Reflecting on the novels that remain most vivid over the years, it is often particular details that stand out in one’s mind rather than the plot. Detailing is a vital tactic in almost all fiction. Realist narrative—the pre-eminent Western literary form for the past two hundred years—could hardly exist without it. Yet detail in fiction, the minutiae of tangible objects or local phenomena, can do far more. Capable of conjuring the concreteness of the world, detail may also suggest its deceptiveness. Speaking to the present, it may—painfully or pleasurably—evoke the past. Described from the perspective of an individual, it may reveal the seeing subject at the same time. Detail may be employed to mask or unmask, to substantiate or subvert.

The ‘novel of details’, or xijie xiaoshuo, has a long tradition in Chinese literature. Tellingly, it emerged at the turn of the seventeenth century—a period of growing urbanization and commodification in the twilight of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Plum in the Golden Vase (c. 1610), or Jin Ping Mei, the notorious erotic-realist masterpiece pseudonymously authored by ‘the Scoffing Scholar of Lanling’, was arguably the world’s first truly modern novel. It differed from its classic Chinese predecessors in its heightened attention to the observable phenomena of everyday life and to perceptual experience itself. Dwelling on material abundance—the luxurious commodities populating the home of merchant Ximen Qing, along with his competing wives, concubines, cronies and servants—the novel revealed the ‘confusions of pleasure’ brought about by late-Ming commercialization. The Confucian order begins to break down in a fictional world ruled by silver and addled by lust.footnote1

In xijie xiaoshuo, details exceed their supporting role to become the core interest of the text. They shift attention from storytelling to scene-making, pivoting from allegorical didacticism to an aesthetically dynamic form, incorporating worldly materials in an amalgam of high and low, external and inner life. Often, the narratives move in counter-point between small private scenes and large, chaos-prone public ones. Most strikingly, the xijie xiaoshuo has incorporated and encoded the social and cultural changes taking place at various important historical junctures. Here I will discuss the work of four writers who tried to grapple with the profound crises and ruptures of their times: the Ming dynasty’s unravelling in the Scoffing Scholar’s Plum in the Golden Vase; the last decades of the severely compromised Qing empire in Han Bangqing’s Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai; the Republican-era turmoil in Shen Congwen’s frontier fiction; and the contemporary upheavals delineated by Jia Pingwa in his various ‘untranslatable’ long novels.footnote2 But first, what is a detail?

Although xijie and ‘detail’ have come to be standard twentieth-century Anglo-Chinese translations for each other, their etymologies are quite distinct. Derived from the French tailler, to tailor or to cut, the detail is a diminutive part of the whole. In military parlance, a detail is a small body of men tasked with a specific duty; in aesthetic discourse, it may refer to trivial embellishment or a minute attribute. By contrast, jie in Chinese compound words such as xijie or xizhi mojie refers to the node or knot of a bamboo stalk, while xi means small, slender, humble, young, insignificant. In classical texts, a synonymic but older compound, xiwei, can refer to both literary minutiae and people of humble birth. The word is related to the concept of wei, in which the miniscule—something barely perceptible—emerges from the nebulous and inchoate into view, capable of inaugurating future development and unfolding.footnote3 Like a seed, the tiny wei has the potential for change and growth over the time.

This metaphysical significance holds profound aesthetic implications for both classical Chinese poetry and xijie xiaoshuo. As with the English usage, the ‘detail’ in Chinese prose may refer to a material object or natural phenomenon, a gesture or phrase; yet it also encompasses a perceptual and temporal consciousness. Moreover, the detail in xijie xiaoshuo can retain something of the original meaning of jie: a critical juncture, a turning point, a knot where things tangle; hence, a site of moral-ethical complexity. The polysemic layers of the Chinese minutiae allow the narrator of The Dream of the Red Chamber—the inarguable masterpiece of the eighteenth-century Chinese novel—to make an intriguing choice at the beginning of Chapter Six:

The inhabitants of the Rong mansion, if we include all of them from the highest to the humblest in our total, numbered more than three hundred souls, who produced between them a dozen or more incidents in a single day. Faced with so exuberant an abundance of material, what principle should your chronicler adopt to guide him in his selection of incidents to record? As we pondered the problem of where to begin, it was suddenly solved for us by the appearance as it were out of nowhere of someone from a very humble, very insignificant household who, on the strength of a very tenuous, very remote family connection with the Jias, turned up at the Rong mansion on the very day of which we are about to write.footnote4

This humble, insignificant figure is Grannie Liu, a peasant woman, who later helps a vulnerable female protagonist, Qiaojie. Liu’s evolving role in the text speaks to the author’s vision of the xiwei. She is not just a member of the whole group, but also an intervening agent, a character that offers a perspective on the grand Jia family, as well as a device for the author to organize the exuberant abundance of his material. Barely conspicuous on her first entrance, she may be read as a humble wei that signals a development towards the historical future.