’s discussion of Faulkner and in Bremond’s eternal agential inventory, rôle formel in Rastier, emploi in Hamon, etc. It might be argued that the term used is not of primary importance if the level of analysis is clearly delimited and articulated. However, any basic term will inflect the way we perceive its universe of discourse, and it is therefore at least of some importance: we have learned that language speaks us as much as we speak it, so that, in Confucius’s terms, we must “rectify the names” (zhen ming). Thus, the terminological hesitations and contradictions of the Greimasians are correlative to their never having systematized agential analysis. “Emploi,” e.g., obviously confuses a very particular theatrico-historical species with the genus; nor would I favour “role” either in French or English because of its invitation to huge confusion both with an actor’s part of the text in theatre and with the whilom fashionable sociological theory of role-playing, feeding back into some literary and theatre theories.

1.2. In order to draw the necessary conclusions from the discussions of the last 60 years and bring some order to the present mess, I propose we should accept–mutatis mutandis — both Forster’s distinction between “round” and “flat” agents, and the Propp-Souriau addition of a still deeper level of textual agents (appropriating for it Greimas’s term of actants without adopting his articulation or horizons). I shall call Forster’s agents character and type. “Character” ought to be self-explanatory (yet cf. 1.3 below). “Type” is not only suitably Anglo-French but it could also draw useful sustenance from two sources. First, from the theatre tradition (primarily in English) shrewdly used by Frye, which uses such terms as “type of role,” “typecast,” “stock type,” etc, and has in this century through the conduit of the theatrum mundi metaphor invaded even some rather fuzzy sociology in the disguise of “role.” Second, it can draw sustenance from a confrontation with its wide use in literary criticism, e.g. with both biblical and Lukcsian typology, accepting their richness and rejecting their rigid limitations.

     At this point it would be possible to inventorize at length a number of contributions to a clear definition and delimitation of what I take to be this third, intermediate level indispensable for agential analysis. I shall content myself with acknowledging that for all my disagreement with their ideological horizons I have used hints from the names mentioned so far, as well as from Doutrepont, Todorov, and Ubersfeld, (8) in order to construct the following table which I present as my basic hypothesis, and which I can here defend only through its analytical yield. It should be strongly stressed that the three levels of analysis, numbered in my table from the deepest level upward, are cumulative and not alternative. The two basic ones, actants and types, are to be found in every narrative text; the uppermost one, characters in Forster’s “round” sense, may or may not be present in any given text (that depends on its epistemic epoch and genre). This might already point to the key position of the intermediate level.

     At any rate, in this essay, which does not pretend to exhaust the interpretation of any particular text,  I shall focus on this second level of types. Type can be perhaps best defined as in Whewell: “A Type is an example of any class, for instance, a species of a genus, which is considered as eminently possessing  the characters of the class.” (9) The formal openness of such a definition can avoid any apriorism (biblical, Lukácsian, or other) in favour of sociohistorical contextuality á la Bakhtin, Benjamin, and Brecht. Typicality may in this sense be based on any categorization that has in cultural history been taken (rightly or wrongly from a present point of view) to classify people or agents. Types, thus, can be and have been classified by sex-cum-age,  by nationality, by profession, by social estate or class, by physiology and moral philosophy (Aristotle’s ethos, the Galenic “temperaments” or “humours”), often by what we would feel are combinations of the above categories (Diderot’s conditions, e.g. Father or Judge, seem to contaminate profession, class, and social role), etc.


 Let me offer just one set of examples: the agential semantic field of fighting/warring or fighter/warrior may be articulated as an ideal (but also largely historical) sequence traversing the scale of predicative complexity (see column 2 in my table). At its lower end would be found a mythological personification of War or Ares in Antiquity, or analogous agents outside Europe (e.g.  some emplois in the Peking Opera), or an allegorical personification such as the medieval Ira (Wrath). All such agents are predicatively poor (though not at all necessarily ineffective) types since they have, I think, two traits only: the combative characteristic (wrathfulness, aggressiveness) and the position or Stellenwert in the system of polytheism, cardinal sins, or similar. The Commedia dell’arte maschera of “Capitano” has already about half a dozen traits, say officer, middle-aged, braggart, coward, indigent, and Spanish (though the ethnic trait varies according to local history and prejudice). What seems to me constitutive of any type is that it possesses a relatively small number of traits (I have not found more than half a dozen in any so far examined, but this remains a field to be investigated), which are all culturally congruent or compatible. This compatibility should in every particular historical case be explainable as the result of a feedback interaction between the social reality from which the traits are taken and the criteria of verisimilitude of the social addressees for whom the text is intended. On the contrary, any character in the sense of the uppermost level in my Table, say Falstaff, will unite in him/herself at least two conflicting, i.e. culturally incongruous traits.

1.3. If anything like the above hypothesis  is accepted, far-reaching consequences ensue for the history of narrativity. For in that case, the answer to the question: which agential level is to be found on the surface of the text and which in the presuppositions or depths of the text, is neither single nor eternal, based on a universal syntax and/or the structure of the Homo sapiens brain. On the contrary, it is a changing answer, and the changes are correlative to changes in dominant aspects of those sociohistorical relationships between people of which that text treats, as seen through the presuppositions of both the text’s author and the social addressees to whom the text speaks. Such changes in what we can call a fictional and experimental anthropology (or view of people and human relationships to each other and to societal institutions) happen, no doubt, within a long duration measured in epochs, but they are nonetheless part and parcel of the major, indeed “anthropological” shifts in human history. The Individualistic practice and notion of “character”–in other words, a whole new narrative and analytical level of agents–arises in the European spacetime of Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Gogol’, in whose texts its coming into being can be palpably traced. Character in the sense of my Table seems clearly to be not only a key ideological notion and fictional device but also a key anthropological categorization, view, or theoria of the world, best fixed by and experimented with in fiction (and painting and theatre). It is born and prevails together–and thus it is in some ways consubstantial–with the bourgeoisie, capitalist economy, the turn of human relationships toward atomization, quantification, and reification including equality before the law, and the whole well-known historical cluster accompanying the rise of this new, Individualist epistémé. Or, obversely, where the Individualist epistémé does not prevail — e.g. in China — neither does the character.

     The startlingly radical change in the historical semantics of key terms such as “individual,” “personality,” “character,” or “subject” would in itself be a sufficient proof of agential historicity. In English, “individual” originally meant the oppo-site of what it came to mean after the 16th-17th century watershed, namely an indivisible unity or community in multiplicity, e.g. the Christian Trinity or “the individuall Catholicke Church” (as Milton still wrote). The singular noun “individual” emancipated itself from explicit and subordinate relation “to the group of which it was, so to say, the ultimate indivisible division” only late in the 18th century–a characteristic example of the new usage occurring in Adam Smith! The full-fledged ideology of “Individualism” emerged then in the 19th century, in the English translation of Tocqueville (characteristically, a French reflection on the young America), who calls it “a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth”. And the use of “character” for fictional agents dates in English from mid-18th century. Earlier, if applied to people at all, it had meant their more or less fixed nature, their reputation, or the fixed type and literary genre popularized by Theophrastus, La Bruyère, and Overbury. (10) Such  diametrically contrary meanings before and after the (say) Bacon-to-Rousseau watershed are an evident instance of how the interhuman or anthropological practice of a radically new social construction of reality changes even some basic elements of cultural vision, and thus of narrative and fictional horizons too. In this context, the Chinese practice up to, say, the 18th century ought to be a crucial test.

