Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, 2

Here’s where we left off yesterday: From the Chin Ping Mei (Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase) the listener (reader) is supposed to learn that a life given over to sexual satisfaction will lead to a grisly death and a curse lingering on a family for many generations. Karma is an important part of these stories, and there is a continuing admonition to the listener not to do anything to disgrace his ancestors or make life difficult for his children — never mind making his own next life one in which he must repay all the debts of the current life…

A story could be a tool of subversion. China, historically, has practiced a rough form of democracy. If the excesses of an imperial regime became too excessive, if people were taxed too heavily, if the rivers flooded and it seemed nature conspired against the peace and prosperity of the average person, the Chinese considered that Heaven’s mandate had been taken from the Emperor’s family. A new imperial family would always rise out of the ensuing revolution and reform society. More than once the old stories of the bandits in Shui Hu Chuan or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms were used to arouse peasant sentiment against a corrupt ruling house.

The entertainment imperative had a very strong effect on the development of story in China. Where most of the stories from the English oral tradition such as Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight have receded into the rarified world of academia, Chinese classical stories are still very much alive for the Chinese people in written forms that are believed to be close to the “originals.” The “novels,” transcriptions of orally transmitted tales, are still read and loved in the six and seven hundred year-old versions and not by graduate students on the brink of a thesis on some arcane aspect of “Medieval Chinese Literature,” but by everybody from kids to grannies. 

The books retain the qualities of oral fiction with strong plots, essential to story tellers so they can keep the momentum going from day to day. Usually they have an episodic organization rather than a great “unity of design” found in novels which were never part of the oral tradition.

An episodic story structure allows the story teller to interject: “Let’s leave so-and-so for now and see what is happening at such-and-such” if he sees the audience is getting bored. Because of the enduring oral tradition, Chinese fiction retained a certain episodic quality which western novels lost long ago. 

Then, because the story teller interprets the story to his audience, he can create a character with much less descriptive language. Story tellers have their bodies, faces, gestures with which to show a knife being raised into the air or lovers embracing. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more senses than simply reading a story in solitude under a tree somewhere or on a sofa or train. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more of our senses. Sympathetic characters, taken directly out of the oral context, become two dimensional, colorless, flat like paper dolls. 

Watching a ghost story unfold can be really scary, but it’s difficult to write in an equally and immediately frightening way. A written story is more abstract than something being read aloud to us or recited or interpreted dramatically.

In the early 1980s, when I was in China, many places did not have electricity, and it was not reliable in many places that did have it, even where I lived in Guangzhou. Many of the old people would rather spend an evening listening to a story than watching television, which wasn’t dependable anyway. The story teller was an important person in their lives. 

*Liu Shaotang, a twentieth century Chinese novelist, describes one of his childhood writing teachers. In this passage fro “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Liu described the effect of a story teller’s narrative style on his listeners:

At the entrance (to the teahouse) hung a blackboard posted with playbills, announcing that there were two performances every day. The one during the day featured “The Cases of Prefect Bao [Xing]” performed by the celebrated Liu Jingtang, Jr., while the night show, “Strange Tales of Liaozhai,” were recounted by the master storyteller, Zhao Yingpo. Zhao was good at telling ghost stories and his narration was horrible and bloodcurdling. Some, while listening to his performance would, more often than not, be so frightened that they would rather pee in their trousers than pluck of their courage to go outside. Nor did they dare go home without someone to accompany them In a small alley, they would panic at the mere rustle of leaves in the wind. However whenever Zhao performed in this teahouse, under the spell of his mastery, would never miss a chance to listen, even at the risk of peeing their pants once again. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu then illustrates the way the story teller could manipulate his audience to make sure they came back to hear more of the story:

(Bao Xing went out) of the chamber with a teapot in his hand. Walking through the winding corridor, he came to the kitchen. But as soon as he pulled aside the door curtain, he exclaimed “Aiya!” if you want to know what happened next, please come again tomorrow and I’ll explain it in detail. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu Shaotang writes that he was so worried about what happened to Bao Xing, that he missed school the next day to be able to arrive early for the noon time recitation. He arrives just a few minutes late, terrified that he has missed the critical denouement. The story teller is saying:

“Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

* A note on Liu Shaotang: He was born in 1921 which means he would have been THIS little boy during the period Pearl Buck was teaching at Nanjing University. Pearl Buck’s daughter, Carol, was born in 1920. It’s clear from Liu’s description that all his neurons were firing anticipating the resolution to the mystery!


There’s a garden out in front of my house that I have not had any contact with in ages. As far as it’s concerned, I’m over it. I think it’s the drought. I felt all summer that there was something wrong with pouring water on a bunch of flowers lined up against a south-facing wall.

