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  • Accidental Incest, Filial Cannibalism, and Other Peculiar Encounters in Late Imperial Chinese Literature
  • Robert E. Hegel
Accidental Incest, Filial Cannibalism, and Other Peculiar Encounters in Late Imperial Chinese Literature By Tina Lu. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. Pp. xi + 306. $39.95.

Tina Lu likes to ask questions of texts. In Accidental Incest her many questions are informed by a range of theorists who write in European languages (such as Arjun Appadurai, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Marcel Mauss); in this respect her study fits well with literary scholarship around the world that addresses other literatures. Likewise, in her interest in the economies of textual negotiations and their reflections of the growing commercialism of Ming and Qing society, this monograph follows trends set by leading China scholars in other disciplines who write in European languages.

Lu’s scope is far-ranging. She interrogates short classical language texts, vernacular short stories (huaben 話本), and multi-chapter (zhanghui 章回) novels that date from the period of dynastic transition from the Ming to the Qing. She relies on recent findings in social, intellectual, [End Page 507] cultural, political, and even legal history in her pursuit of ideas and phenomena that she identifies as “peculiar.” And though they are indeed strange, many of her fictional materials are more importantly disturbing accounts of personally and socially threatening situations, the product of chance and malfeasance that push their protagonists across generally accepted moral boundaries and into the forbidden zones mentioned in her title: cannibalism and incest. Her argument moves easily from text to text, weaving patterns of meaning from their major moral conflicts; although they are always intriguing for their freshness, her interpretations are often startling and on occasion appear arbitrary, made to accommodate her theoretical perspectives rather than to reflect concepts more culturally relevant to late imperial China. Even so, Lu’s insights into the writings she addresses reveal aspects of both individual texts and literary genres that are certain to be influential for decades to come. By focusing on the strangeness of sexual relations in certain narratives, she successfully problematizes received wisdom about conventional standards in late imperial literature, including the family reunions to be found in major plays of this period. By tracing the travels of fictional characters, she shows how central this information is to understanding the overall meaning of certain texts—and how travel can be used to destabilize normal value judgments. She also demonstrates how the rich nuances of this literature reflect political and social concerns of the day.

Accidental Incest has seven chapters and a substantial epilogue. The first chapter presents her theoretical perspectives, the next four consider shorter fiction in vernacular and classical languages, and the last two and the epilogue address novels. Earlier versions of two chapters appeared elsewhere.1

Lu begins her book with the question: “What would it mean to map a premodern empire?” (p. 1). In response, her study is “a meditation on the difficulties of representing an early modern empire” (p. 1). To this end, she gauges the dimensions of this empire through the travels of the protagonists of various fictional narratives, assesses the criteria for determining who are subjects of this empire, and identifies the [End Page 508] relationships by which individuals and families are organized into the larger human society governed by the state.

And yet, she observes, the extent of such empires is determined less by substantive geopolitical boundaries and more by imagined communities (following Benedict Anderson), which we might understand as communities of shared values. The rule of an enlightened ruler might be all-inclusive, wuwai 無外 (p. 7); for their part, writers might conceive all within the borders to be somehow acquainted or related by birth or marriage. To the extent that all problems of exchange—central to most of the texts she discusses—are political (as Arjun Appadurai suggests), Lu concludes that “writers of late imperial fiction were . . . deeply engaged with profoundly political questions” (p. 9). Her ongoing concern is the nature of all possible links between individuals and between families, and the circumstances that might break or prove the strength of these bonds. To Lu these links suggest that authors accurately recorded significant features of the...


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