- Li Mengyang, the North-South Divide, and Literati Learning in Ming China by Chang Woei Ong
In the field of late imperial literature, Li Mengyang 李夢陽 (1472–1529) is one of those figures whose name is familiar and whose importance is unquestioned but who is rarely the object of sustained attention. Indeed, the middle of the Ming (1368–1644) as a whole is under-studied, in Western languages especially, perhaps because it is difficult to reconcile the flourishing of "archaism" (fugu 復古) with the exciting, early modernish story of vernacularization and individualism in the last century of the dynasty. Chang Woei Ong emphasizes the point, apparent from much recent scholarship, that the dismissal of mid-Ming archaist writers as lifeless imitators rests on a profound misprision of the nature and aims of the archaist movement—although this portrayal fits a May Fourth narrative that celebrated late Ming innovation as an abortive modern moment. In this monograph, the first book-length treatment of Li Mengyang in English, Ong shows that [End Page 374] there is much more to say about a figure such as Li once we move past such stereotypes. One of the first presuppositions to overcome is that Li is of interest only as a poet and literary theorist; Ong shows that Li was a wide-ranging writer who displays a consistent style of thinking and whose ideas are best understood in light of his thought as a whole, the range of issues he responded to, and his position as a writer from northern China at a time when regional origin was an important matter of personal identity and public policy.
Ong finds in Li a consistent defender of the underlying diversity of the cosmos, which operates according to knowable categories such as the ineluctable polarity of yin and yang but not according to fixed, uniform patterns. In this respect and others, Li vehemently rejected the vision of a universe underlain by li 理—principle, pattern, or coherence—that the Dao Learning (Daoxue 道學) masters of the Song had worked to establish. Although this epistemologically optimistic model, as expressed in classical commentaries and related texts by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200) and others, had been enshrined as state orthodoxy in the early Ming, Li was not convinced that a universal pattern connected all things. He was more inclined to see the world as a site of constant struggle among forces, human or otherwise, and the human realm in particular as characterized by a diversity of personalities (xing 性), which give rise to sentiments (qing 情). Ethics, according to Ong's reading of Li, is about guiding the expression and realization of these sentiments toward appropriate modes of manifestation. Education, in general, is about the creation of opportunities for proper expression of sentiment. And writing, in particular, is at its best when correct forms are used to manifest qing. This conception of the world lies in the background to Li's most famous contribution: his advocacy of a set of suitable forms and models for particular kinds of literary expression.
Although Ong articulates a vision that makes Li into an original thinker on a variety of topics, including education, governance, historiography, and cosmology, Ong acknowledges that Li had little impact outside the literary realm. One factor may be the importance of regional identities in Ming intellectual life: Li, like most of the archaist thinkers later grouped as the Former Seven Masters (Qian qizi 前七子), was a northerner. Ong shows that his northern origins were both an important sociological fact and a cultural identification. Compared to southerners, northerners including Li tended to envision a society [End Page 375] in which the state played a relatively active role down to the local level. In practice, northern elites also depended more on the state for their social status. Combined with longstanding suppositions about regional distributions of personality and predispositions, these factors helped to create distinct literati communities in the two regions and affected the reception of writers identified with each region. Ong finds numerous references to Li Mengyang...