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  • Celebrating the Yu Fan Shrine:Literati Networks and Local Identity in Early Nineteenth-Century Guangzhou
  • Steven B. Miles, Assistant Professor of History

Late in 1811 the Guangdong lieutenant-governor, Zeng Yu (1760-1831), and a group of local Cantonese and sojourning literati gathered at Guangxiao Monastery in Guangzhou to celebrate the construction of a shrine in honor of Yu Fan (164-233), a scholar and minor official who had been banished to the far south. While this 1811 gathering was a relatively minor affair, it coincided with a period in which Cantonese literati both turned with growing intensity toward writing about local culture and increasingly gained stature among the literary elite in the major cultural centers of the empire. The literary and scholarly ideals associated with the site and the celebrants would become mainstream in urban Cantonese literati circles with governor-general Ruan Yuan's (1764-1849) opening, a decade later, of the Xuehaitang academy. Moreover, subsequent portrayals of the Yu Fan Shrine, the cultural hero that it honored, and its creator persistently reappeared in local literature throughout the nineteenth century.

An examination of the participants who attended the event and the cultural meanings attached to the site of the Yu Fan Shrine provides an opportunity to explore connections between two developments in early nineteenth-century China: localism and empire-wide literati activism. Regarding the first of these developments, recent studies have drawn attention to several periods in which the production of texts was increasingly focused on local themes. One instance of this occurred in the late-eleventh and twelfth centuries, another in the sixteenth.2 The early nineteenth century is another period for which this type of "localist turn" may be documented in many places across the Qing [End Page 33] empire. In Guangzhou this was certainly the case, as Cantonese literati produced an unprecedented number of anthologies and histories focused on local culture.3

Yet it is important to remember that the production of localist texts could also be stimulated and maintained through trans-local networks of literati.4 Furthermore, in addition to the increased attention devoted towards local cultures in the early nineteenth century, James Polachek and other scholars have identified this period as a time when literati activism was on the rise throughout the Qing empire.5 That is, Chinese literati sought to enhance their influence in the bureaucratic administration, often through factional politics formed in part through shared aesthetic ideals. While this paper is not primarily concerned with "national" politics, a consideration of the writers and writings associated with the Yu Fan Shrine relates to the issue of the "ascendant literati" in two ways. First, since Zeng Yu was tied to the literati groups that would begin to assert themselves only a few years later in the capital, an examination of the interactions between Zeng and the Cantonese poets who celebrated the Yu Fan Shrine provides a means of exploring the evolving relationship between Cantonese literati and their northern—from the Cantonese perspective designating every place "north of the range"—patrons and like-minded associates. Second, if Polachek is correct in asserting that "belletristic friendship" or "aesthetic fellowship" was a means of forming trans-local patronage relationships in the early nineteenth century, then it behooves historians to take seriously the literature through which such relationships were forged.6 While members of the same literati "group" may have shared cultural icons, the cultural meanings associated with those icons likely varied over time and place, and among individual members of the group. An examination of commemorative essays and poems associated with the shrine provides an opportunity to further our understanding of the role that "aesthetic fellowship" and the celebration of local sites played in constructing elite culture and building literati networks in late imperial China.

This article begins with an examination of the backgrounds of the northern patron in this case, Zeng Yu, and of the Cantonese poets he mobilized to celebrate the Yu Fan Shrine. This is followed by an overview of the history of the site of the shrine in order to understand the range of symbols available to early nineteenth-century writers. We then turn our attention to the 1811 construction [End Page 34...