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Exploring Storytelling Across Cultures

Exploring Storytelling Across Cultures

Are the principles of storytelling really universal across cultures? When you examine your bookshelf, you're likely to find a mix of European and North American authors.

Perhaps you also have some Central or South American writers, Indian or Pakistani novels, and even some Russian literature.

However, it's important to note that many of these authors have written or write within the tradition of European storytelling, often influenced by colonial or cultural forces.

For instance, modern African authors who write novels have adopted the written prose text form, even though African storytelling traditions are primarily oral.

In the western world, our understanding of how to tell stories has been heavily influenced by Aristotle's "Poetics." In this relatively slim volume, Aristotle outlines some fundamental principles of dramatic composition that continue to be taught in creative writing classes and referenced in how-to books to this day.

Another significant influence on western storytelling is the concept of the protagonist/antagonist duality, which has deep roots in Christian theology.

It's difficult to imagine iconic villains like Sauron, Darth Vader, or Voldemort without the presence of Satan or Lucifer in Christian mythology.

So, what about stories created without any knowledge of Aristotle or Christianity? How do narratives that have had no contact with the western approach to storytelling differ?

To explore these questions, let's explore how classical Chinese literature differs from the western storytelling tradition.

Classical Chinese Literature vs. Western Storytelling Tradition

Let's start with structural conditions and storytelling traditions.

Chinese Classical Novels: Length and Complexity

Chinese classical novels are known for their length and complexity. Even the shortest on the list, "The Scholars," is around 600 pages in English translation, and many others range from 1,000 to 2,000 pages.

This length can be attributed to the dense network of references, allusions, and intertextuality that is typical of these novels, making them challenging for western readers unfamiliar with Chinese culture.

Rich Storytelling Tradition in China

China has a rich tradition of storytelling, with narratives and literature dating back centuries. Short stories, especially those involving the supernatural, were collected and celebrated long before European classics like "Beowulf" were born.

Chinese literature also embraces drama and poetry as essential forms of storytelling.

Additionally, narrative histories in prose were well-known to the educated classes of pre-modern China. Knowledge of texts on ethics and spirituality, such as the Confucian four books and five classics or the Daoist "Tao Te Ching" and "Zhuangzi," was considered essential for the elite.

Emergence of the Long-Form Novel

The long-form novel in China emerged relatively recently, with "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" considered one of the earliest great Chinese novels, appearing around 1494 CE. This marked a shift from earlier forms of storytelling and set the stage for future developments in Chinese fiction.

Chinese Novels: A Progression Toward Fictionality

Chinese novels evolved gradually toward greater fictionality. Some early works were based on existing material and adapted older stories, similar to how Shakespeare reimagined older tales.

As time went on, novels started to incorporate more original content, ultimately leading to a distinct progression toward greater fictionality in Chinese literature.

Structured Chapters and Cliffhangers

Chinese novels are often structured into chapters, with each chapter of roughly equal length and containing two major events referred to in the chapter title.

These chapters are meticulously organized, and each one ends on an explicit cliffhanger, ensuring that the novels maintain tension throughout their extensive length.

Oral Storytelling Tradition

Many of these novels have roots in an oral storytelling tradition. Storytellers, often itinerant, would set up by roadsides and tell long tales, keeping audiences engaged by ending each day's session on a tense note.

This practice influenced the strong use of cliffhangers and the even length of chapters in these novels.

The Role of the Narrator

Chinese novels often feature an omniscient third-person narrator who remains discreet and does not participate in the story's action.

This narrative style creates an experience akin to listening to a roadside storyteller, making the narrative engaging and entertaining.

Poetry and Additional Texts

Chinese novels frequently intersperse prose narration with other text forms, especially poetry. These additional texts serve various functions, from providing information to commentary and emotional expression.

Oftentimes, characters turn to poetry to convey their feelings, adding depth to the storytelling.

Transitions Without Cuts

Chinese novels employ a unique approach to transitions between scenes and characters.

Rather than using cuts or breaks, they transition smoothly by having characters encounter one another within the story.

This technique is less common in Western literature, where scene transitions are more abrupt.

Incorporation of Supernatural Elements

Chinese novels are open to the inclusion of supernatural elements, blurring the boundary between the earthly world and the other world.

Ghosts, immortals, gods, and fantastical creatures make appearances, offering readers a different perspective on reality and fantasy.

Emphasis on Officials and Scholars

In the Chinese dynasties, literacy and knowledge of classical Confucian texts were highly valued, as they were essential for careers in the bureaucracy.

The examination system, which tested knowledge of these texts, played a crucial role in the lives of those pursuing official positions.

Consequently, Chinese novels often depict officials and scholars, highlighting the significance of education and ethics.

Prominent Themes: Loyalty and Filial Piety

Two recurring themes in Chinese literature are loyalty and filial piety. These themes explore the complex relationships between rulers and subjects, parents and children, and hosts and guests.

They provide insights into moral dilemmas and questions of loyalty that resonate with readers.

Prevalence of Religion and Syncretism

Chinese novels often delve into themes of religion and syncretism, as China has a history of coexisting religions like Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

These novels explore the interactions and intersections of these belief systems.

Significance of Numbers

Certain numbers, such as 36, 72, and 108, recur significantly in Chinese literature. These numbers hold symbolic importance and are woven into the narrative to convey deeper meanings.

Allusions and Hidden Significances

Chinese novels frequently include allusions and references that may not be immediately apparent to Western readers. These references add depth and layers of meaning to the text, even if their significance remains elusive to those unfamiliar with Chinese culture and history.

Antagonism and Heroes

Chinese literature often avoids the portrayal of clear-cut heroes and villains. Instead, characters make errors of judgment, and moral conflicts arise from conflicting values rather than outright villainy. This nuanced approach to morality is reflected in these narratives.

Cause and Effect

Despite some cultural differences in storytelling traditions, Chinese literature also explores the concept of cause and effect. Characters' actions have consequences, and narratives often delve into the reasons behind these events.

Structure and the Seven Tenths Rule

Chinese novels may have longer final acts compared to many Western stories, and they sometimes introduce new story arcs toward the end rather than rushing to tie up all loose ends. The seven tenths rule is a structural feature where something significant occurs around seven tenths of the way through the story.

Episodic or Not

While some critics characterize Chinese novels as episodic, they often fail to recognize the cyclical narrative structure, with variations on themes and deliberate repetitions that contribute to the overall meaning and structure of the story.

Variations on a Theme: Cyclical Parallelism

Chinese literature frequently employs cyclical parallelism, where stories or character arcs are repeated with subtle variations. This structural device adds depth and complexity to the narrative.

Different, Yet Comparable

In conclusion, there are indeed differences between Chinese and Western storytelling traditions, but these distinctions do not diminish the value of either tradition.

Both offer unique insights into the complexities of human existence and provide valuable lessons in storytelling.

Exploring the great works of classical Chinese literature can enrich our understanding of storytelling and narrative techniques, allowing us to tell our own stories with greater depth and nuance.

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