     To avoid misunderstandings, I shall add that none of my arguments so far speaks to the historical necessity and value–or the obverse–of the rise of Individualistic character, e.g. in Balzac. This is a domain in which we need much more fundamental investigation by scholars willing to admit, and if warranted compensate for, their inevitable initial bias, in order to strike a balance between what seem to me the obvious huge advantages and the obvious huge limitations of that truly historical process. For, the enrichment initially brought by the rise of such a “character” is undeniable, and cognate to the epoch of sudden changeability. A character is defined by having among its more numerous traits at least two culturally conflicting or contradictory ones. Therefore, its kind of behaviour cannot be fully foreseen–as different from the kind of behaviour of a Miser, an ingénue, a Senex, a Miles gloriosus or a Strongman, which is fully foreseeable (though, of course, the concrete or detail behaviour of any such type is not, otherwise one could write only one tale about each type). Nonetheless, without treading further into this minefield, I wish to note two limiting aspects to character.  First, it is as a rule built upon a metatextual (or should one say “bathytextual”?) existence of one or–as just noted–several types; I shall return to this in my discussion of the texts. Second, the victory of the Individualist character has never been complete. It was always confined not only to the Individualist epoch but also to its typical or dominant genres–e.g., to the psychological novel and the well-made play as against the fairy tale, the paraliterature, the farce, the melodrama, and the great bulk of modern avantgarde literature and drama of the last 100 years (which would in this hypothesis look like the beginning of the end of Individualism).

     The instability or “shallowness” of this agential level of characters may be seen in the semantic fact that their inalienable hallmark, the proper name, can be returned to social typicality and become a common noun simply by adding an article or a suffix. Of Molière’s two nearest approaches to character, Tartuffe became “les Tartuffes” in the plural already in his first placet to the King, in August 1564, and not too much later we find mention of “a tartuffe” and “tartufferie”; similarly, as of Molire’s (and then Mozart’s) memorable refashioning of Tirso de Molina’s don Juan Tenorio, that supposed individual readily passes into the notion of “le donjuanisme” and the plural “les Don Juans”: into a pattern or exemplar. Not to insist on the Chinese stage, an overcoded and thus possibly not stringent example, half a dozen agents from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San-guo-zhi yan-yi) alone have become popular types: e.g., Guan Yu an exemplary –even a deified! — emblem “of unwavering fidelity to his lord” (Ruhlmann 149–cf. S 83), or Zhuge Liang a generical noun for a shrewd and resourceful person.

  1. On the Agential Logic in Chinese Popular Fiction and on Its Types

2.1. I would hope that this or a similar approach might also throw some new light on one of the most vexed problems of Sino-European (and indeed North-South or bourgeois vs. Third World) comparative narratology, the debate about the absence of Individualist “round” characters from classical Chinese prose. As put by probably the most sophisticated theoretical overview in European languages, Professor Plaks’s “Toward a Critical Theory of Chinese Narrative”–which fortunately eschews the embarrassing pretensions of cultural imperialism that whatever is not bourgeois is aberrant–in the Chinese tradition “the uniqueness of the individual figure may derive less from the originality or novelty of individualized attributes, than from the particular combination of commonly-held human attributes brought together in his [i.e. the figure’s, DS] portrayal.” (11) Striving for further refinement, I would say that what is original in Individualist characters is not the attributes, which are by linguistic definition traditional (unless they are neologisms), but their combination around the axis of one or more doxologically incompatible pairs of attributes. Individualism has, of course, no monopoly on causal verisimilitude or presentation of detail. A non-Individualist narrative agent may well have a number of quite detailed traits, indeed an “extreme subtlety of delineation,” without at all ceasing to be a type: “the individuality of characters becomes less important than the interplay and overlapping of types that actually defines the individual’s existence in the first place”  (Plaks 344). In an insight crucial for agential theory in general (which I had ignorantly reinvented in “Per una teoria” [see note 1] à propos of Molière), Plaks brilliantly deduced that this distinction between type and overlap of types corresponds to and accounts for the difference between primary and secondary “characters” (i.e. agents) in Chinese narrative.  This is also of a piece with two further basic tendencies of agential deployment which he notes. First, “the blatant redundancy of characterization…–the constant reappearance of narrative figures with only a change of name and exterior details” (346; I would demur at “exterior,” the more so since Plaks goes on to demolish convincingly the disjunction of inner and outer self). Second, the development in longer Chinese fiction of “groups and sets of figures”–in my terms, a system of very few types which are presented either “purely” or, more interestingly, in various overlapping combinations, i.e. with various differential traits superadded to a common nucleus of traits–“rather than concentrating on the delineation of the individual hero in isolation” (Plaks 345). Examples would include the rebels in Outlaws of the Marsh (Shui-hu zhuan), the women in Jin-ping mei, the various groupings of intellectuals and/or officials as well as of plebeians in The Scholars (Ru-lin wai-shi), or the 12 girls of Prospect Garden and the Bao-yu–Dai-yu–Bao-chai triangle in Story of the Stone (Hong-lou meng). They latch on to a deep tradition of Chinese writing–already Szuma Chien’s biographies are categorized under “Assassins,” “Jesters,” “Money-Makers,” “Harsh Officials,” etc.

 2.2. In this light, the typology in the Outlaws is a revealing basic example. I would divide the axiologically positive narrative types to be found in this novel–all variants of the heroic protagonist-actant from the popular, oral-tale tradition–into three: the few female heroines or amazons, e.g. Goodwife Hu (who are more a concession to a folk taste for the marvellous than carefully explicated); and two main subdivisions of the male popular hero or hao han, good fellow: the cunning (e.g. the yamen scribe Song Jiang) and the strongmen. (12) Most of the about 100 male rebels at Liang-shan and all the female ones  will be a “pure” type.  The strongmen of Outlaws share the basic traits of hao han heroism or protagonism (savage courage, justice, macho generosity and loyalty to their sworn brothers, fondness for food and drink) and substitute strength to the guile of the cunning hao han. On top of this, they are mutually differentiated by personal appearance (physique, dress, quality in battle) which is as a rule related to their expressive nickname, and, I think,  by one further distinctive trait, usually a kind of emblematic fusion of temperament and social background  (Li Kui’s berserk subversiveness, Wu Song’s methodical destructiveness, etc.). Another important way of differentiation is the setting up within one trait  of sub-sets  (most important, of prowess in one particular weapon or guileful strategy rather than in another) and/or of quantitative gradations (Song Jiang’s supreme generosity makes him the outlaw leader).

     However, the narrative agents are here–as in most novels–divided into two groups, central and marginal. As opposed to the subsidiary “pure” types, the few main agents (the consensus doctorum pegs them at eight, all of them male) contaminate the predicates of the extant types, i.e. the cunning and the strong, in different ways. They therefore already seem to be–in a retroactive teleological illusion which I think is not necessarily correct–part of the way toward a “character” in the round sense. In that way, the agents of Outlaws would be comparable–though not quite identical–to Molière’s improvement on and step forward from the Commedia dell’arte, the agents of which are all on the same level of single type. Significantly, it was Rousseau’s reading of the misanthrope in the eponymous play that heralded the new epistémé‘s will to see characters in what everybody until then saw as types by Molière’s own definition.

