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  • Literary Archaism, Personal Expression and Self-Cultivation in Ming China:Li Mengyang and his World
  • Richard John Lynn (bio)
Chang Woei Ong. Li Mengyang, the North-South Divide, and Literati Learning in Ming China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. xi, 354 pp. Hardcover $49.95, isbn 978-0-674-97059-5.

This study of Li Mengyang 李夢陽(1473–1530) by Chang Woei Ong (Wang Changwei 王昌偉) is divided as follows: part 1, "Historical and intellectual background," contains three chapters: "North and South," "Li the man and his world," and "Taking the past as a model in the Song-Ming period," with two sub-sections that address the historical and intellectual background for understanding Li Mengyang's emergence and reception. Part 2, "Understanding the cosmos," (including "Patterns of the cosmos" and "The human world as part of the cosmos"), discusses the foundation of Li's intellectual vision. These present Li's views on cosmology and the place of human society within the cosmos, which are at odds with the dominant Cheng-Zhu orthodox Daoxue 道學(Learning of the Way) version of Neo-Confucianism that postulated ontological oneness and coherence in the universe. Li argued instead that irregularity and unpredictability prevailed and that the forces of competition and rivalry were more powerful than tendencies to harmony and mutual benefit. Part 3, "Learning for the state," consisting of "Institutions for learning" and "The contents of learning," discusses the institutions and programs that Li advocated for preparing literati to become state servants. In part 4 "Expressing the self," in chapters titled "Prose" and "Poetry," Professor Ong discusses Li's theoretical views of writing, essentially his promotion in poetry of the free expression of personal emotion, demonstrating, contrary to the long held but erroneous view, that Li simply insisted on imitating archaic styles and that he actually valued both individuality and originality as essential dimensions of successful writing. Prose (essentially writings on the Confucian classics and history) for Li was primarily a vehicle of intellectual discourse, an instrument for the explication of moral truths. Here ancient models were reliable guides because they are precise but comprehensive, direct, and realistic (pp. 225–229). Finally, the "Conclusion": "Towards an understanding of Li Mengyang's legacy," addresses how Li's expressive theory of poetry was the mainstay of his prominence in the discourse of the later Ming and Qing. Here Professor Ong also sums up Li's legacy within the late Ming context of the north-south divide and the compartmentalization of literati learning.

Li Mengyang 李夢陽 (1473–1530), personal name (zi 字) Xianji 獻吉and sobriquet (hao 號) Kongtong zi 空同子(Master Kongtong), was a native of Qingyang 慶陽(then western Shaanxi, now eastern Gansu, Qingcheng district [End Page 10] near which lie the Kongtong Mountains 空同[崆峒]山, from which Li took his sobriquet. During Li's early years, his family lived mostly in Kaifeng, but when he married in 1490 he moved back to Qingyang, where the Shaanxi provincial education commissioner (tixue shi 提學使) Yang Yiqing 楊一清(1454–1530) became an important mentor and lifelong friend. Yang became one of the most eminent officials of the day, later serving as Minister of the Ministry of Revenue 戶部尚書(1510), Minister of the Ministry of Personnel 吏部尚書(1511), Grand Mentor of The Heir Apparent 太子太傅and Grand Secretary (concurrent, 1515); he was a prominent poet of cabinet style (taige ti 臺閣體) verse.1 In 1493 Li attained the jinshi degree, but since his parents had just died he remained at home and only began his official career five years later. His highest central government office was Vice-Director of the Ministry of Revenue 戶部員外郎(1505–1507 and 1511), after which he was appointed Jiangxi provincial education vice-commissioner 江西提學副使(1511). Li acquired a national reputation for great integrity and courage when in 1507 he drafted a memorial attacking the cruel and cunning but powerful eunuch Liu Jin 劉瑾(died 1510), which led to Li's dismissal from office. The next few months saw him domiciled at his elder brother's farm near Kaifeng, where he continued to write, criticizing the court and condemning Liu Jin, who had him arrested in February 1508, brought to Beijing in chains, and thrown in prison. However, Li was soon released through the intercession of his friend Kang Hai 康海(1475–1541...