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Spirit and Self in Medieval China

The Shih-shuo hsin-yu and Its Legacy

Nanxiu Qian

Publication Year: 2001

The Shih-shuo hsin-yu, conventionally translated as A New Account of Tales of the World, is one of the most significant works in the entire Chinese literary tradition. It established a genre (the Shih-shuo t'i) and inspired dozens of imitations from the later part of the Tang dynasty (618-907) to the early Republican era of the twentieth century. The Shih-shuo hsin-yu consists of more than a thousand historical anecdotes about elite life in the late Han dynasty and the Wei-Chin period (about A.D. 150-420).

Despite a general recognition of the place of the Shih-shuo hsin-yu in China's literary history (and to a lesser extent that of Japan), the genre itself has never been adequately defined or thoroughly studied. Spirit and Self in Medieval China offers the first thorough study in any language of the origins and evolution of the Shih-shuo t'i based on a comprehensive literary analysis of the Shih-shuo hsin-yu and a systematic documentation and examination of more than thirty imitations. The study also contributes to the growing interest in the Chinese idea of individual identity. By focusing on the Shin-shuo genre, which provides the starting point in China for a systematic literary construction of the self, it demonstrates that, contrary to Western assertions of a timeless Chinese "tradition," an authentic understanding of personhood in China changed continually and often significantly in response to changing historical and cultural circumstances.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

Growing up in Nanking gave me a false sense of security. I always believed that the characters in the Shih-shuo hsin-yü not only inhabited the same physical space I did but that they also partook of the same local “spirit.” We understood each other. I felt that I could rub shoulders with the “orchids and jade trees” of the Wang and Hsieh clans along the Black-clothes...

Chinese Dynasties

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pp. xiii-xiv

Japanese Periods Involved in the Japanese Shih-shuo Imitations

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pp. xv

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pp. 1-14

This book offers a comprehensive analysis of the Shih-shuo hsin-yü (conventionally translated as “A New Account of Tales of the World”) and its literary legacy—a legacy that lasted for well over 1,600 years in China and that also extended to other parts of East Asia during this period. Compiled by the Liu-Sung (420–479) Prince of Liu I-ch’ing (403–444) and his staff...

Part 1: From Character Appraisal to Character Writing: The Formation of the Shih-shuo Genre

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Introduction to Part 1: Shih-shuo t’i, the Term and the Genre

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pp. 17-19

The term Shih-shuo t’i first appeared in Ch’ao Kung-wu’s (fl. mid-twelfth century) Chün-chai tu-shu chih (Bibliographic treatise from the prefectural studio),¹ after the early wave of Shih-shuo imitations arose during the T’ang-Sung periods. Although the term has since recurred often in different academic works,² and although Shih-shuo t’i as an influential genre...

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1. Character Appraisal: The Foundation of the Shih-shuo t’i

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pp. 20-42

Various Chinese terms for the concept character appraisal circulated in late Han and Wei-Chin gentry circles. Both the Shih-shuo hsin-yü and the historical references quoted in its extensive and corroborative commentary by Liu Chün (462–521) abundantly document this practice.¹ In these records, character appraisal is known most fully as jen-lun chien-shih, with...

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2. Character Appraisal and the Formation of Wei-Chin Spirit

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pp. 43-83

After the Wei nine-rank system had discharged character appraisal from its political responsibilities, what caused the practice to become even more prevalent and to evolve on its own into a multidimensional exploration of human nature? What motivated and sustained the two-hundred-year Wei-Chin desire to know, to develop, and to express one’s self, leading...

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3. Shih-shuo t’i: A Sui Generis Genre

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pp. 84-97

Wei-Chin character appraisal bequeathed to the Shih-shuo t’i obligatory discursive properties, and its nonpragmatic approach propelled the genre into a philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic quest for ideal personalities. Semantically, character appraisal implanted in the Shih-shuo t’i a preoccupation with the study of human nature. Syntactically, it...

Part 2: The Narrative Art of the Shihshuo hsin-y

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Introduction to Part 2: Fictional Truth or Truthful Fiction

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pp. 101-102

Later readers unanimously acclaim the Shih-shuo hsin-yü to be the best of all the Shih-shuo t’i and a fascinating work in its own right. For instance, Ch’ien Fen (fl. 1650s) tells us: “The dots and strokes in the Shih-shuo hsinyü are so vividly applied that they make the reader feel as if personally listening to the tasty Shao music played by the Musician Wei and...

