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Translation from Mandarin: The Narrator’s Voice In Chinese Narratology

Author: Andrew H. Plaks, United States

Translated by Claire L. Hennessy, United States

Stone Carving of Jing Ke's assassination attempt on China's first emperor, Han Dynasty, Circa 202 BC- 220 AD, source is in the public domain


There are often two perceived narratorial voices in a literary narrative: One is the event speaking for itself, the other is the voice of the narrator, which is also known as the “narrator’s voice.” It is often the latter that plays a more prominent role in the story-telling. To make this more relatable, there are three extant versions of the Three Kingdom, namely, Records of the Three Kingdoms (三国志) [written in the 3rd CE] by Chen Shou (陈寿),The Romance of the Three Kingdoms(三国演义)[written in the 14th CE] by Luo Guanzhong(罗贯中),and The Pingshu Script of the Three Kingdoms (全相三国志平话) [written between 250 -316 AD] by Anonymous. No one can deny that these three versions, although recounting the same historical event, are completely different stories because of the uniqueness in each way of story-telling, be it the characterization, plot arrangement, or narratorial tones. Chen Shou adopts the voice of an astrologer’s, Luo Guanzhong adopts that of a professional novelist’s, and the Anonymous adopts that of a bard’s.

We find it common in Chinese historiography where the “narrator's voice” is as weighty as they are self-assertive. In the “biography” section of Shiji (史记), for example, we can somewhat hear Sima Qian’s own voice: His suffering and remonstration that channel through each Chinese character, finally takes on the form of astute criticism that reveals his profound understanding of the historical events surrounding him.

Sima Qian therefore created a narratorial convention that sets the canon for Chinese official historiographies of later ages. Most major narratives would follow an interjected commentary from the grand astrologer, marked by a short phrase “the grand astrologer says” (太史公曰), to emphasize the “narrator’s voice” (叙事人口吻) of the grand astrologer. As I have mentioned in the introduction of this book, even though Chinese literary tradition does not originate in epics, its historical narratives and official historiographies carry the same function. Even more so, one can find in Chinese historiographies shifting voices typified in Greco-Roman epics.

Although Chinese historiographies create a sense of authenticity, it is, deceptively, more of an aesthetic trope. Chinese historiographies are often collectively written by more than one author, which is unprecedented for world literature, except for a few minor cases in which works are written individually by Sima Qian(司马迁), Ban Gu(班固), Fan Ye(范烨) and Chen Shou(陈寿) (perhaps we should also include Ouyang Xiu (欧阳修). Every literary masterpiece is characterized by a unique voice whereas a collectively written product loses its appeal. In Shiji, when one reads classic episodes such as Xiang Yu loses his battle to Liu Bang in Gaixia, Han Xin’s humiliation of being forced to crawl under another’s crotch, and Jingke’s Assassination of the first Emperor, one can easily relate to Sima Qian’s own experience, one that almost unbearably revisited all the humiliation he has withstood. Nevertheless, more need to be studied regarding the subtle differences between individual and collective narratives.

China has a long history of revering historical narratives and elevating them to the level of an omniscient god who provides a comprehensive version of the history. This is due to the fact the grand astrologers in the feudal dynasties of China are the only ones who had access to historical data and records. It makes sense that they were often the ones who assumed an authorial attitude in their writings.

In fact, Chinese historiography is far from being omniscient in the so-called “official” history that it dictates, not to mention the fact that “unofficial” histories about the life of ordinary people are always absent. However, with the idolization towards this quasi-objectifying narrative approach, later generations of Chinese literature, from historiography to fiction, unflaggingly followed suit. At the same time, we have to pay attention to the narratorial tones of the dynastic historians who not only write like journalists but also sound like commentators of news and events, such as the phrase “the nobleman says” (君子曰) in the Tso Tradition (左传)and “the grand astrologer says”(太史公曰) in Shiji. This intervention signifies a major narratological shift from subjectifying to objectifying the narrative with more perspectives. For example, the historical genre of annals (编年体) is a defacto bricolage narrative, heavily relying on the historian’s selection of events which indicates their own preference and views.