     A somewhat unexpected and possibly highly significant conclusion emerges: the central, topical agential set as a whole in a Chinese text will equal (or surpass) the contradictory complexity and richness of traits found in a central character in an Individualist (Euro-American post-Cervantes) text of a comparable quality. If one wishes to put it into an oxymoron, in the Chinese (as in any non-Individualist) fictional tradition the group is the collective individual.

2.3. Much evidence of how these two types come from the tradition of protagonists in Chinese popular fiction–and finally from the reality and ideology of the Chinese class system–is to be found in Ruhlmann’s  cited essay. It distinguishes not only popular, scholarly, and princely heroes (though his typology is not always consistent), but also subsidiary types in prose fiction, drama, and historical writings: military heroes and solitary swordsmen, principled and oppressive officials, venerable immortals, various villains, virtuous women, heartless and golden-hearted courtesans, born rulers and romantic protagonists, filial and idle sons, etc. The list could be not only supplemented but also streamlined into a coherent typology with a finite number of coordinated and subordinated differences. I cannot do this here, but I would suggest that, beside subdivisions (officials ranking from low magistrate through judge to prime minister and indeed emperor, villains from cruel highwayman through traitor to the bad “last ruler”) and recombinations (the wicked prime minister combines traitor with supremely oppressive official), most types would have to be grouped around one or more good vs. bad axes. It would seem to me the fundamental Chinese tradition is one of robust moralizing in binary patterns, later complicated by Daoist dialectics and more complex patterns (e.g. the five elements in Cao’s agential system). Thus, should we wish to pursue the development of narrative agents in some further classical Chinese novels, we would have to note how in Wu Jing-zi’s Scholars (to be discussed in part 3) the agential system gets both more complex and presented in more complex ways than in Outlaws, while for Cao Xue-qin’s Story of the Stone I think nobody who does not know Chinese should dare to conclude just how different they are from characters (though I would speculate they were not intended to be European-style Individualist characters, so that even Bao-yu is for all his oscillations of mood not really an internally contradictory agent of the kind that Balzac’s Lucien or Proust’s Marcel are).

     This first discussion seems to confirm the hypothesis of my approach, i.e. that the key agential level, indispensable in all narrative, is the level of types in the sense of the above Table. It should be stressed that this is in the first instance a technical or alethic and not an axiological statement: only in the second instance, having clarified this formal aspect, the interpretation may intervene with a value judgment. Furthermore, my argumentation and exemplification will necessarily be laconic, pretending to a suggestiveness which should be developed further in the reader’s imagination rather than to a fullness for which a monograph would barely suffice.

  1. The Agential System of “The Scholars”

3.0. In this final part of my essay I want to analyze the agential system of the classical Chinese novel The Scholars by Wu Jing-zi (Wu Ching-tzu). I believe that highly significant comparisons could be drawn between it and a classical European novel such as Lost Illusions (Les Illusions perdues) by Honoré de Balzac. These would be restricted to inductions from their agential systems, but it is precisely on that basis that the two texts seem intuitively comparable, since the thematic or topical field of both could be called the disenchantments of the intellectual(s). However, that parallel must regretfully be left for another occasion. Indeed, space will allow me to insist only on some bold outlines and highlights of the groupings in S.

3.1. The “Xian-zhai lao-ren” Preface to the earliest extant (1803) edition of Wu’s Scholars, probably penned by the author himself, defines its topic-cum-attitude–and therefore the main profile and groupings of narrative agents–to my mind quite cogently as follows:

This book as a whole takes career, fame, wealth, and rank [gong-ming fu-gui] as its theme. There are those who are tempted by gong-ming fu-gui and play up to people, humbling themselves; those who, relying on gong-ming fu-gui, become stuck up and arrogant to people; those who pretend not to be interested in gong-ming fu-gui and consider themselves superior, only to be seen through and laughed at by people. There are others, however, who truly reject gong-ming fu-gui; ultimately, the book regards their level as the highest, like the rock which stands against the current. (13)

This Preface in fact develops the chord first struck at the very beginning of the book itself: “…in human life riches, rank, success and fame are external things….[T]heir taste is no better than chewed tallow. But from ancient times till now, how many have accepted this?” (S 1-2). One can begin delineating the agential groupings in the novel on the basis of this opposition between participation and non-participation in the gong-ming fu-gui rat-race.  Of the ca. 300 narrative agents in S, of which between 30 and 60 could be considered more important, a brief analysis striving for an overview can only mention those few whose position within the basic groupings in the text is so strategic that it will provide general orientations for the rest too. These strategic groupings may be examined in two main ways, syntagmatically and paradigmatically.

3.2. The syntagmatic grouping follows or better constitutes the development of the novel’s plot or fabula. It is by now not necessary to go on proving that Wu’s plot has a perfectly valid logic of its own. This could in part be analyzed following the evolution of social ceremonies and spaces, also of dreams, prophecies, and supernatural apparitions in S, but all of them are correlative to the narrative agents (e.g. the positive agents are characterized by laughing and by liking nature and their wives; the negative, by trusting ambiguous or false foretellings; etc.). Wu’s structuring, however, is not based on following the fates of a single group of narrative agents. It effects a cross-cut  composed of various, interlocking pragmatic and axiological agential groups representative for the whole huge and crucially important social class of literati or scholars and for the evolution of its social roles through several generations. These agents have to be linked by internal echoes and correspondences which validate their choice as exemplary and encompassing, in order to be felt by the reader as representative not only when presented singly but also when presented as a collective device that renders an encompassing (Lukcs would say “totalizing”) societal or anthropological perspective and judgment. I can here deal only with the major groupings. This means I shall regretfully disregard the doubtless important pairs of relatives and classmates, or the correspondences between single members of different groups. The same will hold for the very important trajectories of corruption which shift individuals and indeed families from the positive to the negative group, e.g. Kuang Chao-ren (Kuang Chao-jen), or the Bao (Pao) and Qu (Chu) generations (Hsia 229-30 and Wong 79) which almost resemble Gorkii’s Artamonovs (Delo Artamonovykh).

     I cannot discuss here either, but I wish at least to mention, one of Wu’s basic indirect techniques for limning narrative agents, which could be called the “delayed recognition” (time-bomb?) technique. It consists of a gradual introduction of different and often contradictory traits, so that only their cumulation and juxtaposition–including their cancelling each other out, mainly of words by deeds–will give a final picture. This necessitates close and repeated reading, but also makes for the reader’s more active involvement (much as in Brecht’s Verfremdung technique to which it is akin): the reader must weigh the often widely scattered traits by constant axiological judgment of how they form an ensemble.

     Also, I am adopting the five-part division of the novel suggested by Professor Hsia (224) and several others, organized around the “prologue” and “epilogue” of Wang Mian (Wang Mien) and the four eccentric plebeians as well as around the climax of the temple refurbishing in chapters 31-37, with the more episodic parts two and four filling in the remainder (chapters 2-30 and 38-54). I take the axiological status of the narrative agents to be consubstantial with this division; it is the interaction of agents (and their spaces or chronotopes) which constitutes Wu’s basic compositional logic.

