In recent years, gratifying achievements have been made in the field of ancient Chinese fiction, as it is an important task for domestic researchers to inherit and disseminate traditional culture.
Ancient Chinese fiction covers extensive research fields, said Chen Wenxin, a professor from the College of Chinese Language and Literature at Wuhan University. Scholars have achieved prolific results by compiling fiction literature, writing fiction catalogs, and collecting research materials on fiction. Progress has also been made in ancient Chinese fiction’s general history research, narrative research, stylistic discrimination research, and cultural research.
The first hot topic in the field was the study of fiction in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), particularly regarding classic Zhanghui-style novels, a type of Chinese novel where each chapter was headed by a couplet which gives the gist of the upcoming narrative. In this context, research of the dissemination and reception of Ming and Qing fiction, and studies of fictional illustrations have emerged, with an aim of opening up research space beyond textual research, Chen continued.
According to Ji Dejun, dean of the College of Humanities at Guangzhou University, scholars of ancient Chinese fiction tend to learn from the knowledge and approaches of sociology, ethics, folklore, religious studies, and literary geography, conducting multi-dimensional and multi-level interdisciplinary fictional research. Many of these researchers have conducted multi-aspect studies on social life through the lens of ancient fiction. Based on literary perspectives, they focus their research on fictional narratives and fictional genres. In terms of fictional genres, scholars have begun to probe interpenetrations of different fictional styles and interactions between fiction and shuochang (literally tell and sing) literature, when investigating the origins of fictional styles.
However, many scholars choose to pay more attention to modern fiction. This may be due to the large archival records for modern works of fiction which were published in newspapers, Ji added. As such, modern fiction studies, from the perspective of mediology, medio-translatology, and sociology, have increased in large numbers. In addition, more and more young scholars have engaged in the study of ancient Chinese fiction from the perspective of cultural exchanges between China and other countries, particularly in terms of overseas translation, dissemination, and influence of classic ancient fiction.
According to Ning Jiayu, a professor from the School of Literature at Nankai University, since the 20th century, the study of ancient Chinese fiction—an integral part of modern Chinese academia—has basically followed Western academic paradigms and academic systems. Research visions and paradigms have mainly focused on the history of literary styles as well as individual authors and their works. After the 1990s, despite remarkable research achievements in China, most researchers have not paid sufficient attention to constructing a theoretical system with Chinese characteristics and updating their research paradigms, generally lacking innovation, subject awareness, and practice.
Many studies have been launched on illustrations, which are an important part of ancient Chinese fiction and play a role in the construction and formation of ancient fictional genres. In Chen’s view, illustrations complement and strengthen scene descriptions, performing certain intervention functions in the reading process.
The adoption of painting forms in different literary genres embodies different social and cultural attributes and value orientations, Ning noted. Fictional illustrations were mainly distributed in vernacular popular fiction, exhibiting the spirit of Chinese civic culture. Illustrations and fictional writing together enhance the demonstration and influence of civic cultural values. However, current research involves more superficial correlations, leaving room for scholars to dig into deeper connotations.
Illustration studies in ancient fiction are mainly conducted from the perspectives of pictorial narration or fictional dissemination. Little research has been done on the functions and significance of illustrations in the construction of fictional genres. In Ji’s view, illustrations are only a supplement and auxiliary means of fictional narration. Their influence on the construction of fictional styles is limited, and thus cannot be overstated.
Ancient Chinese fiction studies have contributed much to sinology, Ning said. Japanese and other Asian scholars highlight micro literature research and actively compile massive troves of ancient works of fiction. In contrast, European and American scholars mainly examine ancient Chinese fiction with Western philosophy and literary criticism theoretical models. They take ancient Chinese fiction as examples and materials to interpret, confirm certain theoretical criticism points, and provide additional reference due to their sharp and novel theoretical thinking.
Compared with domestic researchers, international scholars are more interested in classic ancient Chinese fiction, Ji said. European and American scholars show more interest in ancient Chinese people’s romances, family lives, and gender issues displayed in classic Chinese fiction. They also tend to focus on religions, beliefs, and mysterious cultures referenced in ancient fiction. Japanese and South Korean scholars concentrate on the versions, reception, and dissemination of ancient Chinese fiction.
Overseas studies of ancient Chinese fiction are quite different and cannot be generalized, Chen concluded. For example, Japanese scholars emphasize in-depth case studies, while European and American scholars prefer cultural studies, especially material and technical cultures.