The Future of the Study of Classical Chinese Novels in Japan:
Recollections on Developments in the Late Twentieth Century
Nozomu Ueda
Changes in the Environment Surrounding Studies on Classical Chinese Novels in Japan*

Modern studies in classical Chinese novels already have a history of nearly 80 years since their beginning in the 1920s with the pioneering efforts of people such as Lu Xun and Shionoya On. When looking back at the long history since then, it is undeniable that the 1990s stands out as a decade when studies in classical Chinese novels underwent the most profound changes not only in Japan, but also throughout the world.

      One significant change was brought about by the successive publication of large collections of novels such as Guben Xiaochuo Congkan and Guben Xiaoshuo Jicheng, allowing students and researchers specializing in Chinese literature at research and educational institutions to have ready access to rare books, not in their original forms, which were once accessible to a limited number of researchers and book collectors, but in photo-lithographically reprinted or newly printed editions. I will discuss the significant effect of this fact at greater length later.

       Another significant change came in the form of a theoretical deepening of studies in classical novels. In China during the period from the 1960s to the 1970s, as a result of the Great Cultural Revolution, historical materialism held sway and researchers were denied the chance to explore new literary theories, being encouraged rather to focus on a limited number of classical works that were deemed to constitute China's great cultural heritage, and especially to appraise their ideological and artistic virtues. After China adopted the reform and open-door policy, researchers gradually freed themselves from taboos on research themes and methodologies, with the result that works which had been negatively evaluated came to be appraised from new perspectives, and the standards and values of evaluation became pluralized.

       By contrast, the intellectual milieu in Japan, though apparently much more unrestrained than that in China, suffered from drawbacks of its own. Given the strong traditional influence of the study of the Chinese classics, with its emphasis on inquiries about the history of thought and literary spirits, and on empirical studies such as textual comparisons, the vast majority of Japanese researchers of classical Chinese literature failed to take an active interest in the new developments in literary studies in the West. From the latter half of the 1980s, however, Japanese researchers began to be affected by a growing number of studies undertaken by Chinese researchers with the use of methodologies, especially postmodern theory, of literary studies. Since then, changes in this direction have taken place at an accelerating pace, accompanied by close international academic exchanges between Japanese and Chinese researchers.

Future Challenges and Prospects of Japanese Studies on Classical Chinese Novels

What, then, will become of studies in classical Chinese novels in Japan in the 21st century? The improved accessibility of rare texts from classical novels as mentioned above seems to imply that Japan will no longer be able to enjoy its long-held advantages over other countries in terms of the relative ease of access to texts of classical novels. Chinese researchers never made much reference at all to studies made in Japan, and now researchers in the West are rapidly losing interest in studies produced by Japanese researchers. In other words, the centripetal force of the Japanese academic community of classical Chinese literature as a "world center of studies in Chinese literature" is waning. There is, however, one positive factor that is worth keeping in mind, without becoming overly optimistic, namely, the fact that outside of texts of classical novels, Japan still has a large repository of important materials. It will become all the more important for Japanese researchers to become competent in reading such documents with painstaking care, gain new insights into classical novels, interpret them from fresh perspectives, and develop new theories of literary studies. As a matter of fact, it is safe to say that Japanese studies in Xiyouji (Journey to the West) and Shui-hu zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh), which have been carried out exactly in such a manner, are of very fine quality, far exceeding those in other countries.

      Another challenge confronting Japanese researchers will be to make concerted efforts to disseminate their research findings to fellow researchers around the world. I have been told that there was a time in the past when graduate students studying Chinese literature in the West were required to gain a good command of Japanese. Today, it is no longer reasonable for Japanese researchers to ask that our foreign colleagues read and understand papers written in Japanese, while we ourselves do not publish those papers in Chinese, the lingua franca of the field. There is no need to emphasize that it will become all the more imperative for us to publish our research findings in Chinese. Also noteworthy in this connection is the fact that efforts are being made to overcome the often-cited problem of inaccessibility by foreign researchers to papers written in Japanese and published in university research bulletins. As the National Institute of Informatics makes headway in its ongoing project to digitize research bulletins from universities and academic institutions in Japan, interested researchers around the world with a command of Japanese will be able to readily locate and access papers published in any such in-house research bulletins.
      So following this long introduction, I would like to make some guesses about research themes and methodologies that seem to be promising in the future.