     I believe Wu’s system of narrative agents can best be grasped as divided into three axiological groups: the clearly (but not as a rule totally) positive, the clearly negative, and the intermediary (in various degrees). This is a very rich and flexible system. Within it, the agents not only interact pragmatically but also constitute an almost continuous spread where their axiologically extreme groups interlace with the intermediate group. On the other hand, for all of its impliciteness, it is also a system with clear and indubitable values.

     The most positive agents are those who, while still retaining excellence in the traditional intellectual pursuits, totally opt out of the official system–the five plebeians framing the futile bustling about of the book’s insiders. They are not totally perfect either (nobody is, in this radical satire). Wang Mian, the peasant genius of chapter 1, represents a slightly idealized past. Even in it, one had finally to flee officialdom and the emperor by losing oneself in the plebeian mass; but one could at least for a while both be a recluse who lives off one’s painting and be consulted by the founding emperor-hero before he had consolidated his rule. This state of affairs is expressly demonstrated as preposterously impossible in the world of the other 54 chapters of the novel: where Zhuang’s (Chuang Shao-kuang) interview with the emperor must be foiled by the ludicrous scorpion sting, a kind of cosmic confirmation of the politics-as-jungle view exemplified at all levels of power from the envious prime minister down; where very few unofficial intellectuals can live from their work; and where people who pretend to opt out of society either do not really mean it or cannot manage to carry it off. This decay from a semi-open to a more and more closed political and psychological situation is indeed the prerequisite for understanding why all the other positive agents in the novel can–within the heightened pressures of the devolving system–be thought of as positive, although they are manifestly less perfect than the exemplary Wang Mian. They are doing the best that can be done in an increasingly corrupt age by withdrawing from officialdom; Wu’s both ethically absolute and yet at the same time historically pragmatic, unyielding but humane, value-system treats this withdrawal as clearly positive (the alternative would be to treat everybody after chapter 1 as negative, which seems obviously absurd). (14)

     Within the positive group, the four plebeians in the last chapter are to a great extent a highly significant and hopeful sign. But they too are far from perfect. First of all, not only have the traditional four leisure pursuits of the scholar been split off from public service, they have also been split among four people. Second, as opposed to the four commoners’ clearly positive functioning in the novel on the typical level, their characters have been rendered eccentric and to a certain degree genuinely unpleasant by the pressures of the extremely heavy system of social disapprovals and approvals wielded against them (cf. Lin 263). They are in fact–a fact which demonstrates Wu’s uncommon genius–the nearest this novel gets to Balzac-type characters, because they are beginning to live in an approximately Balzacian world. The strategic placing of these five plebeians at the beginning and end of S multiplies their effect: “The opening account of Wang Mien allows us to understand the irony ruling the action of all the dunces; the closing account of the four eccentrics makes us reflect back and understand subtleties we might have missed” (Wong 93). I shall return to the significance of the ending agents in 3.5. Finally, a few narrative agents in the intervening chapters serve as both after-riples of Wang and forebodings of the four plebeians, insofar as they observe the old virtues without being officials–notably a few women, the actor Bao Wen-qing and Filial Guo (Kuo Tieh-shan).

     At the other end of the axiological spread are a number of negative agents, those who subordinate learning to gong-ming fu-gui. They take the lion’s share, say 46 from the 55 chapters (though the chapters are not monolithic, and this little statistic is intended to indicate only orders of greatness, not precise proportions). I shall return to them below.

     The last major grouping is that of the  temple builders — Du Shao-qing, Dr. Yu, Zhuang Shao-guang, Chi Heng-shan, etc. (Tu Shao-ching, Yu Yu-teh, Chuang Shao-kuang, Chih Heng-shan). They occupy a syntagmatically, quantitatively, and qualitatively intermediate position, being treated as clearly more positive than negative but in some ways already tainted. Some of them participate in the official system, or attempt to gain fame and in some cases to make a career; at any rate each and every one of them  is doomed to ineffectiveness, and their supreme attempt at reinfusing vigour into old pieties to swift decay. Chapter 37, the temple consecration, is undoubtedly the compositional climax of the novel, in the sense that the general state of affairs in its world goes continuously downhill after it. No positive agents have a chance of even partial social or collective success any more; in particular, nobody expects the scholars’ efforts to be of any avail any more, so that the focus shifts away from them. However, the consecration can axiologically be treated either as    climax, or as anti-climax. (15) I would tend to see it as a subtle balance between both, correlative to my view that many among the most important narrative agents of classical Chinese prose (and of Wu Jing-zi in particular) are dialectically bipolar ones: their axiological center of gravity is always somewhat–and sometimes much–nearer to, but never quite identified with, one of the two ends of the spectrum.

     Thus, each of the three groups above should be treated not as a static point on the extreme ends or in the middle of an axiological gradation, but as a spectrum. A quantitative metaphor (no more) may indicate the spread of the first group, the negative agents. They range from a 99% negativity–found in conscious hypocrites; bullies like senior licentiate Yan (Yen); careerists and toadies of all ranks, the higher the worse, like Fan Jin (Fan Chin) and Wang Hui; impostors appropriating other people’s writings like Niu Pu-lang and Qu Xian-fu (Chu Hsien-fu); and of course combinations of all these–to a 70% negativity (e.g. the ba-gu essays’ compiler but kind friend Ma Chun-shang).  These various negative agents are the followers of gong-ming fu-gui stressed by the somewhat more orthodoxly Confucian Preface (cited in 3.1), which can therefore serve to effect internal delimitations within this group, as well as to delimit it from the positive one. The second or intermediate group is the clearly more positive than negative, say (as the Chinese habit would have it) “seven parts good and three parts bad” (70% positive), temple consecrators. The third or clearly positive group–accentuated equally by its restricted number, extreme social position, and syntagmatic collocation at beginning and end–is composed by the protagonists of the first and last chapter, who are perhaps 90% positive. Thus, within the overall bipolar spread, Wu’s system clearly tends towards negativity–as befits a satire.

3.3. With these last discussions I have already entered upon a paradigmatic grouping of narrative agents, by which is meant an ideal synoptic constellation in a logical space–a semantic topology–independent of the plot sequence (which can be thought of as its source or its unfolding). The various sets of narrative  types are used in S for the obvious express purpose of constituting a bipolar spread pragmatically and axiologically sufficient to encompass the whole “world of learning”–as the title could be translated (cf. the beginning of 3.4 below). The “world of learning” indicates not only the whole crucial social class of literati or intellectuals but also (by metonymy) the value-system officially paid lip-service to and subversively redefined in the novel as well as  the whole Chinese society.

