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  • Songs of Contentment and Transgression: Discharged Officials and Literati Communities in Sixteenth-Century North China
  • Patricia Sieber
Songs of Contentment and Transgression: Discharged Officials and Literati Communities in Sixteenth-Century North China BY Tian Yuan Tan. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010. Pp. xiv + 293. $39.95.

Tian Yuan Tan's Songs of Contentment and Transgression is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing body of studies of late imperial Chinese performance-related genres. The book examines the three figures often credited with the revival of the Northern sanqu song and zaju drama traditions in the first part of the sixteenth century: Wang Jiusi (1468-1551) and Kang Hai (1475-1541), both of whom were from Shaanxi province, and Li Kaixian (1502-1568), from Shandong province. Tan combines a sociobiographical approach with close readings of texts and paratexts to explore why these men, all cashiered metropolitan graduates, chose to fashion an alternative socioliterary persona out of two genres that had previously been ignored or shunned by Ming literati, the so-called qu (sanqu songs as well as zaju and chuanqi song-drama). Rather than focusing solely on these three men as individuals, [End Page 178] Tan situates them as leaders within local communities of qu production, transmission, and reception. In keeping with the recent scholarly tendency to focus on original imprints and manuscripts rather than modern editions, Tan bases his inquiry and conclusions on Ming and Qing imprints and manuscripts; as a result, he measurably enriches our knowledge of sanqu songs and, to a lesser extent, of song-drama in the mid-Ming and late-Ming periods.

In Part 1 of Songs of Contentment and Transgression, Tan focuses on Wang Jiusi and Kang Hai as leaders of two overlapping qu communities. After providing biographical sketches of the men's official careers and membership in the archaist group of the Seven Masters, Chapter 1 hones in on their choice of qu as a genre for their post-official literary production. Tan argues that it was precisely the stigmatized nature of the genre that attracted the two men. In choosing a marginalized form, they self-consciously distinguished themselves from ordinary scholar-officials (p. 35). At the same time, keenly aware of literati misgivings about the form, they sought to elevate and legitimate the genre (pp. 36-37). Over the course of more than thirty years, they produced a substantial corpus of qu. At present over four hundred short songs (xiaoling), thirty song-suites (taoshu), and two plays circulate under Wang's name, and a similar number of short songs, over one hundred suites, and one or possibly two plays constitute Kang's qu oeuvre. This chapter illustrates two important aspects of qu writing. First, it shows how musical knowledge was central to the composition of qu at this juncture (p. 25); Kang Hai dabbled in music from an early age and eventually excelled in singing and playing string instruments, eliciting praise from professional musicians. Second, in the case of both men, it demonstrates that developing such skills involved a considerable outlay of funds, particularly through the employment of music masters, singers, and actors, as well as the printing of songs. Hence for all its potential associations with vulgar worldliness, engagement with qu also represented a form of conspicuous consumption of a luxury commodity.

Although it is certainly appropriate to point to the marginal status of qu among literati, Chapter 1 hints at, but does not develop, the role that the court might have played in Wang and Kang's choice of the qu as the form in which to express their alternate identities. As Tan observes, Kang Hai's family had inherited a large number of dramatic texts given out by the princely establishment of the future Yongle [End Page 179] emperor (r. 1403-1424). When Kang served at court, he personally perused several dozen plays among the many hundreds in the possession of imperial agencies in the capital (pp. 21-22). Eventually, he also reprinted an abridged version of the Taihe zhengyin pu (The formulary of correct sounds of great peace; 1398), the influential formulary compiled by the imperial prince Zhu Quan (p. 27). Later in the book, Tan...


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