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Reviewed by:
  • Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor: A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Story Collection ed. by Robert Hegel
  • Nathaniel Isaacson (bio)
Aina the Layman with Ziran the Eccentric Wanderer, Robert Hegel, editor. Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor: A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Story Collection. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. xxviii, 288 pp. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-0-295-99997-5.

Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor (Doupeng xianhua) in its English-language format is a multitude of things, first and foremost an early-Ming Dynasty collection of stories, purportedly shared in a garden over twelve days during the summer months, and original commentaries on the tales. In his introductory notes to the translation, editor Robert Hegel aptly compares the collection of narratives, embedded in the frame of a group of friends gathered to share them to the narrative structure and themes of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's Decameron, or the Arabic Thousand and One Nights. The stories feature tales of marital jealousy and romantic legend, avaricious merchants and monks bent on crime and corruption, prodigal sons who squander their family fortunes, incompetent officials, and a reversal of the living world's alimentation of the spirit world. The stories borrow numerous characters and conventions from history, pre-modern fiction, and legend, but they regularly defy these same stylistic protocols by inverting the archetypal narratives they draw from. The book's framing narrative also reads like an almanac that introduces the stories alongside an ongoing discussion of different species of beans, their ideal growing conditions, what kinds of dishes they are best used in, and what medical purposes they serve. These twelve storytelling sessions are not single, contained narratives but actually feature a number of related stories, explanatory side-notes, and other digressions on [End Page 62] the part of the fictional speakers and audience, and their "compiler," Aina the Layman.

At turns shocking, for example in the matter-of-fact depiction of eviscerations and acts of cannibalism, and at other turns censoriously humorous, as in the case of the description of a group of corrupt monks and how they came about their nicknames, these story sessions present a fascinating vignette of early Qing China that resonates with its past and future. For example, a series of doggerel verses on Tiger Hill in Suzhou is a rhyming gazetteer of fake goods, dodgy establishments, second-rate foods, and inveterate locals that reads like the Qing Dynasty equivalent of a viral internet exposé. Hegel and Xu Yunjing's rhyming translations of these poems deftly re-acculturate the rhythm and feel of the original Chinese in modern English. This digression is followed by an uproarious account of a group of Daoist Monks who use their deep knowledge of the sex industry to help an official from Shanxi avail himself of the services of local prostitutes before the narrator finally relates the titular story of the session, the tale of Jia Jingshan, an inveterate go-between whose scheme to fleece a wealthy official falls apart when his house is robbed. When Jingshan and a rival hanger-on are sentenced to penal servitude, an opera trainee is beaten for male prostitution, and Jingshan's daughter is sold into indentured servitude, the narrator's comment that "Heaven, perversely plotted to create a disastrous coincidence for this fellow," seems to imply that Heaven, like the human world, is far from fair in doling out punishments to both Jingshan and those around him.

The final session, a "discourse on the cosmos," reflects an impulse in the collection to unmask the profligacy of human beings, especially those holding the highest social positions, and the fickle nature of fate and karma. The motions of karmic retribution are less like the linear progress of a wheel and more like the seemingly chaotic ricochets of a rubber ball. Vice, when punished, seems to reflect the notion that all justice is extrajudicial, reflecting an overarching theme that "justice may be done in this world . . . [but] it is accomplished more often by coincidence than administrative competence," and "truly moral behavior may be found in unexpected places, but even then, only rarely" (p. xii). A related motif is that moral and spiritual rectitude...


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