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4. Between Order and Disorder: The Shih-shuo Taxonomy of Human Nature

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pp. 103-150

The most distinctive formula of the Shih-shuo genre is its classification, a “system of elements”¹ composed of both its perceptible components, including the anecdotes and the chapter titles, and an abstract syntax that links all the elements. How did the author structure this system? Why did he choose to order human nature in this particular way? What problems...

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5. Using Body to Depict Spirit: The Shih-shuo Characterization of “Persons”

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pp. 151-190

Along with its chapter title, each Shih-shuo episode comes to illustrate the human type represented by that title. Apart from its chapter title, each Shihshuo episode presents a portrayal of a particular character. Over six hundred Shih-shuo characters freely traverse different chapters, establishing their identities through the presentation of various aspects of their...

Part 3: Discontinuity along the Line of Continuity: Imitations of the Shih-shuo hsin-y

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Introduction to Part 3: A Category Mistake

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pp. 193-210

The Shih-shuo hsin-yü is one of the most imitated works in the entire Chinese literary tradition. What was it about the original that impelled scholars to compose their own versions of this Wei-Chin pioneering oeuvre? What were imitators of the Shih-shuo trying to achieve, and how were their derivative works received by the reading public in subsequent...

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6. Body and Heart: T’ang and Sung Imitations

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pp. 211-246

Three T’ang Shih-shuo imitations are found in various bibliographic records: Wang Fang-ch’ing’s (d. 702) Continuation of the Shih-shuo hsinshu, Feng Yen’s (fl. 742–800) Memoirs, and Liu Su’s New Account of the Great T’ang. Wang’s work is not extant today. Feng’s Memoirs, written in the early ninth century, mainly covers a broad range of encyclopedic...

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7. Things and Intent: Ming and Ch’ing Imitations

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pp. 247-282

Most Shih-shuo imitations emerged in the late Ming and the early Ch’ing, from the 1550s to the 1680s. These works covered a longer time span (from antiquity to the early Ch’ing) and a broader range of Chinese social and intellectual life (with up to ninety-eight categories in one work) than previous Shih-shuo t’i works. The subgenres also expanded from general...

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8. Milk and Scent: Women Shih-shuo

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pp. 283-318

Two Ch’ing Shih-shuo imitations, both entitled Nü Shih-shuo (Women Shih-shuo), deal entirely with women: One is by the male writer Li Ch’ing (1602–1683),¹ composed in the early 1650s, and the other is by a woman, Yen Heng (1826?–1854), published a decade or so after her death. Li’s work includes 759 stories about remarkable women from antiquity to the...

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9. An Alien Analogue: The Japanese Imitation Daitō seigo

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pp. 319-338

The Shih-shuo t’i inspired imitations not only in imperial China but also in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan.¹ Ironically, the closest imitation of the Shihshuo hsin-yü in late imperial times can be found in Japan rather than in China. It is Hattori Nankaku’s Daito seigo, or An Account of the Great Eastern World, a work that presents an animated scroll of Heian...

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10. New and Old: The Last Wave of Shih-shuo Imitations

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pp. 339-367

The last wave of Shih-shuo imitations, Hsü K’o’s Ch’ing-pai lei-ch’ao (Classified records from unofficial Ch’ing historical writings) and Yi Tsungk’uei’s Hsin Shih-shuo (New Shih-shuo), emerged soon after the 1911 Republican Revolution. The two works were finished only two years apart, in 1916 and 1918 respectively, but the two authors’ motivation and...

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Conclusion: The Self and the Mirror

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pp. 368-380

The Shih-shuo tradition reveals an intimate and inextricable connection between the “self” and the “other.” Although the Shih-shuo genre arose from the Wei-Chin elite’s desire to express themselves on their own terms, as if the opinions of others did not matter, in fact they and their successors never stopped adjusting their images, trying to present an ideal self to...


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pp. 381-458


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pp. 459-473

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 475-504


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pp. 505-520

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864422
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824823092

Publication Year: 2001