Classical novel reproduction is of contemporary value

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-05-25

FILE PHOTO: The animation series “Yao-Chinese Folktales” is a new adaptation of Chinese mythological stories with a distinctive style, visual intrigue, imagination, and a narrative that still resonates today.

Reproductions of novels have been shadowing Chinese novels since their birth, greatly enlarging the expansion and readership of classic novels. As this field advances, classical novels have become literary resources and intellectual property has developed in various emerging media formats. In fact, novel reproduction is a unique landscape within the production of Chinese literature and art. This common thread has run through the course of Chinese history and bursts with unprecedented vitality in the contemporary era.

Novel reproduction in ancient times

As early as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), when the style and form of fiction writing just took shape, novel reproductions appeared as a communication mode. Under the “Treaty of Imperial Bibliography” in Han Shu (Book of Han), Ban Gu recorded several original stories of gods and spirits, which don’t quite fall under the purview of novels with unique styles and literary theories. However, these quasi-novels, after being condensed and adapted, have been incorporated into mainstream discourse under the authority of intellectual elites. Despite an origin that was “on the sidelines” and not “very respected,” the reproductions of these stories have gained footing in terms of stylistic uniqueness.

In the Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern Dynasties (220–589), a large number of literati began writing fiction, increasing its cultural influence. With the change of times, due to great shifts in the expression of language, copies and reprints of classic novels no longer met readers needs. Reproductions of novels began to surface with new meanings and values, and the practice of retelling old stories evolved from simple compilation to research, adding explanatory notes to help readers understand. These annotations are not translations of novels, but add a background to supplement the text, providing content corrections and so on. This re-creation encourages acceptance within a new social context. 

For example, Liu Xiaobiao’s Notes to The New Accounts of the Tales of the World quoted 475 ancient books to contextualize the backgrounds of characters in the original novel, so that the text and the notes form an intertextual relationship and highlight each character. Thanks to the added descriptions of characters from different sources, it undoubtedly deepens understandings of the novel’s stylistic characteristics, particularly character descriptions, for both future novelists and readers. In this sense, novel reproductions with annotations have not only helped expand the popularity of texts, but also promoted the unique divergence and development of the novel’s style.

Fiction writing made a qualitative leap in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Apart from Tang Dynasty luminaries, who published in literati circles and already possessed a self-aware style, novels also began to move along the path to popularization. New folk forms, featuring story-teller’s scripts and bianwen — which uses both prose and verse to retell episodes from the Buddha’s life and, later, non-Buddhist stories from Chinese history and folklore — gained increasing popularity. The rise of bianwen hinted at the popular appeal of novels, and reproduction of classic literati novels became trendy. For example, Zhang Zhuo’s sketchbook Collected Records of Court and Country, told a tale of Emperor Taizong of Tang visiting the underworld in his sleep. Later, this story was adapted into a story-teller’s script. Though annotated works were still the norm, an interaction between literati novels and popular novels emerged, marking the possibility of diversification and popularization within classic novel reproduction. 

With the development of Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1271–1368) cities and the growing quality of life, the demand for novels grew exponentially, which helped the development of novel reproductions. Classical Chinese novels were no longer reserved for elites alone, and became the literary fodder for popular novels, penetrating into mass culture through adaptation and reproduction. Adaptation was the most popular form of novel reproduction in the Song and Yuan dynasties, including the adaptations of classical Chinese novels into popular novels. The novel adaptations and reproductions promoted the style conversion of classical novels to more modern vernacular novels and the popularization of the genre.

In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, popular literature and art saw a golden age of growth. Complicated and diverse forms such as novels, operas, and other popular art developed and interacted. Cross-language and cross-style novel adaptations moved to cross-media adaptations, so that no matter the quantity, scale, and form, novel adaptations and reproductions became the pillar of popular literature and art production. This not only accelerated the dissemination of novels, but also developed them into a unique literary form. 

In addition, novel critiques, which started in the Southern Song Dynasty, flourished in the Ming and Qing period. Critiques, which mostly involved deletion and modification of texts, represent another form of novel reproduction. Influential reviews and comments helped novels reach a wider readership, forming an intertextual system alongside novel adaptations and reproductions, which affected the transmission and acceptance of the original work.

Modern characteristics

In modern times, artistic works boomed, and the space for reproductions of classical novels was not constrained by earlier creative works. After the late Qing Dynasty, literary and art circles set off cascading rounds of classical reproductions.

Prior to the late Qing Dynasty, reproductions of ancient novels were considered classical literature and art. After that, the reproduction process began to interact with the turbulence of historical reality, and so it obtained modern literary attributes, and displayed greater realism. If the purpose of reproducing classical novels was reflected in the popularity of these novels and related arts, then modern novel reproductions are significant due to their participation and interaction with culture. 

