It is hard as an outsider to grasp the richness, breadth, and depth of Chineseclassical literature. Its size, intricate references, and of course, the translation barriers and language differences and most importantly cultural differences make it very difficult for a Western reader to properly understand it and enjoy it. This both makes a work such as Robert E. Hegel’s The Novel in 17th Century China more difficult to read in of itself, but also more vital, as a tool to understand and begin to gain a look at this elaborate but rich literature.
Hegel’s work is a product of a massive degree of reading and study of Chinese literature, as can be easily ascertained by his extensive bibliography and easy familiarity with the subject. It also shows a great degree of historical knowledge of the period, down to intricate information about book binding and publishing. This is one of the most important accomplishments of the book: placing the works into the context, both materially and ideologically. The book’s introduction chapters which lay out the ideology of China in the 17th century with its myriad strands of Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism (even if this was rarely formally endorsed), and Buddhism all forming part of the worldview and ideas of Chinese scholars. Although a relatively short overview of them, it is a great guide to the rest of the book.
For the book’s central objective of covering political themes. In this, it does well, showing how novels expressed important, particularly although not to the exclusion of other elements, Confucian themes of morality, filial piety, loyalty, and unease at the state of the world. Many of the book included rich historical parallels and references to past events, such as on previous emperors and their lives, which were used to comment upon the decline and fall of the Ming. And the books themselves generally are themselves well covered, giving something of a feel for their stories and essence. This is particularly so for books such as Water Margin, whose various adaptions and extension in the 17th century help one to catch a glimpse into the world of heroes, villains, and adventure.
Some themes seem strangely under-analyzed, such as the large numbers of references to sex in the book. Hegel seems eager to elide this, or to apologize for it, that the novels were more than just pornography and that one should insist on their seriousness. But why are the two necessarily opposed? Surely, there is a rich degree of analysis possible concerning the field of sex in China, which could merit some asides and references rather than being shunted out of the way? Hardly a need for a whole book (which has doubtless been written), but merely to incorporate in the flow of the book the relevance and importance of this.
The single-minded focus of the book - displaying that novels were taken seriously, that they were genuine works of social critique or criticism, and how they reflected primarily political concerns of the time, takes away from what could have potentially been a work of great breadth and covering more nuanced subjects. Hegel succeeds well in proving his core point, but the rest of Chinese society is left rather unexplored, with only occasional flairs of insight as such as comments on different perceptions of the city in China vs. Europe, or the more conservative Chinese literary culture with its preference for reworking already-written works rather than original productions.
A magnificently detailed and sweeping work, strong both as an aide for the neophyte and for a more accomplished reader of Chinese literature, but one which has chosen to circumscribe itself unnecessarily.