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  • Songs of Contentment and Transgression: Discharged Officials and Literati Communities in Sixteenth-Century North China
  • Catherine Swatek
Songs of Contentment and Transgression: Discharged Officials and Literati Communities in Sixteenth-Century North China. By Tian Yuan Tan. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monographs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010. xiv + 293 pp. Hardcover $39.95.

This book explores a sixty-year slice of literary history through case studies of three men whose lives and careers intersected in the mid-Ming dynasty. All three lived in north China; all became Metropolitan Graduates (jinshi) and had promising futures, only to be cashiered in mid-career because of factional conflict. Accordingly, all had to cope with a wrenching transition from active life in government to forced retirement at the margins of society. They did this, in part, by becoming leaders in their local communities and literary circles, but they also sought support and affirmation from each other and exerted influence well beyond their localities. In this well-researched study, Tian Yuan Tan examines the post-retirement activities of Wang Jiusi (1468-1551), Kang Hai (1475-1541), and Li Kaixian (1502-1568), focusing on their writing of qu, a song form associated with a "wanton" lifestyle, hence stigmatized as harmful to serious literary pursuits. Because all three men had the prestige and [End Page 310] the means to assume leadership locally, Tan does not treat them as "solitary outcasts" but as "signposts" to qu communities whose members become visible only through their links to the three. What emerges from these case studies is a "world of sanqu and drama among the literati" (p. 10), little studied because it is undocumented in standard anthologies.

Tan's introduction traces a connection between frustrated career ambitions and qu writing as an avocation, making a distinction between this embrace of qu and that associated with early Ming regional courts whose members wrote qu for self-protection. In the mid-Ming—in north China at least—literati began to write qu in local centers, their activities defining a literary subfield with its own "distinct level of symbolic and cultural capital" (p. 12). Tan examines these activities at both the local and translocal levels, hence his decision to study overlapping generations of writers located in two regional centers.

Part 1's four chapters focus on the Shaanxi community that formed around Wang Jiusi and Kang Hai, friends by virtue of similar backgrounds, shared literary communities both in and out of office, and proximity (being from adjacent counties). Chapter 1 ("Paths into Qu Writing") traces how both men, after dismissal from office in 1510, redirected their writing from the recognized genres of shi (classical poetry) and wen (classical prose) to qu (songs) while taking up a flamboyantly decadent lifestyle. Translations of four qu reveal how each man reassessed his official career and made "performance of contentment in retirement" a recurring theme of their songs and plays; translations from letters and prefaces also reveal both men defending their decision to take up this stigmatized genre. Chapter 2 ("Performing Contentment and Dramatizing Retirement") translates songs by both men on the theme of "Return." These showcase the variety of qu forms—xiaoling (single-stanza songs), daiguoqu (paired songs), and sanqu (song suites)—and reflect distinct aspects of qu writing as pursued in these northern communities: emphasis on single songs or suites as opposed to plays, and willingness to experiment (here, with an unusual binary form). However, both men also wrote plays and in the chapter's final section Tan discusses a zaju by Wang Jiusi that fictionalized events of Du Fu's life in a way that enabled him to use the play for self-expression. Discussion of the play reveals how the same fraught theme (retirement) might be treated differently in a sanqu, a play, or a letter to a friend.

The next two chapters take up communal aspects of qu writing in Shaanxi. Chapter 3 ("Writing in a Local Community") examines three kinds of evidence for such activity: production (writing qu or matching pieces), transmission (printing or circulating texts), and consumption (writing prefaces and colophons and performing qu). Such writing was occasional, seldom anthologized, and hence little studied. Tan makes it his...