Possibilities to Be Opened by Advances in Information Processing Technologies
The building of digitized databases of novels only began in the 1990s, and the body of digitized texts accumulated on the web is certain to grow by leaps and bounds in the years to come. (For each book that is published in print form, a digital version of the book is also produced as a by-product, regardless of whether it is put on the web or not.) In the field of study of Sanguo yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), a project for building a database containing more than 20 different editions of the work is underway. We must now think of how we can make proper and meaningful use of the digitized texts, and go beyond using them simply to identify the lineages of different texts. If used in combination with a search system equipped with a grammatical pattern scanning (GPS) function, the digitized database will prove useful in analyzing the formative process by which the novel was produced, and in conducting stylistic analyses of the novel.

Study of Publishing Culture
In studying novels, we must first resolve questions concerning differences among various editions, and in order to compare different editions, we must have an understanding of the mechanism of publishing. Even when doing empirical and comparative studies of different editions of a certain book (such as Nakagawa Satoshi's textual comparison of various editions of Sanguo yanyi), it is necessary to have a proper understanding about the publishing culture prevailing at the time each edition was published. Studies in this field began to be undertaken toward the end of the 1980s by pioneers such as Ashida Takaaki, Ôki Yasushi, and Maruyama Hiroaki. Important research findings have been accumulated. More recently, a group of researchers headed by Isobe Akira launched a large-scale research project entitled "Study of Publishing Culture in East Asia." Through field studies of areas in which publishing businesses once thrived, and inquiries into historical documents, the group is expected to make new findings about publishing culture.

Studies from the Perspectives of Social and Cultural History
It is often pointed out that Tanaka Issei's studies of Chinese drama have had a tremendous impact on researchers of classical Chinese novels. He employs a very clear-cut and convincing approach, which involves deciphering and interpreting protocols, rites, the community sustaining them, and dramas by using each other as codes. Several efforts have been made to apply this methodology to the study of novels to analyze them from a social historical perspective. For example, Ogawa Yoichi has tried to interpret Jin ping mei (Plum in the Golden Vase) in reference to reyong leishu (popular encyclopedias or reference books for daily use) of the Ming and Qing dynasties, while Takatsu Takashi and Komatsu Ken have tried to interpret jiangshi xiaoshuo (Chinese historical novels) by using tables of codes compiled on the basis of popular history books. It seems that this methodology could be applied more widely to the study of novels. It is also worth noting that several researchers including Kin Bunkyo, Otsuka Hidetaka, and Suzuki Yoichi have undertaken studies to interpret the semantic meaning of novels and stories in reference to myths, folkways and mores, religious culture, and local culture. Given the fact that cultural studies are becoming increasingly popular among students, while studies in literary theory are being shunned, attempts to study novels from the perspective of cultural history will continue to thrive.

Studies of the Discourse of Novels on the Basis of Narratology

In the field of Chinese novels, it seems to be in response to Suzuki Yoichi's provocation that some researchers began to take a serious interest in analyzing the narrator of a novel and the way it is narrated. In particular, researchers such as Okazaki Yumi and Nakazatomi Satoshi have produced worthwhile studies on caizi jiaren novels (novels featuring the quick-witted and the beautiful) and San-yen stories (colloquial short stories). To be sure, there are strong objections to analyzing Chinese literature through theories of Western origin, such as Gerard Genette's narrative discourse, ostensibly because Chinese literature is too unique to be analyzed by such theories. Nobody, however, would raise an objection to Kin Bunkyo, who points out very convincingly as follows: "it will be mutually beneficial for us to first try to apply Western theories to the study of Chinese literature on an experimental basis, accumulate experience over a long span of time, and then hold dialogues with researchers from other fields."


