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Reviewed by:
  • Trauma and Transcendence in Early Qing Literature
  • Zhu Mei (bio)
Wilt L. Idema, Wai-yee Li, and Ellen Widmer, editors. Trauma and Transcendence in Early Qing Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2006. xi, 533 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0-674-01775-7.

The early Qing was an extraordinarily creative and vibrant period in Chinese literary history. Among the studies that center on the traumatic experiences of Chinese intellectuals caused by the collapse of the Ming dynasty and the Manchu conquest of China, this volume is a pioneering one in the West. It is the fruit of two separate conferences sponsored by the Harvard-Yenching Institute in June 2000 and June 2001. Before this volume, the study of early Qing literature in China focuses on how early Qing scholars and officials adjust their lives under a foreign regime. Moral evaluation and political attitudes toward the Qing government have been the fundamental standards to judge the literati's place in the history of literature. The contributors to this volume, the leading Western scholars in this field, quite convincingly have called for a comprehensive rethinking of the aesthetic and literary significance of the Manchu conquest reflected in the works of the most famous remnant subjects. Although the Ming-Qing transition as a historical event was almost an apocalyptic experience, characterized by unspeakable rupture, violence, and devastation, contributors to this volume see it as a period of cultural innovation and rupture of literary traditions, the birth of a new literary mode.

With this new perspective and theoretical framework, I find it quite enlightening for the editors to chose "trauma and transcendence" as a theoretical sounding title. Idema, Li, and Widmer situate the literature of this period in trauma theory, at the intersection of poststructuralist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic theoretical approaches. At the same time, they pull it away from the moral-political interpretations that are commonly associated with it in China. Moreover, the capacity of language to articulate the experience of historical trauma is viewed as transcendence, which not only refers to a specific existential status but also relates to the cognitive faculty. Specifically, the transcendence examined in artistic and literary merits in literary works selected in this collection can be better termed "aesthetic transcendence." The twelve chapters in this volume and the introductory chapters on early Qing poetry, prose, and drama understand the writings of this era wholly or in part as attempts to recover from or transcend the trauma of the transitional years. Therefore, transcendence here can be understood as this volume's defining feature at two different levels: transcending traditional moral and political evaluation to aesthetic evaluation, a first layer; and a second [End Page 210] layer, exploring the way of transcending traumatic experience of dynastic transition from latter Ming to early Qing through literary works.

The twelve chapters cover a range of literary genres that deal with "historical trauma and aesthetic transcendence." They are divided into three different sections: poetry, prose, and drama. Each part is preceded by a general introduction to the part as well as a more detailed introduction for each genre by an editor. Part 1 examines early Qing poets represented by Qian Qianyi, Wu Weiye, and Hanke. By investigating the depth of the poets' lyrical engagement with the historical crisis, the contributors to this volume attempt to reassess their place in the canon. Part 2 contains five chapters on fiction, memoirs, and other kinds of prose that offer as many approaches to modern readers' understanding of the transition between 1644 and 1700. Oki Yasushi focuses on the lives of Mao Xiang (1611-1693) and Yu Huai (1616-1696). Robert Hegel's "Dreaming the Past" is similarly concerned with the individual, focusing on Chu Renhuo (1630-1705). Ellen Widmer's study is also organized biographically, but it offers yet another perspective on Ming loyalist experience and can be taken as an exemplary study in this field.

Widmer's chapter on Huang Zhouxing's prose is titled "Between Worlds: Huang Zhouxing's Imaginary Garden." Widmer points out that utopia in spirit, Jiangjiu yuan, is the imaginary subject of Huang's prose piece Jiangjiu yuan ji and other pieces such as his...


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