     My hypothesis is that these sets of types can be organized in a few oppositions, all of which hinge upon learning and morality. Learning is here not to be taken simply as factual or ideological knowledge (either of which in its debased, rote form is indeed the epitome of fake or anti-learning). On the contrary, it is to be taken in the original sense going back not only to Lao-ze and Confucius but beyond them to the tribal values and the first dynasties: the sense in which no opposition is possible between the quantitative and qualitative face of cognition, expertise and wisdom, or–as the European Middle Ages put it — scientia and sapientia. In that precise sense (which only decomposed with capitalism), true learning necessarily entails personal contentment, and no agent in S who laughs long, loud, and sincerely enough is negative. It also entails morality: the possession of true learning, e.g. by those I shall call the three peaks,  is equivalent to an absolutely positive moral choice. This is best seen in the extreme case of the positive characters of chapters 1, 31-37, and 55, who could be represented by the Chinese ideogram for mountain, only here  with 2 higher peaks instead of   1 (where the height indicates value):

      !     !              !
!_!_!           !_!_!  SHOULD BE DRAWN PROPERLY

That choice awaits everybody, the unlearned too, but in the (truly) learned it has been preempted by the very act of learning. A first and partial table of the literati in S, which opposes true learning “pursued for its own sake” (Chang 344) to fake learning pursued for the sake of either career or fame, and in which morality is subsumed under learning (i.e. the learned are also moral, and the fake learned are also immoral), would be:


                                                       OFFICIALS                           NON-OFFICIALS

TRULY      LEARNED Dr. Yu, Prefect Qu (very few) the temple company
FALSELY  LEARNED almost all other  officials the fake poets &  essay publishers

     It is striking that learning in the course of S tends to become disjoined from officialdom: even Dr. Yu’s relative positiveness is correlative to his being teacher rather than magistrate and in Nanking rather than the capital. (16) All the other learned –and moral–officials either are fast disappearing remnants of the good old times (and even Yu dies soon after the temple ceremony) or get ruined by the supremely idiotic central bureaucracy, a national disaster and the quintessence of the “falsely learned officialdom.” The divergence, and at times even the opposition between officials and moral behaviour is, of course, a traditional theme of Chinese writing and moralizing. Now, however, a radical political disaffection becomes established among the intellectuals. A permanent “inverse relationship [is implied] between one’s status (or one’s status aspirations) and the moral quality of one’s behavior. This implication is made more explicit by the portrayal of lower-class people, such as actors and singers, who lead truly moral lives.” (Ropp 203). No wonder the “peaks” assiduously avoid becoming, or even meeting officials.

     Therefore, the above table, which deals only with distinctions between groups of real or pretended upper-class members, does not suffice any longer. Though this is what the literati traditionally were, one of the highly significant aspects of S is that it is showing and richly articulating the crucial historical juncture at which this can no longer be assumed. It is not only learning and morality but also learning and social status, or indeed class, that begin diverging sharply. At this juncture the literati begin constituting a bohemian-like middle class of their own, similar to the European intelligentsia (e.g. the Russian raznochintsy, literally “those from non-noble estates”), and for much the same fundamental sociological reasons. In some privileged cases they even fuse with the lower class; in S this holds for the initial and final (the highest) peaks–the peasant Wang Mian and the four eccentric  city plebeians at the end, whom I shall call the “five plebeians.” To the traditional “bad official” Wu adds a new type, the morally good and learned plebeian. This–the addition of a new type to the universe of discourse and values–is the most radical gesture that can be imagined in the agential domain. A more comprehensive table would therefore have to add the important lower-class agents:

       Class:                         OFFICIAL     NON-OFFICIAL         LOWER-RANK  LITERATI   


 AGENTSvery fewthe temple company5 plebeians, Bao, wives, Miss ShenIMMORAL

NARR. AGENTSall otherthe fake poetsmost other officials  & essayists

  Very interesting sociological-cum-ethical relations seem implied here: the moral fulcrum of S is situated in the ethical alliance between the bohemians and the lower class. This is exemplified in the relationship of the best “temple company” members to women (Du Shao-qing’s and Zhuang’s relation to their wives, Du’s helping Shen Jiong-zhi [Shen Chiung-chih], the girl who sturdily refused to become a nouveau riche merchant’s concubine), and also to some male plebeians (actor Bao or some old  servants). (17) Though Wu realistically focusses on male agents, and though he presents also corrupt or immoral women (e.g. the prostitute Pin-niang), the Confucian patriarchal tyranny is in S decisively tempered by a reliance on the female principle, in the female agents and in nature. The clearest example might be Wu’s substitution of an invented mother for Wang Mian’s father from the source he used (see Kràl, “Some Methods” 92-96). Father figures fare badly in this novel, an extreme but very significant exemplum being the loathsome Wang Hui, emblematically opposed to his son, “Filial” Guo. It should be stressed that women, actors, and servants were at the societal antipode from the officials, since they were the main groups legally prohibited from even attempting advancement through exams. The bohemians’ moral alliance with them transcends thus gentlemanly scorn of everyday mundanity (e.g. Confucian eremitism) and constitutes a clear denial of that basic social norm.

     The vertical divide in the above table, then, rejoins and amplifies the fundamental distinction between narrative agents who are and who are not under the sway of gong-ming fu-gui.  Wu’s agential paradigm seems to me most usefully expressed by means of a “semiotic quadrangle” which would also possess the peculiarity of the left-hand column being the positive or not swayed and the right-hand column the negative or swayed agents:

                                        + (POSITIVE)          – (NEGATIVE)




    or, in terms of representative agents:



Actually, the situation is more complex. In the positive, left-hand column both the plebeian worthies, beginning with Bao and the women and ending with the four plebeian experts of the final chapter, and the temple company should be situated at various points between Learning and Naivety. Similarly, in the negative, right-hand column the fame-seeking bad poets and essay publishers outside officialdom should be on a spread somewhere between Ignorance and Fake Learning. However, I shall here content myself with this first approximation. (18)

3.4. The authoritative Preface mentioned in 3.1 comments also on the novel’s title, which can be rendered as The Unofficial History (or: Historiography) of the World of Literati (or: of Learning). Its comment directly concerns the “unofficial history” half, which is opposed to and exalted above the pretence at “history proper,” the historiography of the rulers (e.g. the innumerable dynastic compilations) and the fiction mimicking such a history of the rulers (e.g. the Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Nonetheless, the Preface accepts those genres’ “concern with the actual, as opposed to the world of fantasy” (quoted and commented in Chang 341), e.g. as in Journey to the West (Xi-you ji). However, the comment has an indirect bearing also on the second half of the title. As mentioned earlier, the literati or scholars had in one, hegemonic sense been synonymous with officialdom, with the upper class power-structure and bureaucracy. The Preface suggests, and Wu’s novel I think carries out, a genre system in which S is (like the Outlaws and Jin-ping mei) situated in thiswordly actuality–not in a predominantly otherworldly fantasy–and yet it is also unofficial:

                                                                      ACTUALITY                           FANTASY

OFFICIAL HISTORY    historiography  ?,    3 Kingdoms
UNOFFICIAL HISTORY     Scholars   Journey

My question mark indicates the locus of an official history which would also be otherworldly. This does not seem possible as either historiography proper or fiction, but only as doxology, as religious mythology; it is perhaps approximated by a heterodox aestheticizing of such myths–say, “the Bible as literature.” In the non-theistic classical Chinese set it seems to be lacking (a zero-group).

