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  • The Tapestry of Popular Songs in 16th- and 17th-Century China: Reading, Imitation, and Desire
  • Benjamin A. Hackman (bio)
Kathryn A. Lowry . The Tapestry of Popular Songs in 16th- and 17th-Century China: Reading, Imitation, and Desire. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 69. Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2005. xx, 375 pp. Hardcover $182.00. ISBN 90-04-14586-9.

In The Tapestry of Popular Songs in 16th- and 17th-Century China: Reading, Imitation, and Desire, Kathryn A. Lowry surveys late Ming popular songs and "their contribution to the dramatic transformation in literary aesthetics and culture in China between 1580 and 1643. . . ."1 Constitutive of a "central form of cultural production and consumption"2 rather than a marginal literary genre, popular songs mark a unique development in Chinese aesthetics. In the first place, they are unique "due to their predominant concern with qing (subjectivity and passion); their language, form, and themes and the history of their publication are evidence that subjectivity came to be seen as something that could be manufactured from [End Page 470] texts."3 As these songs were performed initially in the pleasure quarters,4 they frequently depict in graphic language the theme of sexual and romantic relations between courtesans and literati.5 Second, and in contrast to the Chinese scriptural tradition, popular songs retained their "ties to the voice, and hence to unmediated and spontaneous expression[s]"6 of sentiment-a feature that editors of popular song anthologies promoted as indexing authenticity. Free from artifice and pedantry, popular songs inverted orthodox literary values. These songs were never canonized.7

In her introduction, Lowry not only provides an historical context for her study but also identifies several conditions that spurred demand for and transmission of popular song anthologies in the late Ming.

The social and economic transformations of the late Ming determined the unique cast of the popular song tradition and its dissemination across social classes and geographic regions as the commercialization of agriculture, specialized manufacturing, and social differentiation and stratification on the village level counterbalanced (or in some instances bolstered opposition to) direct government control of the economy and contributed to cultural integration across classes. The rapid expansion of commercial publishing within this context was fueled by increasing status mobility and by the needs of a growing literate population. . . .8

Lowry claims that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries only 3 percent of the population achieved full classical literacy, whereas 10 percent could read and write nonclassical Chinese.9 Although many were illiterate, a large number of people were semiliterate to varying degrees and constituted a marketable demographic that generated demand10 for printed popular song anthologies. Editors and publishers catered to these various "literacies"11 by means of providing guides in their publications to assist consumers who encountered difficulty reading song verse, and including attractive paintings of romanticized liaisons between courtesans and literati to entertain readers with little or no literacy.

Chapter 1 contains a discussion of how editors culled the choicest (jin 錦 [tapestry])12 songs to arrange in publications that appealed to consumers of varying literacy. Lowry portrays such editorial practices as taking root in the production of drama-miscellanies, which included popular songs but preceded popular song anthologies. Throughout the chapter she complements theory with analysis, establishing hermeneutic credibility by means of treating exegetically a concrete literary tapestry of her own selecting. She shows how editors abbreviated certain characters to facilitate the printing process, juxtaposed lofty aspects of elite lifestyles with quotidian concerns of rustic folk, and included annotations regarding their selections to create peculiar aesthetic experiences for readers to savor.13

Chapter 2 addresses the formats of drama-miscellanies and songbooks. [End Page 471]

By examining the page formats, typography, illustrations, and prefaces for early songbooks and miscellanies, I demonstrate how these elements aided new readers in using common knowledge. Further, the dissemination of songs in these new and peculiar reading formats helped to alter the pace of literary and musical change; by printing lyrics for popular tune names, books created a common reader who was in tune with fashion.14

This highly illustrated15 chapter is bound to delight scholars expert in Chinese literature. Lowry studies the formats of particular publications ranging...


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