Translation(Mandarin): The Narrator’s Voice In Chinese Narratology

Author: Andrew H. Plaks, United States

Translated by Claire 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


We often receive two narratorial voices from a literary narrative: One is the event speaking for itself, the other is the voice of the narrator, also known as the “narrator’s voice.” It is often the latter that plays a more prominent role in the story-telling. For example, 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 distinct stories because of their respectively unique textures, dispositions, and 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 this phenomenon common in Chinese historiography where the “narrator's voice” is often as weighty as they are self-assertive. In the “biography” section of Shiji (史记), 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 which 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 chapter of this book, even though Chinese literary tradition does not originate in epics, its historical narratives and official historiographies function in the same aesthetic fashion as epics do. Worth to mention is that one can even find in Chinese historiographies shifting voices typified in Greco-Roman epics.

Although Chinese historiographies create a sense of authenticity, it is more an aesthetic than objectifying trope by creating an illusory effect. 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 done 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 well-known 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 tells an almost unbearable revisit of all the humiliation he has withstood. Nevertheless, more need to be studied regarding the fundamental differences between these individually written narratives and the collectively compiled ones.

China has a long history of revering historical narratives and elevating them to the level of an omniscient god who appears to provide 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 are often the ones who assume 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 superstition towards such a quasi-objectifying narrative approach, later generations of Chinese literature from historiography to fiction unflaggingly followed suit. In the meantime, we have to pay attention to the narratorial tones of the dynastic historians who not only write like journalists but also as commentators of 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. Interpersing with the historian’s comments signifies a major narratological shift from objectifying to objectifying the narrative with multiple perspectives. Even the historical genre of annals (编年体) is a defacto bricolage narrative, heavily relying on the historian’s choice of selection of events, so as to emphasize their viewpoints.

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

For example, in the beginning section of these anecdotal stories which are called the hook, 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’s 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. Even in Jing Ke’s story itself, Sima Qian further divides the whole story into ten subplots, observed by the 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 closely interact with each other in an intriguingly complex fashion, what the Tongcheng School (桐城派) calls “narrative style” (笔法),which I call “narrator’s voice.”

In my reading of the plot, I contend that it is enacted in two parts. The first part tells the background and experience of Jing Ke as a swordsman that backs up his assassination motivation, whereas the latter part dramatizes an extremely exasperating experience, narrated by different voices. 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, and 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 background story conveyed in the first section does not foreshadow what Tian Guang later obtusely observes as “this is an extraordinary man”. Elsewhere confusing is the overly reluctant narrative rhythm in 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 major interpretations. In other words, the first view of the entire narrative follows a procedural consistency, governed by the chain of causality step by step. The second interpretation is the confusion caused by the seemingly incoherent subplots that indirectly speak of the personality and quality of the assassin. This second interpretation, I believe, comes from a set of very Western schemas of reading and writing, which demand a logical coherence among all the plots. Chinese culture, however, often reads someone’s personality through a non-linear bricolage gathering of dispersed clues that do not necessarily account for the linearity of sequence.

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, 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 scenes rather than the teller in theater. Both the teller and tales only exist in fiction, although varying in showing and telling, the co-existence of both reflects the narrator’s important function. Now the question is whether we can find such a co-existence in Chinese narratology. To answer this 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 manufactures it into a different product.

The “story-teller”, or shuohuaren, transforms the raw material into the final production, the magic of which is a rather appealing process. This is why the Pingshu theater of The Romance of Three Kingdom is always packed with an audience whereas no one wants to read or listen to the verbatim official history of the three Kingdoms. It is the same with the petite history or historical romance such as The Story of Liu Yi(柳毅传书), or Nocturnal Rendezvous (待月西厢) which turned into different versions when each time retold. The fact that the narrator is also the interpreter is a commonly recognized concept among world literatures, for example, Don Juan and Faust became utterly different stories through translation, under the process of remaking the story, which, to encapsulate the essence of such a literary act, is called rhetorics. All said, discussions on “the narrator” or "shuo hua ren" (说话人) are the ideal angle of inquiry for narratology.

Source text:

第一章 四 叙述人的口吻《中国叙事学》,北京大学出版社,1996年

#chinesenarratology #AndrewPlaks #Shiji #Recordsofgrandhistorian #narrator


Andrew Henry Plaks is an American sinologist who specializes in the study of the vernacular fiction of the Ming and Qing dynasties. From 1973 to 2007 he taught at Princeton University, becoming full professor in 1980. He moved to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2007, where he is currently Professor of East Asian Studies. Plaks' 1987 book Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel, which won the Joseph Levenson Book Prize is an analysis of a group of Ming dynasty novels which Plaks argues changed the genre: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Jin Ping Mei, and Journey to the West.

Claire Hennessy is a scholar, writer and translator based in the United States.