In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pre-Ming Narrative Literature

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Anthologies in English Translation
  • Journals
  • Gender
  • The Supernatural

Chinese Studies Pre-Ming Narrative Literature
Anne McLaren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0086


Chinese narrative literature before the Ming period (i.e., before 1368) comprised historical accounts, biographies, myth, ballads and narrative poetry, stories about gods, ghosts and immortals, records of anomalies and strange events, fictional tales based on everyday life, and historical fiction in chronicle format. Histories, biographies, narrative poetry, and myth are usually treated as separate categories, whereas more obviously fictional texts are grouped together under the rubric of xiaoshuo 小說 (“sayings about minor events,” fictional writings). This article will deal with works deemed to be xiaoshuo in the Chinese tradition, or works that exhibit qualities similar to xiaoshuo. In the development of Chinese narrative, historical works are given primacy as the paradigmatic Chinese narrative from which fictional works gradually emerged. The influence of historiography on early fiction and the blurring of strict boundaries between the history and fiction is a constant theme in scholarship on pre-Ming xiaoshuo. Throughout the imperial period, fictional works suffered from a loss of prestige due to the attitudes of the ruling elite, whose views reflected the dictum of Confucius that records of matters of the Minor Way (xiaodao小道) are of limited worth and superior men (junzi 君子) should not engage in their transmission. Nonetheless, there were men of the elite who composed xiaoshuo-type writings for a range of reasons. These included a wish to entertain their social circle, to display their literary versatility, to record anomalous or supernatural occurrences, or simply as a means of personal expression. The introduction of Buddhism into China from the 2nd century led to the large-scale translation of Buddhist sutras into Chinese, including richly imaginative stories associated with Indian Buddhism. Manuscripts associated with Buddhist preaching were increasingly read and copied by lay people, as evident in the treasure trove of manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang dating back to the 5th century. Dunhuang texts provide early evidence of the popularity of prosimetric narratives (where prose alternates with verse). This later developed into elaborate secular narratives such as the zhugongdiao 諸宮調 (a form of storytelling employing narrative, dialogue, and set tunes). Buddhist preaching and text genres left an indelible mark on the development of fiction in China, greatly stimulating the production of texts in the vernacular as distinct from the classical style, and significantly expanding the repertoire of topics and themes. Pre-Ming xiaoshuo texts were reproduced in the Ming period and provided a vast repertoire of stories and themes drawn on repeatedly in fiction and drama throughout the imperial era.

Introductory Works

Liu 1966 provides a basic introduction together with translations of excerpts from some of the most famous Tang (618–907) fictional tales. Idema and Haft 1997 offers a brief but highly informative overview of the chief authors and genres of early Chinese narrative, together with a list of key readings in English up to the mid-1990s. Pimpaneau 1989 provides a vivid overview of the history of Chinese literature and major works. Ma 1998 offers a useful summary of the chief genres of Chinese fiction and insight into generic ambiguities. Mair 2001 comprises substantial chapters written by a large number of scholars on many topics relevant to pre-Ming narrative. Xiaoshuo genres covered include records of anomalies, Tang chuanqi 傳奇 (short stories in classical language), Dunhuang bianwen 變文 (vernacular tales), and prosimetric narratives. Other chapters deal with matters of broad interest such as Chinese language, the supernatural, women in literature, literary criticism, and the reception of Chinese literature overseas. The more recent work in Chang and Owen 2010 provides up to date scholarly analysis of a more limited range of works, but aims at positioning these within a coherent chronological framework. The focus tends to be more on China’s elite tradition, particularly classical poetry, but the chapters on narrative included here will be invaluable to the student and scholar. The Plaks 1977 study of conceptual boundaries in Chinese narrative has been very influential in the field. The author argues for the “inherent commensurability” of history and fiction in the Chinese case. This work is indispensable for those interested in comparative narrative theory.

  • Chang, Kang-I Sun, and Stephen Owen, eds. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    An authoritative overview of the history of Chinese literature in dynastic sequence. Discusses anecdotes about strange events, classical stories of the Tang period, tales of Buddhist miracles, and Dunhuang texts. See particularly these sections: Xiaofei Tian, “Accounts,” pp. 210–213; Stephen Owen, “The Cultural Tang,” pp. 328–337; Wilt L. Idema, “Dunhuang Narratives,” pp. 373–380, and Wilt L. Idema, “Prosimetric and Verse Narrative,” Vol. 2, pp. 342–412.

  • Idema, Wilt L., and Lloyd Haft. A Guide to Chinese Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1997.

    A succinct survey of key texts in Chinese literature from earliest origins to 1990. Contains a brief discussion of the emergence of fictional works from historical writing, pp. 76–84; Tang classical short stories, pp. 134–139; vernacular narratives from Dunhuang, pp. 143–145, and pinghua historical narratives, pp. 161–164. The Bibliography lists key works and translations in English. A Chinese-language glossary and index of authors and key works is appended.

  • Liu, Wu-chi. An Introduction to Chinese Literature. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1966.

    Dated but still useful general introduction for those new to the field. Chapter 10, “Literary and Colloquial Tales” contains basic information on the most famous Tang chuanqi tales, pp. 141–158.

  • Ma, Yau Woon. “Fiction.” In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Rev. ed. 2 vols. Edited by William H. Nienhauser Jr., Charles Hartman, Yau Soon Ma, and Stephen H. West, 31–48. Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1998.

    A brief survey of texts deemed fictional. Ma’s generic definitions have helped to shape understandings of the scope of the term xiaoshuo and its relationship to works of history and works that more obviously relate to fiction.

  • Mair, Victor H., ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

    Contains chapters written by specialists in the field with a useful list of key readings, index, and glossary. For narratives, see particularly Hu Ying, “Records of Anomalies,” pp. 542–554; William H. Nienhauser Jr., “T’ang Tales,” pp. 579–594; and Neil Schmid, “Tun-huang Literature,” pp. 964–988. Wai-Yee Lee, “Full-Length Vernacular Fiction” pp. 621–658; Anne E. McLaren, “The Oral-Formulaic Tradition,” pp. 989–1014; and Rania Huntingdon, “The Supernatural,” pp. 110–131. Aims at providing an accessible overview informed by the latest research. Extensive index.

  • Pimpaneau, Jacques. Histoire de la littérature chinoise. Paris: Editions Philippe Picquier, 1989.

    A good chronological overview of the history of Chinese literature with frequent discussion of the themes and literary characteristics of key texts, enlivened with reproductions of original woodblock illustrations. See particularly “Prose of the Tang and Song,” pp. 255–275; “Popular Literature,” pp. 276–315; “Historical Themes,” p. 336–361; and “Love Stories,” pp. 362–392.

  • Plaks, Andrew H. “Towards a Critical Theory of Chinese Narrative.” In Chinese Narratives: Critical and Theoretical Essays. By Andrew H. Plaks, 309–352. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

    Contains a much-cited analysis of narrative subgenres from official historiography to mimetic fiction. Essential reading for those with an interest in traditional Chinese theories of narrative.

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