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  • The Phantom Heroine: Ghost and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature
  • Ning Ma (bio)
Judith T. Zeitlin. The Phantom Heroine: Ghost and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007. 296 pp. Hardcover $57.00, ISBN 978-0-8248-3091-5.

Chinese ghost stories from Liaozhai zhiyi, the famous collection of classical tales by Pu Songling (1640–1715), often strike today’s Western readers as singularly devoid of the element of horror. “They are not scary!” My students would typically say. In lieu of unsightly alien beings innately malicious to the living, the ghosts in Liaozhai are impressively humanlike.1 Significantly, this benign imagination of ghosthood is coupled with a distinctive gendering strategy: In Pu’s stories, the returning dead is usually a female, and the principal human character she encounters is usually a young man of the elite scholar class. Their meeting is nearly always sexual: The ghost woman, in most cases retaining her corporeal body, invariably turns out to be a matchless beauty yearning for love and companionship. Often resurrected through the power of love, Pu’s ghost heroine, despite her allure and passion in the manner of a femme fatale, can still end up being an ideal wife and mother. In the most orthodox Confucian sense, she serves her parents- in-law with uttermost devotion and gives birth to sons who later bring glory to the family by succeeding in civil examinations.2 Thus reconciling the perennial conflict of desire and duty, she is, in every fiber, the fantasy woman par excellence.

Readers who have enjoyed Pu Songling’s fantastic tales will unquestionably welcome Judith Zeitlin’s recent publication The Phantom Heroine: Ghost and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature as an important contribution not only to Liaozhai studies, but also to Chinese ghost literature in general. This [End Page 409] is a densely detailed book that paints a rich tapestry of the cultural context surrounding the imaginative world of Liaozhai and of two other masterpieces of Chinese literature—Tang Xianzu’s (1550–1616) Peony Pavilion and Hong Sheng’s (1645–1704) Palace of Lasting Life, both chuanqi dramas featuring a heroine who is later turned into a specter. Reflecting as well as forging the Chinese imagination of ghosts, these premier literary examples all appeared during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, from roughly 1580 to 1700, a period that becomes the natural focus of Zeitlin’s study. Other factors render the seventeenth century particularly relevant to the phantom heroine’s cultural significance: the publishing boom that spawned the compilation and publication of ghost tales or writings attributed to ghosts; the cult of qing (love, sentiment, desire), epitomized and propagated by The Peony Pavilion; and the traumatic fall of the Ming (1368–1644), which generated a poignant setting for “the mood of nostalgia and loss” evoked by the figure of the female revenant (p. 7). In relation to these historical trends, the book’s main chapters investigate four types of cultural discourse linked with the question of ghost and gender in seventeenth-century China: medicine, lyrical poetry, historical memory, and the theatre. The overall purpose of these inquiries is to “shift the discussion of ghosts in Chinese literature from the question of belief or fictionality to the issue of representation, and to explore the complex meanings, both literal and figurative, of these representations” (p. 10).

The first chapter, “The Ghost’s Body,” focuses on tales that “share a preoccupation with the ghost’s carnal body, the sexual and medical nexus that makes a phantom visible and tangible” (p. 16). Its various sections connect several Liaozhai stories and other literary works to seventeenth-century Chinese medical discourses, while judiciously referencing pertinent concepts in the modern disciplines of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and gender studies. The first section is titled “Feminizing the Ghost” and addresses in detail the Liaozhi story “Lotusscent” (lianxiang), which revolves around the rivalry and later friendship between a ghost named Li and a fox-spirit named Lotus-scent, both in love with the protagonist Sang. In contrast to Lotus-scent’s worldly and independent image, Li is portrayed as excessively delicate and sensitive.3 These characteristics endow her with...