- Dynastic Crisis and Cultural Innovation: From the Late Ming to the Late Qing and Beyond
It is unlikely that many people, other than reviewers, will read this massive collection of sixteen essays and introduction cover to cover. Several chapters do shed a diachronic perspective on how the late Ming legacy of trauma, memory, and nostalgia informed the imaginations of late Qing and postmodern writers, but most essays have a more limited reach in addressing specific late Ming or late Qing literary phenomena. However, this criticism in no way lessens my enthusiasm for the individual chapters, most of which make important contributions to late imperial fiction studies. Furthermore, it is refreshing that the editors have attempted to project a long, long view of Chinese literary development and have rejected the artificial divide that so frequently and even more unfortunately separates fiction written after 1900 from what came before.
Rather than try to treat the volume as a whole, I will organize my review according to certain themes that emerge. Chief among these are the aesthetics of writing about traumatic loss and pain, and a genealogical uncovering of how women writers appropriated the traditional male roles of witness to and authors of history. How do writers take the somatic and irrational sensations of loss and turn them into the stuff of history, a mode of writing that in the modern period is associated with realism and the metanarrative of the nation? David Der-wei Wang's brilliant concluding essay, "Second Haunting," anchors and frames the themes of the anthology by focusing on the rootless ghost (gui 鬼), "that which returns" (gui 歸), as a metaphor for the psychic processes of nostalgia. Despite the attempts of May Fourth and socialist ideologies alike to drive away ghosts as politically incorrect expressions of superstition, ghosts have returned with a vengeance in the literature of the last two decades. These modern and postmodern revenants share with their imperial ancestors yearnings for a sense of stability and for a home and past that no longer exist. As Wang suggests, postmodern ghosts have further taken on the overlay of resistance to the modern, including the rejection of the politics and aesthetics of the modern nation and its physically invigorated citizens as well as the rejection of the ideological premises of realism and rationalism.
Wang's essay neatly echoes themes raised by Judith Zeitlin in "The Return of the Palace Lady: The Historical Ghost Story and Dynastic Fall." As she argues, the present's backward gaze and desire for the past is masculine, while the yearned-for past is feminine (p. 156). She suggests that this might explain the prevalence of female ghosts who haunt stories about fallen dynasties. [End Page 579]
One of the surprises of this bulky anthology is that the two lengthy chapters by Wai-yee Li and Judith Zeitlin cover much of the same material: the evolving literary treatment of late Ming beauties and what this says about changing views on the fall of the Ming, especially during the late years of the Qing. The editors would have done well to streamline the bibliographic information in both articles to avoid repetition. Wai-yee Li's "Women as Emblems of Dynastic Fall in Qing Literature" discusses the representations of late Ming women and the changing views on the relationship between the individual and larger historical processes. As the fall of the Ming became more historically and emotionally distant from Qing writers, they focused their efforts on manipulating the aesthetic and universal themes associated with these women's lives. The strength of this chapter is the close readings of the Chen Yuanyuan 陳圓圓 and Lin Siniang 林四娘 stories. Chen Yuanyuan was a famed late Ming courtesan who became involved with Wu Sangui 吳三桂 (1612–1678), the military commander who joined forces with the Manchus after one of Li Zicheng's rebel leaders captured Yuanyuan. Li traces the use of the Chen Yuanyuan/Wu Sangui story through...