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Reviewed by:
  • Lifestyle and Entertainment in Yangzhou
  • Michael Marmé (bio)
Lucie Olivová and Vibeke Børdahl, editors. Lifestyle and Entertainment in Yangzhou. NIAS Studies in Asian Topics, vol. 44. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2009. xxiii, 488 pp. Hardcover $90.00, ISBN 978-87-7694-035-5.

This handsomely produced, profusely illustrated volume is the result of a long-term, truly international collaboration among scholars whose work focuses on various aspects of Yangzhou from the seventeenth century down to the present day. Building on conversations begun in cyberspace (a Yangzhou Club within the Chinese Storytelling website, the editors organized a three-day workshop in October 2005 in Yangzhou itself. Lifestyle and Entertainment in Yangzhou is the result.

The text is divided into four sections, dealing respectively with “the city of sights” (five essays addressing everything from architecture and city planning through gardens to fashion), books and literature (four contributions), performance and entertainment (five studies), and the Yangzhou school of painting (four papers). The roster of scholars is distinguished, the mix of senior and junior scholars judicious, and the caliber of scholarship for the most part very high. It is an excellent place to get a sense of the state of this very active subfield. Yet it is not the first place one would send a colleague who wished to be brought up to speed about this important place.

In part, this reflects the quality of existing scholarship — much of it the work of participants in the workshop — already in print. To limit oneself to publications in English, Ginger Hsu (2001), Toby Meyer-Fong (2003), and Antonia Finnane (2004) published major books on the city not long before attending the conference. Workshop proceedings are apt to leave the reader to bridge the gaps separating aspects brought into sharp focus in individual papers. This is particularly true if the introduction is (as here) a mere three pages and there is neither an afterword nor a conclusion that attempts to make a whole of the parts.

There are, however, deeper problems. While individual contributors are often rigorous in the way they define their terms, there is little evidence of consistency between essays. Three days is, of course, far too little time to have achieved this — but could more not have been done, either before or after the workshop, to thrash out such issues? One might, moreover, have hoped that twenty-first-century technology would have enabled participants to engage more fully with one another’s findings and arguments; there is little evidence that this actually happened. Further, some authors clearly assumed they were addressing a specialist audience with much more than passing familiarity with the topic. Others seem to have pitched their contributions to a far more general audience.

McKinnon’s “A Traveler’s Tale of Two Cities: Yangzhou, Shanghai” brings many of the more problematic aspects together. This article adopts the stance of a [End Page 233] naive outsider prepared to recognize Chinese proto-modernity — only defined by invoking Anthony Giddens secondhand on the penultimate page of the chapter — when he sees it. Given the rigor they bring to their own work, one suspects that many of the other contributors would have cautioned that early modernity would look very different, and would certainly be differently configured, in China than in the West. Olivová’s essay “Building History and the Preservation of Yangzhou” — which makes clear how little has been done, until very recently, to preserve physical traces of the past — suggests that seeking such evidence on the ground is a dubious enterprise, in any case. Yet the point does not seem to have registered, and the editors seem to have avoided raising it.

A stronger editorial hand would have enhanced the book throughout. Careless errors mar otherwise valuable contributions: thus, the poet Wang Shizhen is elevated from prefectural judge to prefect of Yangzhou. In a book about place, the only map — of the city proper — is found on page 164, and would be of little use to a non-Chinese reader. While comparative dimensions are alluded to, they are seldom explored in any detail — thus, while Fei Li provides us with a vivid description of traditional story...