“小說” Small Talk: Chinese for Fiction
It sits in front of me, nearly four thousand years of small talk, crammed into a meager 462 pages in this 1959 edition. Four thousand years of small talk, three centimeters of wood pulp bound and sealed by a green cover. It is a dark green like the needles of a ponderosa pine tree. Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing, and the unforgotten periods in between: all shrunken into 462 pages and stamped with an Arizona State University barcode. The pages, yellow like Wild Grass peeking through the snow in winter, rests between the green of ponderosa pines. The cover is not correctly labeled with the author’s surname nor his pen name. In white, blocked letters, there lies imprinted: LU. These 462 pages of small talk are a compiled and reprinted edition of lecture notes from Peking University, written between 1920 and 1924 CE.
I sit here, gazing at this green and yellow hard cover containing A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. It is a trifling compilation of notes compared to the vast history which it depicts. From certain angles, it resembles a green and yellow Holy Bible. It is a bible. And yet, it is just small talk. Here, I keep telling myself, is fiction. But is not the spirit of humankind just this? Is not the legacy of our forefathers and mothers represented as an image of pictographic characters inscribed on the walls of cave dwellings? But this, this is just a small, green book with yellow pages. It is just an accumulation of notes written by a dead man who never graduated from medical school, who never even received a college degree.
LU must discredit his compilation of work, begging that more scholarly, less melancholy lovers of this same small talk will produce an authoritative book on the subject. He thanks the readers who are studious and devoted enough to place these dry relics in their studies. I flip through these historical relics to feel the roughness of old paper on my thumbs. I imagine how stirring it must have been to sit in one of his lectures at Peking, at Xiamen, in Xi’an or elsewhere. In contrast to his lectures, he must insist that these pages flow like Three Gorges unobstructed. But I know that even the occasionally smooth inlay of an ancient text is dry. The flow of ink has ceased, the lecturer has spoken well, and the attribute of wind and water must not be given to the pages held within this green cover; they must instead be assumed by the spirit of the student devoted to a truer source of knowledge.
Dagan Sassarini, 2014