Last week’s Shanghai Review of Books featured a fascinating essay by Qu Muyang on the beginnings of modern Chinese fiction sparked by the publication of A Collection of New Novels from the Late Qing (清末时新小说集), which reproduces manuscripts submitted to a 1895 fiction contest.
The contest was run by John Fryer, an Englishman who headed the translation department of the Jiangnan Arsenal and established the Chinese Scientific Book Depot in Shanghai. Patrick Hanan’s essay, “The New Novel Before the New Novel — John Fryer’s Fiction Contest,” is an engaging account of Fryer’s activities in China, the contest itself, and the effect that it had on the development of fiction in China.
Social criticism was the explicit aim of the contest, as Hanan explains:
It was as owner of the bookstore that he briefly involved himself in the development of Chinese fiction. In May 1895, seven years before the publication of Liang Qichao’s Xin xiaoshuo, he announced a public contest for new fiction and advertised it in the press. The seven leading contestants were to receive prizes, and their work was to be considered for publication. Fryer also held out to prizewinners the possibility of long-term employment as writers. What he was seeking was fiction with a social purpose; it had to attack, as well as suggest remedies for, what he saw as the three great afflictions of Chinese society: opium, the examination essay, and foot-binding.
Fryer ran advertisements in two languages, the Chinese versions emphasizing patriotism, the English, Christian ethics. He received 162 entries, the vast majority of which he called “rubbish.” In the SRB, Qu Muyang concurs: “The vast majority of these ‘new novels’ exhibit little technique, flat characters, bland plots, and many of them are hardly even novels at all.”
In his essay, Hanan argues that Fryer’s contest pushes back the generally-accepted date for the beginnings of new fiction in China (Xin xiaoshuo in 1902), and speculates on how the stories may have influenced other late-Qing writers. Perhaps those influences can be tracked down, now that the stories themselves are available. Qu notes that vast majority of submissions were from writers with backgrounds in missionary schools, and thus whatever their literary merit, the stories may be a valuable source of information about institutional Christianity in China in the 1890s.
Hanan wrote his essay relying on news reports, Fryer’s advertisements, and two novels directly inspired by the contest, but the entries themselves were thought to be lost forever. However, in 2006, as UC-Berkeley’s East Asian Library was preparing to move to a new facility, they were rediscovered, more than a century after they were written. They have now been reprinted in a 14-volume collection which can be yours for just 1,680 RMB.