The field of traditional chinese fiction studies is as diverse in its approaches and findings as the body of material included in the term xiaoshuo, with which the modern field imprecisely corresponds. As a term for classifying writings in early China, xiaoshuo seemingly meant “other” works that did not fit into the major category of narrative, i.e., history. In the bibliographical section of Ban Gu's (c.e. 32–92) Han shu, the Yiwen zhi, titles identified as xiaoshuo apparently were miscellaneous writings of no uniform characteristics or content. In the Han shu bibliography, xiaoshuo were classified under the zhuzi or “miscellaneous philosophers”; during the Six Dynasties period these writings were grouped in the zi or “philosophers” section of the sibu, the durable four-fold bibliographic division of all writing originated in the third century and still in use. This Han shu designation reflected the assumption that xiaoshuo are or should be generally “discursive,” even if they are of less significance than formal philosophical works. The clear discrimination between verifiable narrative works (hence historical) and fanciful (or fictitious) writings was a product of the Tang period; however, the assignment of fictional xiaoshuo to the same category as philosophy continued then as well. Like Aristotle, early Chinese bibliographers saw general truth, rather than the specific truth of history, as the operative criterion in fiction, despite the origins of many fictional narrative conventions in historiography (see K. J. DeWoskin, “Six Dynasties Chih-kuai,” esp. p. 46). Twentieth-century scholarly attempts to see the term as synonymous with the modern concept of fiction are frustrated by its original lack of specificity and the fact that patently fictitious (from the modern rationalist perspective) elements appear in all other forms of early literature, both philosophical works (as parables or the flights of imaginative fancy in Zhuang zi) and history (in fabricated conversations and fantastic events). While it may be argued that a term like “narrative,” with its coincident concern for story, discourse, and conventions (using distinctions drawn by Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990], pp. 9, 83, 117, etc.), would more adequately serve to describe the range of materials modern scholars might address, because the term xiaoshuo still delineates the field for its specialists, narratives in philosophy and history are usually disallowed, and there is no general agreement on criteria by which to identify its earliest examples (see Hou Zongyi, Liuchao xiaoshuo shi, pp. 1–4, for a history of the term).

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