     Within the unofficial-cum-actual history, furthermore, this Preface to S also establishes an opposition between S on the one hand and The Outlaws and Jin-ping mei on the other, which seems both complementary and isomorphic to the above one. S deals with human relationships that are, both in city and country, central to and centrally within the  ruling power-system, while Outlaws deals with a geographical and political margin of the system in an inaccessible marsh  and Jin-ping mei deals with a geographically less obvious but as strongly marked sociological and psychological margin, in a private courtyard. Precisely because it is marginal, the counter-system in each of these latter two novels, in the first case a public and in the second case a private one, can be finally eliminated. S formulates a more radical crisis of the societal system, since the opposition between true learning-cum-morality and the power-structure is irreversible. The sociological locus of these three novels marks the critical radicalness of S:

                                                    CENTRAL & IRREVERSIBLE     MARGINAL & REVERSIBLE

   CITY (PRIVATE)         Scholars Jin-ping mei
(Scholars spans both) Outlaws

          Thus, not only this Preface but Wu’s novel itself seems to me to claim for his horizons of a historiography of the non-rulers–largely based on anecdotal, diary, and joke sources, written or synchronous (19)–a moral and political relevance equal to Confucian historiography and its fictional imitators,  but from an opposed, unofficial or satirical point of view, from downside up or–perhaps better–from the axiological outside, turning the official value-system inside out (wai-shi, I am told, is also translatable as “outside historiography”). This would also explain why this chronicle-novel uses a number of important historiographic techniques, such as the oblique critique  and the biographical sketch or thumbnail characteristic of agents as well as the sparse and allusive unfolding of agential traits mentioned in 3.2 (20): all these devices are part and parcel of a counter-project of equal dignity and equally absolute axiological pretensions. This is, again, radically subversive of the hegemonic cultural opposition which allotted to historiography the public and to fiction the private sphere, and of the whole ensuing genre-system in Chinese literature (cf. Plaks “Towards a Critical Theory” 318-19): the public history has been ruled out of the axiological court. It is seen as a domain where fake values rule: as an axiologically inverted world, a mundus inversus.

3.5. This  investigation should be thought of as quite initial. Nonetheless, it already seems clear that Wu’s novel, together with the powerful social gesture of writing it the way it was written, touches simultaneously many bases–from a meta-reflection on friendly and power-free creativity (e.g., on an unofficial literary genre, xiao-shuo or popular fiction as the “fourth teaching”) (21) to the presentation of an englobing societal model. No doubt, the cognition brought by a significant novel is always richer than its conceptual translation or “ideological equivalent.” Nonetheless, S clearly  explores the inner decay of the traditional moral and ideological (though not yet of the power-wielding) hegemony, the gap–analyzed in 3.3–opening up between two diverging classes: the literati who are fake scholars, careerist pursuers of rank, wealth, and fame, and pillars of the power-system; and the literati who are (to different degrees) true scholars, pursuers of learning opposed to career, and allies of worthy women and plebeians (just as the Journey protagonists were, for all their weaknesses, true questers). It is in this context that the appearance of the four eccentric plebeians, finally the only upholders of the true scholarly  pursuits, acquires the nature of a colon.(22) For all their obvious individual limitations, as an agential group they are something new under the sun–a startlingly open-ended prefiguration of a possibly different state of affairs. In Wu’s classical formulation:

By the twenty-third year of the Wan Li period, all the well- known scholars had disappeared from Nanking….Pleasure haunts and taverns were no longer frequented by men of talent, and honest men no longer occupied themselves with ceremony or letters. As far as scholarship was concerned, all who passed the examinations were considered brilliant and all who failed fools. And as for liberality, the rich indulged in ostentatious gestures while the poor were forced to seem shabby…. Among the townsfolk, however, some outstanding figures emerged. (S 593)


* A first version of this paper, presented at the University of Hong Kong conference “Literature and Anthropology” in Dec. 1983, has been expanded and revised in many details. My thanks go for their invitation, hospitality, and helpfulness to the members of the UHK Department of English Studies and Comparative Literature, my colleagues Aqbar Abbas, Jonathan Hall, Tak-wai Wong, and in particular to Antony and Anita Tatlow. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada made possible my attendance by a travel grant. I am grateful to the discussants of the paper, especially to Dr. Chou Ying-hsiung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the respondent, and to Prof. Milena Venigerovà-Dolezelovà for indicating to me Słupski’s book, strangely non-existent in all “Western” bibliographies.