Since the end of the 19th century, China has undergone comprehensive reform, pursued modernity, and upheld reason in all aspects of society. This led to social rationalization, democratization and equality, as well as the birth of the modern rational spirit. The brand-new humanistic spirit constitutes the ideal vision of modernity and become the modern character of literature and art.

Wu Jianren, one of the most innovative and prolific Chinese writers of the early 20th century, is the founder of allegorical writing. His novel, Xin Shitou Ji (New Story of the Stone), employed a new temporal and spatial technique, and is the representative reproduction of a classical novel in that period. At the beginning of this novel, Jia Baoyu woke up and discovered that he was living in the era of Emperor Guangxu. Confronted with a series of dark social realities, he also saw “the land of civilization” where modern material wonders were on display. Therefore, the modern landscape here was endowed with a positive value, implying the progressiveness of modernity in the course of history. While the novel’s narrative echoed the reality of the late Qing, it also focused on showing a social landscape of modern material civilization. The scenes of skyscrapers, trams, and aircraft were described, creating a discursive landscape and visual experience with a very modern sense, and evoking people’s subjectivity via the contrast of old and new time and space. 

From this novel onwards, reproductions of classical novels continued in the pursuit of modernity. In the late Qing Dynasty, a large number of classical images such as Jia Baoyu, the Monkey King, Song Jiang and other “old characters” time travelled to modern cities. The juxtaposition of the old characters and the new landscape was a popular textual strategy in the allegorical style of novel reproductions from the late Qing Dynasty, which hints at the emergence of a new culture.

Then, this literary device was carried on in the subsequent development of new stories and novels, even in comic book adaptations. A new social imagination and the call for a new culture reshaped the content of novel and pictorial adaptations. During the 1980s and 1990s, the reproduction of classical novels reached an another peak. A number of films and TV dramas adapted from famous works became the reference texts of the national imagination, which once again verified the great potential of classical literature to resonate with the times. 

Impact of new media

Looking back on the reproduction of ancient Chinese novels, we can see that the subject, form, and function of novel reproductions all change with time, but the narrative flow is never interrupted, and on the contrary, it keeps pace with the times. It not only promotes the innovation and perfection of literary style, but also promotes the development of new literature and art, which reflects the enduring vitality of classical novels.

In 1994, China was officially connected to the internet. With the rapid development of digital platforms, the new media system reorganized the relationship between media ecologies and literary and artistic production, triggered a broad transformation, and changed the overall cultural form, to ultimately recreate the creative environment for the reproduction of classics. So, in the new media era, what are the values, characteristics, and missions of a classical novel reproduction? 

In today’s world, online literature is the new media literary style. Despite its strong network attributes, web novels take classical novels as a source of inspiration. Xuanhuan or fantasy novels, which are now active in online literary circles, began as adaptations of classical mythological novels. Later, they broke away from the original texts and developed completely original stories.

The reproduction of classical novels is also the experimental ground of new art, producing a large number of new works different from traditional reproductions. First, visual media and mobile audiovisual media give novel reproductions new aesthetic and narrative features, such as “Yao-Chinese Folktales,” an animated series featuring monster-like characters, which has won praise online for adopting traditional Chinese culture and aesthetics in its animation and storytelling. Second, on short video platforms, audiobook apps, and WeChat public accounts, the narratives of traditional classics are downplayed, but their function as a source of traditional knowledge is highlighted. Finally, the experience of virtual reality and other embodied media formats transform traditional storytelling to an interactive immersive experience, reconstructing the definition of being “faithful to the original work.” For example, SoReal VR SuperSpace draws inspiration from Journey to the West, including the holographic images, special effects, and 3D scanning, all surrounding the classic story of the Monkey King. The Chinese virtual reality film “Mind” has won the “Best VR Exploration” award at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, and the film borrowed the scenes from A Dream of Red Mansions

In the old media era, novel reproduction was dominated by intellectual elites and spread vertically from top to bottom by gradually popularizing these novels according to the audience and content. These changes to the form and function of reproduction were very slow. In the new media era, bottom-up and horizontal communication is the norm. From internal communication to communication “going global,” novel reproduction has to innovate. While the reproduction of classical novels leads new media artistic practices, its cultural construction role is also prominent. New media texts learn from the past and interact with history on an unprecedented scale, reflecting the great evolution of social structure and psychology in contemporary China.

Classical novels are not only exemplary representatives of Chinese stories, but also important bearers of traditional culture, constituting an important part of the discourse system with distinctive national characteristics. Novel reproduction is an important part of national cultural development and thus upholds the historic mission of cultural inheritance and dissemination. 


Zhao Min is an associate professor from the School of Communication at Fujian Normal University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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