May 10th, 2013


Background Piece: A Short Introduction To Literature in Tang-ji

Like other cultures with a literary tradition, Tang-ji has bodies of written work, both prose and poetic, classified by a common element and known by a common name.

There is, for instance, Chuan poetry which was pioneered by the members of the Chuan ‘school’ some nine hundred years ago. The form, themes and motifs remain popular and many poets have utilised this style over the intervening centuries. These days the serious literature scholar would be expected to be able to intelligently discuss the differences between classical, modern (meaning written within the last three hundred years) and contemporary Chuan poetry. It is considered one of the more accessible forms of classical poetry and so is often studied by university students who need to include a literature component in their studies in order to be awarded a degree.

The oldest of the genre forms is considered to be the morality tale with the morality play as a sub-type. The oldest form of these tales was the parable, a short story illustrating the wisdom of a virtue or an aphorism and meant to be told by a storyteller or respected figure so it was short, pithy and to the point. Many commentators have noted that although parables appear simple, a good one is surprisingly hard to write. Later the most popular parables were gathered into written collections and later still, longer stories were written either to provide a guide to a wise and virtuous life, e.g The Voyage of Fong Daniu, or to provide the reader with the author’s instructions on how to deal with a particular problem, e.g. An Egregious Case in Tzupingxiang. The most recent ‘flush’ of morality tales were written in response to the invasion of the country by the Trading Nations several generations ago.

A genre that has recently fallen out of favour is the family novel, so called because it centres on events involving a single family or household. Recent critics of the genre have pointed out that these books are normally written by educated, middle-aged men about educated, middle-aged men for educated, middle-aged men and that women, servants and the uneducated are only included as antagonists, plot points or suppliers of services to the protagonists. At their worst, these books read as pure wish fulfilment. At their best, they can be moving works of great literature. This genre has also produced a number of works which have become popular because they’ve twisted the conventions of these stories on their heads. In one example, the Madam Ku detective stories has Madam Ku, assisted by her daughters and daughters-in-law, solving crimes while keeping the men of the family busy out of sight in their studies or at the university. Scholar Ku rarely appears for a full scene, is lucky to get ten lines of dialogue per book and always appears blissfully unaware of what is going on around him.