Then there developed the genre called “unofficial history” (野史). This less-serious genre later developed into historical Romance, thereby further unsettling the reliability of official historiographies.

For example, in the beginning section of these anecdotal stories which are called the hook (楔子), it often begins with “dear audience, now begins our story” (看官,且听道来) and end with “to know what happen afterwards, come back for more brainteasers” (欲知后事如何,且听下回分解). Therefore, the issue of the narrator is the key aspect in narratology.

Let us look into the narratorial voice in “Jing Ke’s Assasination of the First Emperor”(荆轲刺秦王), so that I will demonstrate how the narrator consciously scaffold the structure of the plot for the real historical event of the assasination. First and foremost, this episode is within the section of the biographies of assassins, which itself is a coherent body of narratives, demonstrating one of Sima Qian’s signature narrative techniques. Within Jing Ke’s story, Sima Qian further divided the entire story into ten subplots, as was observed by the noted Qing scholar and politician Zeng Guofan(曾国藩). These ten subplots can be identified as “Jing ke’s swordsman experience,” “Prince Dan and Juwu’s plotting on assasinating the first emperor,” “Tian Guang recommends Jingke to Prince Dan,” “Jing ke’s arrival at Qin,” “Assassination failed”, “Qin annexed Yan” and ends with “Gao Jianli's assasination attempt on the first emperor”. These subplots interact with each other in an intriguingly complex fashion, what the Tongcheng School (桐城派) calls “writing style” (笔法),which I call “narrator’s voice.”

My reading of the story pursues a two-division. The first section tells the background and experience of Jing Ke as a swordsman that backs up his assassination motivation, whereas the latter section dramatizes an extremely exasperating experience, narrated by different perspectives. One may question the consistency of these two sections according to my method of division, especially that the character of Jing Ke in the first half of the story seems overly cautious, at times even timid to set off for his assassination mission. Yet without much transition, the assassin seems to turn valiant all of a sudden as he sets off for Qin singing loudly “the hero fords and never to return." In addition, the context provided in the first section does not foreshadow what Tian Guang later obtusely observes as “this [Jing Ke] is an extraordinary man”. Elsewhere confusing for some readers is the overly reluctant rhythm of the first section followed by an almost fastforward of the tension in the second. The ending, perhaps designed to achieve a structural balance, bizarrely has Gao Jianli, who has appeared in the beginning of the story, to reappear in the end. These have been the two dominant interpretations in the past. In other words, the first view of the entire narrative questions a procedural consistency, governed by the chain of causality. The second interpretation with the manifest confusion is caused by the seemingly incoherent subplots that indirectly speak of the personality and quality of the assassin. This second interpretation, I believe, stems from and is influenced by the Western schemas of reading and writing, which demand a logical coherence and connection among all the plots. Chinese culture, however, often reads someone’s personality through a non-linear gathering of dispersed clues.

This way of story-telling, I argue, also reflects the Chinese cultural perspective of “acting only at the right time” (得时), meaning that it is patience and strategic plan before action that speak to a hero’s quality.

This is why I read Sima Qian’s emphasis on the aforementioned two cultural aspects as his unique narratorial voice at its full play.

Therefore, the narrator’s voice is of key importance to the comparative study of Chinese and Western narrative techniques. In their book Nature of Narrative (1966), Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg consider “the narrator” as one of the most important three aspects that tell apart Western and Chinese narratological logics. In Western literature, there is only the teller rather than tale in poetry, and there is only scenes rather than the teller in theater. Both the teller and tales only exist in fiction, although they vary in showing and telling. The co-existence of both reflects the narrator’s important function. At stake is whether we can find such a co-existence in Chinese narratology. To answer this question, I would like to borrow a Chinese word “to tell the content'' (说话) from Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (三言二拍) . “Shuo” is the verb, which means to speak. And “hua” is the object, which means the story. Thus, the Chinese word “shuo hua ren” (说话人) provides a useful perspective in understanding the Chinese way of story-telling: namely, he who tells the story also manufactures the text into a different product.

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