My thoughts went back to the garden belonging to the president of my college (featured photo). His apartment was two floors below ours and he had a rose garden. One of my friends explained what a luxury this was because, during the reign of Chairman Mao gardens like that were, at the very least, severely criticized. Arable land should be used for food. That whole way of thinking seemed to me, later, to be the off shoot of a horrible famine caused by Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s when everyone — peasants, everyone — was put to work making steel leaving only the elderly and children to till the fields. There was mass starvation and no one knows for sure how many people died but estimates go up to 55 million.

China doesn’t have much arable land in comparison to the population, so a drought or flood has always had enormous consequences. There was a famine in China in the 30s and Pearl Buck wrote about it. The US government airlifted food to the Chinese, but it was food the Chinese wouldn’t eat, didn’t even recognize as food. Apparently the US had a surplus of dairy products and was dropping large amounts of cheese. OK, as a cheeseatarian I’d be very happy with that, but the Chinese didn’t make or eat cheese — or much milk. To them it was as if the US was giving them rotten milk. Pearl Buck wrote letters and articles decrying this and telling the government what they SHOULD send. I don’t remember if anything changed because of her out-cry. But, when I was a kid and left something on my plate, the grownups said, “Eat your peas. Think about the starving people in China

Caveat: There is a lot of stuff in this section that I would not write today, but I’m trying not to edit 36 year old Martha too much.

17 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, 2

    • What I’ve seen of China in various programs now is that the tea houses are back with the story tellers. Pod casts are aspects of the oral tradition — so I don’t think the oral tradition is going away, it’s just changing. But reading and writing, that 30 years ago everyone thought was going away, seems to have been reborn because of email, texting, blogs, etc. I can’t imagine in China the kind of isolation we have here — the Chinese people are used to being in crowds and maybe a little suspicious of loners. It’s weird but when I was there I never felt I was in a crowd of people or even in a room with a crowd of people. There’s a word for that ability I experienced in China of giving people space psychically but I don’t remember it. It’s a real thing. The word “privacy” in English translates to “selfishness” in China.

      • Wow, very different culture indeed. Privacy= selfishness. You are right about podcasts and oral traditions. I guess not matter if we find ourselves isolated by choice or circumstances, humans still need to connect.

          • I was talking about you recently. The topic was on-line friendships and I thought of you. My friends don’t know the West, cannot understand what like was like there and have no clue who Pearl Buck is. Yes, we are finding new ways to connect with other with similar interests and/or backgrounds.

            • I spent my whole life in the West until I was 30, went to China in 1982 and then to CA in 1984. I loved those places, too, but I was glad to come home in 2014. For me, it’s the truest world. Once driving out of the San Luis Valley headed to the Springs I realize I didn’t want to go. I thought, “Yeah, every other place is bullshit.” I had a good friend in CA who couldn’t distinguish between CO, WY and MT. Honestly, it made me like her a little less.

  1. It was always the starving children in China or India. My thought was it would be better to send those peas there rather than have me sneak them off the table to the appreciative dog waiting under it.

      • I did not like any of the legumes. They hit my pallette the wrong way.

        I also latter discovered that gave me gas. I can’t digest whatever protein is in them. Peanuts are the only legume I can deal with.

        But eating food had long stopped being a matter of nutrition and had turned into a power struggle.

  2. I guess these posts are part of your draft notes on Pearl Buck. Interesting read. About episodic structure of written work: I suppose it never quite died away in English. The Pickwick Papers is an example, of course, and I find quite of a bit of Thackeray is too. I suppose magazines revived the form before it completely died away. Now I see quite a few books which are linked collections of short stories, therefore also episodic.

    • Earlier novels in English were episodic novels, lots using the epistolary device to hold the episodes together. I think Thackery and Dickens were at a point in the (so-called) development of the novel that they could dip their pen in whatever they thought would work best — and then the serialization of a lot of 19th century novels made them kind of like traveling story-tellers but in print. I think it’s really cool. I’m not sure what we call “development” was development; maybe it was just change.

      This stuff is all transcribed from that antediluvian Pearl Buck project but it’s kind of fun.

  3. Fascinating! I know all too well the terror that can be induced by a good story teller – I was in Girl Scouts and the stories around the campfire made it an act of extreme bravery to head to the outhouse after dark!! I always liked the serial story installments in the newspaper. And then there were the TV shows that specialized in the “cliff hanger”…

    • Those campfire ghost stories. When I was a counselor at a jr high camp one of my challenges was to keep girls from telling them when we were all in our tent. We slept in a big army surplus canvas tent, about 12 of us. The stories could get everyone so riled up no one slept. It was awful, fun, and crazy. I loved that job. It’s sad when you reach the peak of your career(s) at 19… 🙂

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