The academic study of old Chinese vernacular novels and short stories is barely a century old. Until the 1920s, China’s educated elite often dismissed vernacular fiction as too “popular” and too didactic to be worthy of serious appreciation. Even so, a few texts developed avid following among the highly literate; only they had the breadth of learning needed to appreciate their narrative subtleties of this “guilty pleasure.” Modernizers among the young twentieth-century scholars turned to traditional novels and stories because of their previous rejection, hoping to discover the literature of “the masses.” Instead they revealed an enormous body of diverse texts that we are only now beginning to appreciate fully. How to do so has made this field of literary studies as diverse and experimental as the texts we study. Turning away from investigations directed more by political or cultural assumptions, twenty-first century scholarship on vernacular fiction seeks to place these writings ever more firmly in their cultural context. Generally this is being done through interdisciplinary studies to reveal complexities of what was thought to be simple a century ago. Important areas of recent research involve the novel as material object, sophisticated narrative structures, and engagements through fiction with philosophical and religious trends of their time. To exemplify some of these new findings, my focus will be on a short novel of 1641 that explores a range of psychological and philosophical challenges to the legendary Monkey King, Xiyou bu 西遊補 (Further Adventures on the Journey to the West).
The Mote Annual Lectures are named after Frederick Mote, former Princeton University Professor of Chinese History.