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  • The Romance of a Literatus and His Concubine in Seventeenth-Century China by Jun Fang and Lifang He
  • Hsieh Bao-Hua (bio)
Jun Fang and Lifang He. The Romance of a Literatus and His Concubine in Seventeenth-Century China, annotated translations of Reminiscences of the Plum-shaded Convent Yin Meian yiyu (影梅庵憶語) by Mao Xiang (1611–1693). Proverse Hong Kong, 2019. 224 pp. Paperback $40.00, isbn 978-988-8491-62-9.

The classic Chinese literature, Yin Meian yiyu (影梅庵憶語), is a memoir written by Mao Xiang (冒襄, informal name Pijiang 辟彊, 1611–1693) in remembrance of his concubine Dong Xiaowan (董小宛 1624–1651). It is an embodiment of the scholar-beauty romance through an elite's lifestyle in association with concubinage. The English version of the memoir, The Romance of a Literatus and His Concubine in Seventeenth-Century China, is literary [End Page 122] translation from Chinese with proficient annotations. It is a significant contribution to political and sociocultural history in the Jiangnan area during the Ming–Qing transition.

The memoir illustrates Pijiang's sociocultural life in the Jiangnan region from his familial relationships, interactions with the literati community, scholarly pursuits, and frequent personal travels. His appreciation of the delights of regional cuisine, serene natural scenery, and so on, are reflected in this memoir. He paints the struggling passage of life between the change of dynasties and the necessary transition of Ming elite loyalists. In particular, the memoir conveys how concubinage became a persistent and prevalent custom in common society. With the prosperity of the late sixteenth century, a materialistic fad developed among the increasing urban elite. Pursuing personal pleasures, they constructed magnificent mansions and villas decorated with luxurious furniture, artistic treasures, numerous entertainers, servants, and concubines. Taking concubines was a way to display the quality of life and lofty social status. Upper elites like Pijiang's family and merchants were the major participants in the fashionable leisure lifestyle. Such socioeconomic circumstances fostered the practice of concubinage, which diminished the distance between the wealthy and the poor by creating opportunities for social advancement by less-well-off women. Courtesan Xiaowan, a self-conscious individual, aspired to seize upon the opportunity that Pijiang represented for a meaningful emotional relationship as his concubine. Thus, concubinage can be seen as not only merely a relationship based purely on socioeconomic security, but also a pursuit of Xiaowan's personal fulfillment and satisfaction for an independent woman of irreputable status.

From the family of an upper-level official, Pijiang was renowned for his artistry and literary talent, but he was frustrated at the lack of a promising political career after his failure to pass the Ming provincial exams. Attracted to sophisticated courtesans, he was a regular visitor to Qinhuai (秦淮), Suzhou's entertainment world. Xiaowan, the daughter of a declining petty literati family, was forced to become a courtesan at the age of twelve after the death of her parents. For her extraordinary elegance and artistic talent, she immediately became a popular courtesan in Qinhuai, although she was considered a virtue "stained" entertainer. Due to their frequent interactions with the rich and powerful costumers, courtesans had both freedom and opportunity to choose an ideal partner for themselves. Concubinage served as a means to elevate their social status, irrespective of their ineligibility for the status of wives in upper elite families. Under the setting of Qinhuai's courtesan culture, Xiaowan quickly understood that Pijiang was her ideal partner and ventured to help her escape from her shameful entertainer's life by fortunately becoming his concubine. Yet, initially already having several concubines before meeting Xiaowan, Pijiang was hesitant to accept her request and was unable to pay her huge debt exceeding [End Page 123] 3,000 taels of silver. It was his senior friend Qian Qianyi (錢謙益), the leader of literati community in Jiangnan, who generously paid the accumulated bills of her creditors and the redemption fees for her release from the Register of the Music Office (Jiaofangsi 教坊司). He then gave Xiaowan to Pijiang as a present.

To please Pijiang's desire, his amiable wife, impressed by Xiaowan's unfaltering devotion to him, generously welcomed her, despite her inferior background. A competent wife was expected to swallow her resentment and hide...


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