The Status of Fiction in Traditional Northeast Asian Literary Culture

A while back, I mentioned how, in 1632, the commoners around Shaoxing (in China) had planned to cosplay the characters from the famous wuxia novel The Outlaws of the Marsh, hoping to appease the gods into making it rain so a famine could be avoided, and some of the local literati had gotten involved, donated some cloth and lots of money, and turned the thing into a massive Harajuku-meets-Vegas stage production extravaganza.

Ah, late Ming China! Ah, Zhang Dai!

500This mini-anecdote leaves me slightly skeptical about parts of the introduction of Peter H. Lee’s translation of the Imjin Rok, titled in English The Record of the Black Dragon Year (a Korean text roughly contemporaneous to The Outlaws of the Marsh, which seems to be a collection of legends and folk stories about—and contemporaneous to—the Japanese Invasion of the Korean peninsula between 1592-1598, also known as the Imjin War). Lee claims that at the time,

…writing fiction was still despised in the context of the traditional East Asian literary canon that regarded only poetry and certain forms of prose written in classical Chinese as primary genres. Fiction was still rejected as disrupting customs and corrupting morals. Broadly speaking, there were several reasons for rejection: fiction presents examples of negative human types such as malcontents, dissenters, outlaws, and rebels; it is morally harmful because it depicts passions, fantasies, and dreams that are best suppressed; it presents a distorted version of the real world and depicts at times such improbabilities as traffic between human beings and the dead, ghosts, and other supernatural beings; it exposes people’s instinctual behavior, especially sex, and stimulates base desires, a hindrance to moral education; and it creates a world other than that sanctioned by authority and therefore offers an unofficial view of reality.

Personally, this reasoning strikes me as funny, since practically everything cited as bad about fiction in the above quote, is actually something I see as a salutary effect of fiction. If it weren’t for malcontents and dissenters, there would never be peasant uprisings, or regicides1; stories of human traffic with ghosts and the dead and other supernatural beings are fun and interesting; but most of all, because fiction does have the power to challenge the—usually stupid, corrupt, and narrow—official view of reality, and spur people to change it… because those passions, dreams, and fantasies? They may not all be utopian, but utopianism of any kind—a prerequisite for fighting for radical change—is impossible without space for passions, dreams, and fantasies that transgress against both authoritarian rule and the status quo. Essentially, the objections to fiction amount to it being a threat to a proto-fascistic order. 2

Still, what jumps out at me about the above passage is how familiar all the objections are: I’ve heard the same lurid claims from my own students in the past, offered to everything from science fiction in general, to TV shows, to computer games, to historical comedy films. (One student decried the anachronisms and humor in Monty Python’s The Quest for the Holy Grail, arguing it was stupid to have peasants and knights talk in an ahistorical manner.) Especially, the objections I’ve heard to online gaming come to mind, and lest you forget, I’m talking about a society where the government actually mandated a curfew-like nighttime blockage for all underage users for domestic MMORPGs. Likewise, the moral panic over homosexuality being depicted in television dramas was mostly founded on arguments that children might be “influenced” (ie. turned into little homosexuals) by exposure to fictional homosexual characters. The Third Person Effect is pretty much taken for granted here to the point where even teenagers and college students have deeply internalized it.

(I don’t know about North American kids today, but when I was a teenager, I—and friends of mine—laughed at and mocked the idea that video games or TV shows could breed real-life violence and perversion: after all, we were constantly playing violent games, watching violent movies, and roleplaying the slaughter of any number of unsuspecting orcs, dragons, and other dungeon-dwellers… and yet none of us had gone on a killing spree or begun to worship Satan!)

What’s funny, though, is that Lee also mentions that everyone was reading fiction, from lettered commoners renting books for a small fee (a  new industry, spurred by a flood of Chinese fiction into Korea), to the ladies and scholars at court reading fiction for enjoyment. There’s even a note in Lee’s introduction about The Outlaws of the Marsh, though Lee uses an alternate English title for the text:

Letters written in Korean by Queen Insŏn (1618-1674) of King Hyojong to her daughter Princess Sunmyŏng ask her to return Water Margin and two other works of fiction she had borrowed. When Princess Tŏgun, the third daughter  of King Sunjo (1800-1834), married, she is said to have brought with her some five thousand volumes of books including fiction. It appears that a large number of imaginative stories entered the palace—including multivolume works of fiction kept in the Naksŏn Study in Ch’angdŏk Palace obtained probably through the lending library.  (pg. 7-8)

That is, of course, in the course of a discussion of the rise of professional fiction writing in Korea, an interesting topic in itself. But anyway, it seems that traditionally the authors (and translators) wouldn’t sign their names to the texts, and the readers kept their reading activities quiet. Fiction, in Korea at least, was very much a guilty pleasure until the 1800s, according to Lee’s account, and he seems to want to suggest that this was general in East Asia as well.