Iconography is the study of the cultural framework hidden behind icons and their deeper meaning. The first attempts to apply iconography to the study of Chinese literature in Japan were made by Sasaki Makoto and other researchers specializing in the study of Xiyouji (Journey to the West). Several books have been published recently, each featuring illustrations taken from various classical Chinese novels, including translated Japanese editions; curiously enough, general audiences have warmly accepted them. It will become all the more necessary in years to come to identify the "grammar" of the illustrations which remain to be interpreted.

Reception Theory Focusing on the Readers

Following the emergence in the West of reception theory, with its contention that the "reading" of a work emanates from an interaction between the reader and the text, it became fashionable there to take a novel's rating by its readers as an important means with which to come to grips with the readers' worldview and their "reading" of the work. In Japan it was in the 1990s that some Japanese researchers, including Kasai Naomi, began to undertake studies focusing on readers' ratings. More recently, a craze has emerged in China in this field. Aside from this, studies in the history of reading, which trace changes in the interpretation of a work and identify the reasons for such changes, and studies on "interpretive community" which examine why a certain community produces a specific interpretation of a work, are approaches that have not been tried on a full scale as a means of studying novels, and they will draw much attention in the future. Furthermore, this line of inquiry, as pointed out by Nakazatomi, is bound to lead to a "post-structuralist inquiry concerning the institution of intellect - an inquiry into what, in particular, the study of novels has been trying to safeguard, and what, in particular, it has been trying to expel, as it has worked to serve the institution of literary studies and studies of the history of literature by focusing its attention only on first-rate novels."

Striving to Undertake Genuinely Collaborative Joint Studies

I am concerned that researchers of classical Chinese novels may fall prey to what may be called "confusing the ends and the means," namely, the practice whereby many researchers are tempted to pursue a limited number of research projects in certain areas using certain methodologies simply because these projects seem to be easy to carry out and appear ready to produce some results, and not because they are significant and worthwhile.
       To be certain, researchers in the field of novels have strengths and weaknesses in terms of methodologies. It is only when researchers with different strong points collaborate with one another in such a way as to make up for their own weak points, and strive to build a basis for sharing a common understanding about studies in novels, that they can avoid falling prey to the confusion of means and ends. It is quite meaningful, as pointed out by Okazaki Yumi, for researchers of literature to carry out conventional-type inter-disciplinary joint research projects with researchers from disciplines such as sociology, history, and linguistics. It should be taken into account, however, that given their increasingly diversifying research interests and methodologies, researchers studying classical Chinese novels sometimes find it difficult to communicate with each other. It will become all the more important for researchers to rid themselves of this parochial mind-set, and work more closely with their colleagues with different interests and approaches. It would be meaningful for several researchers of classical Chinese novels with different interests and methodologies to work as a team and undertake a joint research project through a form of work sharing, with each picking other members' brains.


"Zadankai: Korekarano Chugoku Kenkyu" (Roundtable discussion: China studies in the future), Okazaki Yumi, Kin Bunkyo, et al, Nihon Chugoku Gakkai Gojunen Shi (Fifty years of the Sinological Society of Japan), Kyuko Shoin, 1998.
Kominami Ichiro, "Chugoku Koten Bungaku Kenkyu no Kanosei: Minshu Bungei e no Shiten" ((Future potential of the study of classical Chinese literature: A perspective on popular literature), Tohogaku (Eastern Studies), No. 100, 2000.
Suzuki Yoichi, Xiaoshuo de Dufa (Methods of reading novels), Zhongguo Wenlian Chubanshe, 2002.
Nakazatomi Satoshi, "Chugoku Koten Shosetsu Kenkyukai no Shokai" (An introduction to a study group on classical Chinese novels).
Tanaka Issei, Kominami Ichiro, et al, "Zadankai: Chugoku Koten Bungaku Kenkyu no Shiza kara" (Roundtable discussion: From the perspective of the study of classical Chinese literature), Chugoku 21 (China 21), Vol. 15, 2003.

* In what follows, I would like to limit myself primarily to commenting on the developments of studies in baihua, or novels written in spoken or vernacular Chinese, while leaving the task of taking an overview of the developments of studies in wenyanwen, or those written in literary style, to someone else better versed in such studies than myself.