Appropriation and Representation: Feng Menglong and the Chinese Vernacular Story.
When Feng Menglong (1574-1646) published the three collections, known as the Sanyan, of forty vernacular stories each, he not only included pre-existing stories but also wrote or rewrote a number of them himself and extensively edited his materials. In view of his contribution to the final shape the stories took, he may well be regarded as their author, even though "he appropriated meaning to his own purposes not so much by 'creative writing' (in its narrow sense) but by revising pre-existing source materials, by speaking through others' words" (p. 153). Shuhui Yang concludes at the end of his study of some of Feng Menglong's authorial interventions that "Feng deliberately manipulated and subverted elements of popular literature as part of the narrative strategy he devised to elevate the Sanyan stories to a higher level of literary sophistication" (p. 153).
Yang starts out by taking a closer look at the preface to the first of the three collections, Gujin xiaoshuo (also known as Yushi mingyan). In this preface, which may be by Feng Menglong, the status of vernacular short fiction is broached by making two claims. On the one hand, the author of this preface traces the history of the genre to the imperial court of the twelfth century, where, according to him, written tales were presented for reading to the retired emperor Gaozong and subsequently also were distributed outside the palace. In view of the importance Yang attaches to the "anxiety of service" he later attributes to Feng Menglong (in chapter four), he might perhaps have paid more attention to this highly remarkable and, for all we know, unhistorical claim. He prefers, however, to stress the second claim in the preface that identifies the vernacular tale as text, as far as the power to move one's audience is concerned, with the oral performance of the professional storyteller. This, in turn, is linked w ith the cult of authenticity in certain circles of late Ming literati. "For Feng, the vernacular story's most important aspect was its folk origin. Because it was believed to come from the people, it carried, as did its sister genre the folk song, the legitimating aura of general sentiment. So that it looked like folk literature, the vernacular story had to be presented as anonymous, and it needed to display some evidence of orality. In other words, a vernacular story should essentially be a written rendition of a storyteller's oral representation, rather than a direct imitation of life" (p. 41).
The second chapter, entitled "Ventriloquism through a Storyteller" (pp. 45-78), deals with the ways in which Feng Menglong as author manipulated the persona of the storyteller-narrator in his stories. While in many cases the implied author (and the author of the marginal comments) appear to share the opinions of the storyteller-narrator (particularly in stories "on friendship, leadership, and the recognition of worthy men" [p. 73]), at other times the commentator explicitly corrects the narrator. In many cases, Yang argues, we must assume a discrepancy between the narrator and the implied author. This discrepancy goes, in the eyes of Yang, far beyond a mocking irony: while the storyteller-narrator may explicitly endorse conventional morality, the implied author may at the same time deny it.
The third chapter, "Ventriloquism through the Companion Story" (pp. 79-98), draws attention to the fact that the stories should not be read in isolation but that the original collections offer them in pairs, and that this pairing may affect our reading of both stories. In this chapter Yang discusses extensively the paired tales of Jingshi tongyan 21, "The Song Founder Escorts Jingniang a Thousand Li," and Jingshi tongyan 22, "Song Xiaoguan Attains a Family Reunion with the Aid of a Worn Hat." He makes a convincing case that the second story, about a poor young student who has been cast out by his parents-in-law but makes every effort to be reunited with his wife once he has become rich, effectively deflates the image, in the preceding story, of Zhao Kuangyin, the future founder of the Song dynasty, who insists on rescuing a maiden but then refuses to marry her, whereupon she commits suicide.
The fourth and final chapter, "Ventriloquism through Women Characters" (pp. 99-152), deals with Feng Menglong's usually sympathetic portrayal of female characters. Here Yang argues that such a sympathetic portrayal of women should not be too quickly interpreted as a desire to elevate the status of women; rather it should be interpreted as an expression of the desires and anxieties of the marginalized scholar Feng Menglong. Yang interprets this preference for positively portraying female victims as the translation into narrative of the long tradition in literati poetry of assuming the persona of an abandoned woman in order to vent one's frustration over lack of recognition. The author of a vernacular story (Feng Menglong or his predecessor) may thus either identify with a woman who craves recognition or he may present women as "understanding friends."
This last chapter also contains a short excursion into feminist literary criticism. I would suggest, however, that Yang's work also at other places might have benefited from a feminist reading of his sources. I cannot free myself from the impression that Yang, in chapter two, when discussing the first two stories of Gujin xiaoshuo, discovers contradictions between the values of the storyteller-narrator and the implied author because he, as a modern reader, does not share the traditional values espoused by the storyteller. For all the extensive descriptions of the heroines in these stories and their inner life, I personally remain convinced that the male focus in the stories is primary and that no discrepancy between the storyteller-narrator and the implied author need be assumed. The logic of the stories is near-perfect once we realize that, in the last analysis, the male characters are the main protagonists and that the women in these Stories are seen primarily as man's most prized possessions (hence, to be come a concubine after having been a wife is a shameful degradation indeed). In these cases too, I would argue, the attention that is lavished on women and their affairs is a function of the author's concern with the ethics and fate of men. If this is true, Feng Menglong may be seen as making a much more sparing use of the "unreliable narrator" than Yang suggests. If indeed Feng Menglong could and did freely manipulate the narrator in his stories for artistic purposes, I at least find the conclusion that "the reliability of Feng Menglong's storytellernarrator depends on the particular moral issues involved in a story" (p. 45) highly suspect and in need of a much fuller adstruction than Yang supplies.
This slim monograph is, in many respects, a stimulating contribution to the study of traditional Chinese vernacular fiction. Yang is currently engaged, we are informed by the publisher's blurb on the jacket, in preparing (together with Yunqing Yang) a complete English-language translation of Gujin xiaoshuo. I can only hope that that translation will not be based on the annotated edition of the Yushi mingyan by Xu Zhengyang, originally published in the fifties and reprinted continuously over the years, which has been used together with its companion volumes (Yan Dunyi's annotated edition of Jingshi tongyan and Gu Xuejie's edition of Xingshi hengyan) as the basis for the translations in the volume under review. While the annotations in these expurgated versions may be very useful, one should now use the modern collated and annotated editions. of, respectively, Chen Xizhong, Wu Shuyin, and Zhang Minggao, published in three volumes by the Bejing Shiyue wenyi chubanshe in Peking in 1994.
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|Author:||IDEMA, WILT L.|
|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2000|
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