014311445X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_But how to explain Chinese scholar Zhang Dai’s unapologetic (and very public) enthrallment with The Outlaws of the Marsh? Zhang Dai was something of an iconoclast, sure, but not only did he fast-track the event I mentioned in my last post about him—a massive cosplay festival based on The Outlaws of the Marsh/Water Margin—but he also succeeded in diverting public funds to make it happen, but he also wrote a series of poems about each of the bandit characters in the novel, as well as praising one of his artist friends who’d gone and draw illustrations of each of the figures.

Is it that Shaoxing was out in the boonies, and if Zhang Dai had been in Beijing he’d have been more secretive about it? Or is Lee overstating the case, or overgeneralizing the Korean elite’s disdain for fiction to East Asia overall? Or was Zhang Dai an outrageous eccentric in this, as in some other areas of his life?

(UPDATE (30 June 2015): Since this post has been brought up to me in person, and it seemed like my point hadn’t been clear: I believe Lee is generalizing the Korean elite’s pretended disdain for fiction to East Asia; moreover, to be frank, personally I’m dubious it was even really true of the Korean Neo-Confucian elite in the Joseon era as anything more than just public posturing. I’m pretty sure that elites were embracing fiction the same way people embrace anything fun, and just felt they needed to disclaim it publicly and in writing.)

I’m not sure of the answer to any of those questions—I don’t know enough about Chinese literary history to know if fiction really occupied quite as ignominous position there as it did in Joseon-era Korea. However, there is an interesting parallel: Chinese history was also much more turbulent in terms of uprisings and rebellions than Korea’s history was, by far, and again, part of that ties to the size of China’s empire: there were all kinds of places distant to the capital where dissent could fester, and all kinds of marginalized ethnic minorities for whom the “official view” of the world was inherently suspect, if not downright fantastical. Centuries later, when the Taiping Rebellion exploded across Southern China, it was in a landscape where wuxia stories were known and beloved, and where for that matter famous river bandits allied with Triads like Heaven-and-Earth Society, figures who could have walked right out of the pages of The Outlaws of the Marsh, trawled the local waterways and turned out to be crucial in the Taiping’s campaigns against the foreign Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty.3

As I’ve noted before, I find the idea of absolutes and fundamental essentials in culture much less useful and interesting than the idea of tensions created by between coexisting, diametrically opposite tendencies.4 I’m not just talking about the public dismissal of fiction by elites, and the enthusiastic embrace of it by the lower classes, mind you. I mean, those commoners who found solace in fiction, were also using the fiction as a form of escapist fantasy, right? Which suggests that to whatever degree fiction worked as subversive entertainment, it also braked subversive revolt. (The revolution obviously will not be televised because if it were, in any fashion even remotely entertaining, everyone would stay home and watch it, and nobody would show up for the actual revolution.)

Likewise, the elites who dismissed the stuff as morally corrupting trash, were also attracted to it because of its forbidden nature, and because on some level they realized that fiction was the place where one might encounter those truths that were routinely and necessarily suppressed from public, official culture and discourse… truths of which nobody in the elite could honestly remain wholly unaware, since they were directly involved in the manufacture and promulgation of the official discourse that actively suppressed those truths, even more so that discourse shifted, sometimes radically and sometimes within their own lifetimes.

All of which is to say that I find Lee’s version of the story a little simplified… maybe because it’s in an introduction, sure, but it’s still very black-or-white, not even black-and-white… and I don’t think one gets a properly sophisticated sense of historical attitudes until one starts to see the mushy edges of where black and white rubbed against one another and started to meld and blend into a confused mess of obvious, openly grey self-contradictions.

I’ll have more to say about The Record of the Black Dragon Year itself soon, as it is truly a bizarre text worth a few lines of discussion in and of itself.

  1. And yes, I’m suggesting that regicide in itself is a good… though mostly because people who claim royal privileges won’t vacate the throne except in a body bag.

  2. This helps explain Ezra Pound’s attraction to Confucius, incidentally, but I’ll save that for my next post in my series on Pound’s The Cantos.

  3. See Spence’s glorious book on the Taiping Rebellion, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, for more on the river pirates, especially on pages 81-84.

  4. An idea I’ve stolen from this essay on utopian fiction by Charles Elkins and Darko Suvin.

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