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Late Imperial China 28.1 (2007) 62-91

Elective Affinities:
Literary Soul Mates and the Marketplace in late Qing Fiction
Paola Zamperini

There is a saying: "For whom do you act, and who will pay attention to you?" When Zhong-zi Qi died, Bo Ya never played his harp again. Why was that? A man does something for the sake of someone who understands him, as a woman adorns herself for someone who is attracted to her.1 In the triangle of author, work, and public the last is no passive part, no chain of mere reactions, but rather itself an energy formative of history.2

This is an article about books within books and the passions and the actions they engender. It explores, in other words, fictional representations of the act of reading and writing, selling and buying books in late Qing literature. This theme is not a novelty in the xiaoshuo tradition. In fact, one would be surprised not to find such representations of printed matter in the text-obsessed Chinese culture. Eleven centuries of printing books, resting on an even longer tradition of literary production and scholarship, attest to the centrality of the written word in Chinese society, where, as Cynthia J. Brokaw writes, "possession of—or at least access to—books was essential to respectable success."3 No wonder, then, that authors wrote books into their novels.

The way in which some popular fictional works at the end of the Qing dynasty frame the reading and buying of books, however, is striking enough to raise a set of very interesting questions: What can we learn from the ways books, as physical, tangible objects, are represented in the novels of this period? Where and why do the authors position themselves and the readers of [End Page 62] these books-within-books? Can we see these representations as markers of the writers' anxieties vis-à-vis the increasing commercialization of contemporary practices of reading and writing books? How does this positioning affect and reflect upon the place of the reader outside the book? And how does gender figure, if at all, in terms of these questions?

The publishing history of the period under examination here (roughly spanning 1860 to 1911) has already been studied exhaustively elsewhere by scholars of the stature of Perry Link and Christopher Reed.4 It is not the goal of this article to map the historical development of the publishing industry in late Qing China through novels, nor does it want to use fictional texts to map out the differences between the literary marketplaces of cities such as Suzhou or Shanghai. Rather, the main goal of this article is first to address the evidence in fiction of the heightened late Qing authorial sensitivity to and awareness of readers as consumers and buyers of books; and secondly to read this new dynamic against the foil of the evolution of the very well established trope of the zhi yin, "soul mate"—a concept that will be analyzed extensively below—in this very protean literary landscape.

Even more to the point, the article aims at delineating the interactions between imagination, narrative, and history that influenced the act of writing, reading, and selling texts in the field of Chinese vernacular literature at the end of the Qing dynasty. Thus, in analyzing the act of purchasing a book in a public setting and different deployments of marketing strategies that rely on forms of advertisement in late Qing novels, we will follow two lines of research. The first will be the study of the literary devices that conflate author and literary hero, hero and reader, reader and author. The other will explore the rationale, functions, and results of these devices. Where possible, elements derived from close readings of other novels written in the same period will be brought into the discussion, as well as their relation to earlier traditions of vernacular fiction.

We will focus on two novels, namely, Qinglou meng (A Dream of Green Bowers), by Yu Da—a very little...


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pp. 62-91
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