  1. See this initial hypothesis in Suvin, “Per una teoria dell’analisi agenziale,” Versus no. 30 (1981): 87-109, which contains a secondary bibliography of over 40 items; also in “On Dramaturgic Agents and Krleža’s Agential Structure,” Modern Drama 27 (1984): 80-97. A full version is in “Can People Be (Re)presented in Fiction,” in Cary Nelson, ed., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (U of Illinois P). After the first mention in a note, all critical works will be cited in the body of the essay by author’s name and page in parentheses; all translations are mine unless a translator is mentioned.
  2. My use of Pin-yin spelling will be subordinated to fidelity to whatever I am quoting from. The Chinese texts discussed will be cited the first time they are mentioned by the full title of the most accessible English translation and the Pin-yin title in parenthesis, after that by a short form of the English title. Wu Jing-zi’s The Scholars will be referred to as S with the page of the English translation by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (Beijing: FLP, 1973), and names from it will be given the first time in Pin-yin with the transcription used in the translation in parenthesis, and after that in Pin-yin only. I am indebted for counsel about, and help in finding secondary literature on, Chinese matters to Prof. Ward Geddes, Adrian Hsia, Paul Lin, and Sam Noumoff of the McGill East Asian Program, and for stimulative insights to the students of my Comparative Literature 1982/83 course on Chinese and European Classical Prose.
  3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Plon, 1958), 75 — to quote a fortunately not quite characteristic formulation by the methodological patron of Parisian semiotics.
  4. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, “Avtor i geroi v èsteticheskoi deiatel’nosti,” in his Èstetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1979; original 1920-24), 10-11; Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), 107-08, where three other laments ranging from 1936 to 1966 are also quoted; Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (London: Routledge, l980; original 1975), 230; E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962; original 1928). Let me add that Chatman exaggerates, for at least two kinds of glaring omissions may be easily found in his judgment: the trajectory from a theory of the “problematic individual” to a  theory of “typical characters” in Lukács’s opus, and the demonstration of larger applicability of Biblical typology in European literature culminating in the works of Auerbach. The two non-Structuralist precursors also mentioned in this paragraph are Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: U of Texas P, 1974; original 1928) and Etienne Souriau, Les Deux cent mille situations dramatiques (Paris: Flammarion, 1950).
  5. Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale deux (Paris: Plon, 1973), 168-69 and 172. The post-Lévi-Straussian structuralisant semioticians referred to in this segment are: Sorin Alexandrescu, Logique du personnage (Paris: Mame, 1974); Claude Bremond, Logique du récit (Paris: Seuil, l973); Chatman (note 4); A.J. Greimas, “Reflexions sur les modèles actantiels,” in his Sémantique structurale (Paris: Larousse, 1966); idem, “La Structure des actants du récit,” in his Du sens (Paris: Seuil, 1970); idem, “Les Actants, les Acteurs et les Figures,” in Claude Chabrol, ed., Sémiotique narrative et textuelle (Paris: Larousse, 1973); Philippe Hamon, “Pour un statut sémiologique du personnage,” Littérature no. 6(1972):86-110; François Rastier, Essais de sémiotique discursive (Paris: Mame, 1973).
  6. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1965), 172 and passim (original book publication 1957); cf. also Petr Bogatyrev, “Les Signes du théâtre,” Poétique no. 5 (1971): 24 (original 1938), and Souriau, 69 and 7l.
  7. Greimas, rôle pure and simple in “Structure” 256 and two incompatible types of rôles actantiels in “Actants,” 165-66 vs. 167, though his shifting, uneconomic, and overlapping categories also include rôle thématique in “Actants,” 171-75; this is analyzed in detail in Suvin, 90-94.
  8. Georges Doutrepont, Les Types populaires de la littérature française (Bruxelles: [Acad. R. de Belgique, Classe de Lettres, Vol. 22, 1925?]; Tzvétan Todorov, Poétique de la prose (Paris: Seuil, 1971); Anne Ubersfeld, Lire le théâtre (Paris: Ed. sociales, 1977).
  9. William Whewell, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (London: Parker, 1840), I:476-77.
  10. All the examples and quotes of English historical semantics in this paragraph come from Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1976), s.v. “Individual” and “Personality.”
  11. Andrew H. Plaks, “Towards a Critical Theory of Chinese Narrative,” in idem, ed., Chinese Narrative (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977), 309-52, here 347. The unacceptable face of “western” criticism can be represented by John L. Bishop, “Some Limitations of Chinese Fiction,” in idem ed., Studies in Chinese Literature (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1966), 235seqq., while its justified critique in Jaroslav Prusek, “Boccaccio and His Chinese Contemporaries,” in idem, Chinese History and Literature (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1970), 449-66, goes to the opposite extreme of exalting the Chinese vernacular storytellers’ attention to detail above Chaucer and Boccaccio, which seems at least in the case of narrative agents demonstrably inexact (cf. for another, balanced critique Eugene Eoyang, “A Taste For Apricots,” in Plaks ed.). See on the parallel between Chinese and European narrative also Prusek, “History and Epics in China and in the West,” op. cit., 17-34; and André Lefevere, “Some Tactical Steps Toward a Common Poetics,” and Plaks, “Full-length Hsiao-shuo and the Western Novel,” both in William Tay et al. eds., China and the West: Comparative Literature Studies (Hong Kong: The Chinese Univ. Press, 1980). Let me use my first note on historical references to observe that none of them will have pretensions to exhaustiveness; also, instead of drowning in a sea of references I have preferred to list the main ones and recur to them only in case of direct further citations.
  12. Cf. Robert Ruhlmann, “Traditional Heroes in Chinese Popular Fiction,” in Arthur F. Wright ed., The Confucian Persuasion (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960), 141-76, who opportunely points out that both “the advisers” and “the musclemen” are “fighters who use different weapons” (161); and James J.Y. Liu, The Chinese Knight Errant (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), 111seqq. I have also found useful a number of works in the (European) languages accessible to me. Beside the main surveys of Chinese history and literature I would mention on exemplary classification of people Derk Bodde, “Types of Chinese Categorical Thinking,” J of the American Oriental Soc. 59 (1939): 200-19, and on the Outlaws: Patrick Hanan, “The Development of Fiction and Drama,” in Raymond Dawson, ed., The Legacy of China (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964); C.T. Hsia, The Classic Chinese Novel (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980), chap. 3; Richard Gregg Irwin, The Evolution of a Chinese Novel: “Shui-hu-chuan” (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966); Peter Li, “Narrative Patterns in San-kuo and Shui-hu,” in Plaks, ed., Chinese Narrative, 80seqq.; V.S. Manukhin, “Khudozhestvennoe obobshchenie v pervykh kitaiskikh romanakh,” in Nauchnye doklady vysshei shkoli — Filologicheskie nauki no. 4(1959):56-66; V.I. Semanov, “Kitaiskii geroicheskii roman (XIV-XVI vv.) i ego rol’ v stanovlenii novoi literatury,” in Realizm i ego sootnosheniia s drugimi tvorcheskimi metodami (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1962), 54-95. An interesting theory of derivation of agential descriptions in the early Chinese novels from traits due (mainly) to the totemic tradition transmitted by oral tales is B.L. Riftin’s Ot mifa k romanu (Moscow: Nauka, 1979), which unfortunately does not deal with major works of fiction. This is partly compensated in his “Stanovlenie kitaiskogo romana,” in Genezis romana v literaturakh Azii i Afriki (Moscow: Nauka, 1980), 151-78, which discusses the colourful nicknames and descriptions of the Outlaws‘ agents as mediated by the tradition of the “forgotten acts” (ishi) or unofficial history genre.

     Let me also add that I understand usefulness often as stimulating disagreement (e.g. with Prof. Hsia, on whom I share the strictures of Prof. J.J.Y. Liu and then some; or with some Soviet critics insisting on prefigurations of realism and contradictory characters; or, in spite of my admiration for insights of the Plaks essay from note 11, I doubt some of its speculations in philosophical anthropology since I find the supposedly specifically Chinese principle of overlapping at work in pre-Individualist Europe too, as far as agents are concerned).

