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  • Accidental Incest, Filial Cannibalism, and Other Peculiar Encounters in Late Imperial Chinese Literature
  • Huili Zheng (bio)
Tina Lu . Accidental Incest, Filial Cannibalism, and Other Peculiar Encounters in Late Imperial Chinese Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. xxi, 306 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-03156-2.

This book is ambitious in the sense that it addresses big political questions: How is community imagined in late imperial Chinese literature? What ties people together? How should family be positioned in relation to society and state? Lu's investigation of these questions includes three major genres of late imperial Chinese literature: chuanqi drama, short narrative (in both classical and vernacular Chinese), and the long novel. Lu's book, therefore, is "largely about genre" (p. 18), about how different genres addressed those questions within their own generic parameters. With the examination of an impressive scope of primary sources, fruitful cross-cultural comparisons, and meticulous analyses, Lu's book is a substantial contribution to scholarship on late imperial Chinese literature and culture.

The book consists of eight chapters. In the introductory chapter, Lu lays out her interpretive framework and main arguments with regard to those political questions. According to Lu, late imperial writers addressed those questions directly with obsessive discussions of "economy and society" and "exchange of kinship" (p. 9). Focusing on the politics of "exchange" involved in the imagination [End Page 133] of human community in late imperial literature, Lu's first chapter investigates how chuanqi drama addressed political questions. As the most orthodox and totalizing form among the three genres, chuanqi drama is the theatrical enactment of the Confucian imperial ideology, at the core of which lies the unity of family and state, the domestic and the public. This ideological assumption is most clearly evidenced by the generic hallmark of chuanqi drama, the "grand reunion" (datuanyuan). This ideal vision of human community presented in chuanqi drama thus serves as a point of departure for the rest of the book. While chuanqi drama presents a seamless unity of family and state as prescribed in neo-Confucian political theory, other texts expose loopholes and gaps in that totalizing imperial ideology, thus revealing a rupture in the faith in that unity.

The next four chapters focus on the short narrative, all concerned with the trope of family reunion and round-trip journey. According to Lu, the short narrative, especially vernacular huaben narratives, "at once enact enclosure and foreground how difficult it is" (p. 101). Reading huaben narrative within the historical context of its heyday (1620-1670)—a period marked by craze for money as well as colossal political upheaval and social chaos—Lu discusses how writers responded to neo-Confucian political theory sanctified as state orthodoxy or to contemporary political problems (chapters 2 and 3). By analyzing the imagined community represented in huaben, which is characterized by circulation of goods (often women are counted as goods) and karma, Lu points out that huaben narratives assert cosmic coherence with a well-calculated balance between money and morality. This balance, however disrupted in the narrative, is restored in the ending, embodied by family reunion. This ideological certainty, however, was unsettled with the collapse of the Ming dynasty. With a peculiar interest in the random and the arbitrary, Li Yu, writing in the immediate aftermath of the dynastic fall, pokes fun at the moral and economic enclosure of the huaben narrative by undermining or putting off endings. Chapter 4 is an analysis of a single story which, by failing to work out an enclosure, "challenges the very form of late imperial narrative" (p. 103). Chapter 5 is still about family reunion, but with a change of focus. The reunion discussed in this chapter is not between husband and wife but between parents and children. Analyzing a large quantity of records on filial behavior culled from a wide array of sources, Lu raises unsettling questions about the endings of those works that deal with extraordinary filial behavior. Pushing the logic of filial cannibalism to its limits, Lu points out that filiality is "about a tendency to self-consumption" (p. 160), which makes human communities contract rather than expand.

The last three chapters are about...