Commonalities behind/beside Differences between Chinese and English Narratives

Dan Shen, Peking [Beijing] University


The difference between Chinese and English narrative works may not be as great as they first appear since we can almost always find commonalities behind or beside differences.

Commonality behind Different Terminology

In China, the traditional study of “文体/wenti” (style) appears to be quite different from the study of style in the West. If we read papers or books or attend conferences on “wenti” (style) or “文体学/wentixue” (stylistics) by scholars in the Chinese departments, we may find that the focus is not language choices as in the West, but generic characteristics. The word “wenti” for scholars in the Chinese departments has kept its ancient sense, concerned with literary genres. Stylistic study means the study of generic classification, generic boundary crossing, generic norms or characteristics, and generic development. When the object of discussion is a specific text, the focus is still on how the textual characteristics reflect or deviate from the generic norms, and how the deviation contributes to the development of the genre.

However, if we shift attention to another Chinese term “风格 fengge,” we’ll find more underlying commonality. The term sounds different (“style” is usually translated as “wenti”, not “fengge”), but actually comes closer to the Western “style” since, apart from being concerned with generic characteristics, it is also concerned with the features of individual authors’ creation of specific texts. But of course the Chinese “fengge” has a much wider sense than Western “style”, covering the artistic characteristics of “the selection and refinement of the subject matter, characterization, the use of language and other representational methods” (Zheng and Tang 38-39).

Behind such differences, we can focus on language choices in the study of style or wenti both in Chinese and in English. Since China opened its door to the West, many younger scholars, especially postgraduate students in the Chinese departments, have drawn on Western stylistics in their research on “wenti,” and some publications in the field of traditional Chinese “wentixue” show traces of the influence of Western stylistics. So long as the focus is language choices, the study of “style” in English and “wenti” in Chinese will be more or less similar. But of course, both Chinese and English have their own language features. For instance, syntactically, the former has paratactic structure (marked by coordination) while the later has hypotactic structure (characterized by subordination); and lexically, the former is typified by four-character structure of idioms which is not shared by the latter. Nevertheless, both Chinese and English (also French, Spanish etc.) do have many language features in common, such as the same subject-verb-object sequence (compare VSO for Irish or Hindi’s SOV). As for stylistic devices, we often find commonalities besides differences. In the following section, I’ll focus on the stylistic means of presenting characters’ speech.

Commonality beside Peculiarity

A most notable feature of Chinese is that it is free from verbal tense indicators. In this language, that is to say, there is no “backshift” in tense when the mode of speech shifts from a direct to an indirect one, nor is the subordinating conjunction “that” or capitalization used in indirect speech. So except for the personal pronoun, which is sometimes left out in Chinese, a language characterized by frequent subject and determiner omission, there can be no perceivable linguistic difference between indirect speech and the speech in quotation marks. This means that indirect speech can sometimes pass for free direct speech (i.e. the type which differs from direct speech only in terms of being free from quotation marks), or vice versa. I have elsewhere suggested using the term “混合体hunheti” (blend) to describe such a peculiar mode of speech in Chinese, one that is liable to two or more interpretations (Shen “Transference” 397).

In effect blend also occurs in English. If a character’s short speech does not involve tense and pronoun changes, such as “What a nice day!” (What a nice day it is!/What a nice day it was!), “To win victory,” “Always going there by car,” it may be liable to the interpretation of either free indirect speech or free direct speech, especially when immediately preceded or followed by free indirect speech. We also find in English the blend of authorial statement and free indirect speech: when the tense and the pronoun selection are appropriate to either, both interpretations become possible (see Leech & Short 338-40), such as “He would never forgive her.”

In Chinese, these two kinds of English blend have their counterparts, but Chinese has peculiar “finite” blends which, by virtue of being free from verbal tense indicators and other formal discriminating features (e.g. pronoun), frequently give rise to a two-ways or three-ways ambiguous mode. For example: Ta dui ziji shuo kanlai gaocuole  He said to himself that he seemed to be wrong (indirect speech);  He said I seem to be wrong (a kind of free direct speech).

However, Chinese and English have more common features than differences in terms of speech presentation. In traditional Chinese novels, direct speech figures most prominently, which corresponds to direct speech in English. Interestingly, as regards classical Chinese novels, we have essential similarity behind superficial difference in terms of the direct mode. In classical Chinese fiction, there are no quotation marks, no comma or full stop, or punctuation of any kind. In addition, there is no paragraph division. This appears to be very different from English novels, classical or modern, where we always have punctuation marks. What we do have in Chinese classical novels is the reporting clause, most often in the form of “X 曰 yue” (X said), which is an unequivocal marker of direct speech. As soon as we see this reporting clause, we know that what follows are the actual words uttered by the character. When punctuation marks started to be used in Chinese literary works, people simply added inverted commas to cases of speech preceded by “X yue,” and the difference between Chinese and English direct speech disappears.

It should also be noted that, in classical Chinese novels, we do not have the kind of blend ambiguous between free direct speech (without quotation marks) and indirect speech. For example, Ta shuo tushuguan de zhuangxiu hai meiyou wan: He said that the library’s decoration hadn’t finished yet (indirect speech) or He said, the library’s decoration hasn’t finished yet (the kind of free direct speech without quotation marks), which occurs only after punctuation marks were introduced into Chinese literature.

Indirect speech is also frequently used in traditional Chinese novels, where if there exists a shift from first-person reference to third-person reference or other shifts marking the narrator’s viewpoint, it will be an unequivocal case of indirect speech, without allowing another interpretation, the same applies to free indirect speech. In traditional Chinese novels, unequivocally indirect speech and direct speech occur most frequently, which correspond to the two modes in English, beside the peculiar Chinese blends.

Commonality behind Different Tradition

If we compare early Chinese novels in the vernacular with 18th-century English fiction, we will find a notable difference: the Chinese ones are invariably in third-person narration, while the English novels are not only in third person but also in first person narration, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy. The exclusive use of third-person narration in early Chinese novels in the vernacular is to be accounted for by the fact that this genre developed directly from storytellers’ scripts. Because of the direct contact between the storyteller and the audience, oral narration does not accommodate first-person narration (neither does it accommodate multi-level narration). But gradually, written Chinese vernacular fiction separated from the oral tradition, and first-person narration is also used in this genre. And since then we can claim that both first- and third-person narration are modes shared by Chinese and English novels.

From the above discussion, we can see that the literatures in different countries may have more things in common than their first appearance. We may be able to find much sharedness under different academic terminology, beside language peculiarities and behind different traditions.

Future Research

In the future, we can continue to investigate what commonalities exist behind or beside differences between Chinese and English narratives in various areas, such as the manipulation of point of view or focalization, the arrangement of plot structure, or ways of narration.

Works Cited

Shen, Dan. “On the Transference of Modes of Speech from Chinese Narrative Fiction into English.” Comparative Literature Studies 28.4 (1991): 395-415.

Zheng, Naizang and Tang Zaixing, eds. A Dictionary of Literary Theory. Beijing: Guangming Daily Press, 1989.