  1. I have taken the quote from Timothy C. Wong, Wu Ching-tzu (Boston: Twayne, 1978), 76, but also the liberty of contaminating it with the translation in Ch’u Chai and Winberg Chai, A Treasury of Chinese Literature (New York: Appleton Century, 1965), 249-50, bearing in mind also the comments in H.C. Chang, Chinese Literature: Popular Fiction and Drama (Edinburgh: UP, 1973), 34l. On this novel, I have also found useful Robert E. Hegel, The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981); Hsia; Yu-kung Kao, “Lyric Vision in Chinese Narrative Tradition,” in Plaks ed., 227-43; Oldrich Kràl, “Several Artistic Methods in the Classic Chinese Novel Ju-lin wai-shih,” Archiv orientálni 32 (1964): 16-43; Krl, “Some Artistic Methods in the Classic Chinese Novel Ju-lin wai-shih,” Orientalia Pragensia 3 (1964) :79-102; Shuen-fu Lin, “Ritual and Narrative Structure in Ju-lin wai-shih,” in Plaks, ed., 244-65; Plaks, “Towards a Critical Theory”; and the two richest studies, by Paul S. Ropp, Dissent in Early Modern China (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1981), and by Zbigniew Słupski, Ju-lin wai-shih: Próba analizy literackiej (Warsaw: Wyd. Uniw. Warszawskiego, 1979). Kràl’s “Several Methods” was perhaps the first substantial investigation in European languages into agential characterization in the classical Chinese novel, and he even began a division of traits into permanent and transient (23-24) and a comparison to Balzac-type agents — unfortunately limited by a sub-Lukácsian “theory of reflection.” On Professors Lin and Wong cf. Ropp, 208-l0. The translation of The Scholars used (see note 2) reads admirably well but contains a few important cuts. Finally, my arguments about the main agents are fortunately not affected by the scholarly debate about possibly apocryphal parts of S, mainly in its second half (cf. Słupski 46-51).
  2. I agree with Ropp’s comment (209) that had Wu fully shared the standards of Wang Mian, this would have kept him from writing –especially in his inimitable mixture of satire and delight in the world. Ropp’s corollary, that Wang was a Confucian sop to the official ideologists, does not necessarily follow. Indeed, Kràl’s analysis (in “Some Methods”) of how the Wang story was rewritten with respect to the source in Zhu Yi-zun seems to me to establish convincingly that Wu strongly stressed Wang’s peasant values, as against the official Confucian ones.
  3. Only specialists in Chinese literature can dare to participate in the discussion whether the consecration ceremony in chap. 37 is meant to be taken with a lump in the reader’s throat, or sarcastically, or in between — in particular since the relevant, apparently repetitious passages have been cut from S. Cf. the positive opinion of Lin vs. the scepticism of Inada Takashi, discussed in Wong 66-68 and Ropp 180-81, and the uneasy hesitation of Hsia, 337-38. Wong’s view would also seem to be more or less positive if it is to fit into his general thesis of “Confucian eremitism” as Wu’s ideal horizon: yet if the test of any Confucianism, however unorthodox, is loyalty to the hierarchical values of the State, this escape vent does not seem tenable. However, as I go on to hint above, my view is that Wu’s agents are bipolar and not monadic, so that this discussion becomes somewhat secondary, if still important. The “bipolarity” refers partly to general views about “complementary bipolarity” in the Chinese tradition, e.g. in Chang Tung-sun, “A Chinese Philosopher’s Theory of Knowledge,” The Yen-ching J. of Social Studies 2 (Jan. 1939):168 and passim, and Andrew Plaks, Archetype and Allegory in the Dream of the Red Chamber (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), chap. 3. It also refers to some unpublished work of mine where I intend to draw parallels between the Asian tradition and the dramaturgical agents in Brecht by means of both the European dialectics culminating in Marx and the more continuous Chinese tradition of dialectics running at least from Lao-zi and Mo-zi on (cf. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1956] II, especially 273ff.; Antony Tatlow, “Peasant Dialectics,” in Tay et al., eds., 277-85; and S.J. Noumoff, “La Dialectique et notre temps,” in La Valeur des classiques chinois pour notre temps [(Bruxelles): Institut des hautes études de Belgique, 1970], 131-40) and to Mao Ze-dong’s essay “On Contradiction” and its notion of bipolar contradiction with one hegemonic side to it (in Selected Works [London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955]) I:36, 42 and passim.
  4. I hope something like my formula of “7 parts good, 3 parts bad” may avoid unchecked ideologicity in judgments about single narrative agents in S. The clearest case is that of Dr. Yu. He is treated as wholly positive by John D. Coleman, “With and Without a Compass,” Tamkang R. 7, no. 2(1976):67, because he “represents the Confucian ideal itself” (and even Słupski believes Dr. Yu is clearly Wu’s “most highly prized figure,” 102). On the other hand, it seems that the excellent critic Wu Zu-xiang can say that Yu, “… cultivating exclusively his own benevolence (hou-dao) and lenience (shu-dao), in reality incites others to wickedness” (transl. from the Polish of Słupski 116). In fact, I suspect Wu Jing-zi was using some subversive modification of moral gradings well known in Chinese tradition–cf. Marcel Granet, La Pensée chinoise (Paris: Albin Michel, 1950), 97-98 and the chap. “Les nombres”; or Ban Gu’s and Ban Zhao’s grades in Qian Han Shu (in Bodde, note 12).
  5. Cf. on Wu’s truly democratic attitude toward women and actors Ropp 64 and 133-40, Hsia 231, and Yao Xue-yin in Ru-lin wai-shi yan-jiu lun ji (cited in Słupski 24).
  6. Cf. for the clearest explication and use of this quadrangle, initiated as a syntactic formalism by A.J. Greimas, the writings of Fredric Jameson–e.g. The Prison-House of Language (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), 162-68, and The Political Unconscious (Ithaca NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 198l), 166-68–to whom I owe many stimulating insights. My position toward Lukács’s theory of typification, which is similar to Jameson’s indication of both its pioneering insights and its insufficient articulation and autonomy (e.g. in Unconscious 162), is developed in “Can People…?” (see note 1).
  7. Cf. Słupski 72, 107, and passim, and the works of He Ze-han and Wu Zu-xiang cited there.
  8. Cf. for the use of historiographic techniques Kràl “Several Methods” 26 and Lin 259-64; also Wu Zu-xiang (quoted in Wong 96 and Słupski 29-30) who seems to have most clearly stressed Wu Jing-zi’s innovative use of such techniques, including those of characterization correlative to active reading (for which cf. also Słupski 115-16 and passim). As for some clear debts to the Outlaws, these seem to be largely also refunctioned in the more radical S; the mythical framework of the “falling stars,” e.g., is in Wu a quite inconsequential reminiscence (cf. also Słupski 152).
  9. I refer to Qian Da-xin’s formulation, contemporary to Wu Jing-zi:

In ancient times, there were three teachings, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Since the Ming dynasty there is one more–called xiao shuo [or popular fiction]….[A]mong gentry, peasants, workers, and merchants, there is no one who does not practice it. Even children and women–illiterates– frequently see and hear [it performed]. It is their teaching, and compared with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, it is more widespread. (cited in Ropp 53, transliteration changed)

The powerful official attempts to suppress many novels and plays, or indeed to stigmatize all colloquial fiction as vulgar, are well known (cf. Ropp 72-73 et passim).–The exact philosophical nuance of Wu’s structure of feeling, probably akin to contemporary “left Wang Yang-ming” currents, and the correlative social addressee of S is a quite fascinating subject, indispensable for a final evaluation of S, which would however demand a further essay if not a monograph; cf. among many other general discussions Ropp and Hegel passim, also Prusek’s book from note 11, Hanan’s essay from note 12, André Lévy, Le Conte en langue vulgaire du XVIIe siècle (Diss. Univ. of Paris VII, 1974), 223-26, 278-94, 320-24, 336-42, 50lseqq., and 535-42, and O.L. Fishman, Kitaiskii satiricheskii roman (Moscow: Nauka, 1966), 11-19, 94-95, and 170-92.

  1. The ending of a fictional narrative (at least in an “epic” as opposed to a mythological or cyclical text) is a special and crucial syntagmatic segment. It is the place where the sum of all the syntagmatic choices reaches its textual end-result, and from which the narration both retrospectively valorizes all the choices from the preceding segments and leaves the social addressee with a built-in directive of how to apply the reading to her/his empirical actuality. Cf. Volker Klotz, Geschlossene und offene Form in Drama (München: Hanser, 1962); and Iurii M. Lotman, “O modeliruiushchem znachenii poniatii ‘kontsa’ i ‘nachala’ v khudozhestvennykh tekstakh,” Tezisi dokladov vo vtoroi letnei shkole po vtorichnim modeliruiushchim sistemam (Tartu: Univ. of Tartu, 1966), 69-74 (also in Ju.M. Lotman, Aufsätze zur Theorie und Methodologie der Literatur und Kultur [Kronberg Ts.: Scriptor, 1974]), and his The Structure of the Artistic Text (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, 1977), 209-16.
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