- Nourishing Life and Cultivating the Body: Writing the Literati’s Body and Techniques for Preserving Health in the Late Ming by Hsiu-fen Chen
In the last two decades, historians have studied critical social and cultural changes of the late Ming, from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, focusing on the flourishing of print culture, the emergence of women writers, and the increasing importance of material culture in defining the lifestyle of literati (Ko 1994; Brook 1998; Chow 2004; Clunas 2004). Chen Hsiu-fen’s book contributes to the field by adding a new dimension: the dramatic changes in the production and circulation of ideas about nourishing life. These changes were especially remarkable in literati writings, commercially printed handbooks, and encyclopedias. “Nourishing life,” in Chinese yangsheng, was one of the many terms used by literati and commercial publishers who wrote, compiled, and published on subjects like diet, sex, gymnastics, and other daily practices. Chen uses the term “nourishing life” as an analytic category representing a series of body-centered concerns and practices. She analyzes a wide range of writings with special attention to their underlying concerns about taste, the manner of possessing artifacts, and the commercial values of the knowledge of bodily practices.
Chen’s investigation of the varied aspects of nourishing life mainly contributes to two bodies of scholarship. First, previous scholarship narrowly considers the skills of nourishing life as part of a Daoist tradition, either tracing its philosophical root to periods before the Song or focusing on the practices of the Ming and Qing (5–10). Chen’s work complements this picture, investigating a wide range of writings to reveal how nourishing life came to be a favorite topic for the late Ming literati writers and a form of popular knowledge in the Jiangnan region. Second, recent scholarly interest in the public health projects of the Republican period has drawn our attention to the dynamic relation between personal health and state projects. A pioneering study by Ruth Rogaski (2004) has shown how a new concept, that of “guarding life,” became central to Republican plans for modernization, breaking away from previous practices focusing on individual health. Yet we still lacked a clear conceptual framework to [End Page 87] understand the interest in individually based bodily practices before the nineteenth century. Chen’s book is the first to place the diversity of the concerns and practices of nourishing life in conversation with scholarship on social and cultural changes in the late Ming.
Using a range of literati writings, Chen reveals that nourishing life became an essential part of how literati distinguished themselves from other members of late Ming society. The practices were no longer a mysterious set of skills known only to Daoist masters but a part of the daily activities of many literati. Nourishing life came to inform the appreciation of artifacts, the Confucian ideal of self-cultivation, and the fulfillment of a wide range of worldly concerns. In addition, knowledge about nourishing life acquired a commercial value as publishing became big business in the late Ming. Different agents reproduced knowledge about nourishing life for their own purposes and disseminated it into different social and cultural arenas.
In chapter 1, Chen successfully contextualizes the compilation of the books on nourishing life by retired officials, recluses, and commercial publishers. The language of nourishing life infiltrated family precepts about regulating daily activities, child rearing, and serving the elders in the family. Literati, enthusiastic about collecting and transcribing books in the pursuit of broad learning, combined chapters on nourishing life with chapters on other topics such as astronomy, agriculture, the arts, literature, and classical learning. Such compilations not only circulated within the literati network as manuscripts, but also became a favorite of commercial publishers, who picked and reprinted specific chapters for compilations of their own (19–47).
In chapter 2, Chen presents in detail two approaches toward nourishing life adopted by late Ming literati...