- Orthodox Passions: Narrating Filial Love during the High Qing by Maram Epstein
The central argument and primary intervention of Professor Maram Epstein's new book can be summarized with the title of its first chapter, "Taking Filial Love Seriously." Epstein challenges the Euro-centric paradigm that predisposes modern readers to focus on romantic love when studying human emotions. Decentering romantic love as idealized in the concept of companionate marriage, Orthodox Passions successfully restores filial piety (xiao 孝) to the heart of the discussion of the family as a site of sentiment in premodern China. Epstein's reassessment of the role of parent–child bond in producing individual subjectivity allows her to provide refreshing scholarly interpretations of many Qing literary and biographical texts. Equally importantly, Epstein's treatment of filial piety as a form of sentiment rather than a mere governing tool enables her to develop new understanding of such universally relevant topics as premodern identity formation and the relationship between the affective and the normative.
Chapter 1, "Taking Filial Love Seriously," lays out the reasons for which the author does not dismiss filial piety as a ritual concept devoid of feeling, as many scholars have done since the New Culture Movement. Starting from a close reading of Li Yu's 李漁 (1610–1680) "The Nativity Room" (Shengwo lou 生我樓), Epstein shows that the adult identity was ideally achieved in premodern China through constructing a conjugal family that was an extension of, rather than an antithesis to, the intergenerational family structure that centered on parent–child relations. Fully appreciating the traditional Chinese [End Page 257] understanding of the authentic self to be inherently intersubjective, Epstein insightfully notes that the flexible and shifting boundaries between the communal (gong 公) and the private/personal (si 私) made the Chinese prone to think of family and state not as Others, but as natural extensions of the self. In this cultural context, filial abjection and sacrifice were understood as positive affirmation of ethical personhood. The vertical relationship between adults and their parents was a paradigm for heroic actions. While concentrating on filial piety as the core emotion in the sentimental family, Epstein sophisticates her arguments by showing the uneasy relationship between filial love and conjugal love, mainly through analyzing Qing novels such as Six Records of a Floating Life (Fusheng liuji 浮生六記), Flowers in the Mirror (Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣), and A Tale of Heroic Lovers (Ernü yingxiong zhuan 兒女英雄傳), all of which prioritized intergenerational relations over conjugal relations.
Chapter 2, "Toward a New Paradigm of Emotions," provides a history of filial piety as an emotion, from the time of Confucius to the Qing. While not omitting the role of filial piety as an instrument of political ideology, Epstein mainly focuses on the internal state of yearning and natural love held by minor and adult children toward parents. Such filial love was articulated in premodern texts as intertwining with not only ethics but also innate ability and knowledge (liangzhi liangneng 良知良能). With the emergence of the cult of qing in the late Ming, which legitimated the subjective emotions as a positive expression of self, filial piety rites were more and more associated with human feelings (renqing 人情), and filial love was more and more connected to affect-based cosmologies. Rather than stand in opposition to the ritualized cardinal bonds, intergenerational and romantic love alike complemented and animated hierarchical bonds, which culminated under the Manchus whose tradition valued affective loyalty over abstract ethics. Approaching historical development of filial piety through the lens of sentiment, Epstein successfully explains such seemingly contradictory phenomena as the positive correlation between emphasis on love and on family hierarchy in late imperial China and the Manchu rulers' passionate expressions of filial piety despite their undermining of orthodox mourning rites.
Chapters 3 and 4 analyze records of filial sons and daughters in Ming and Qing local gazetteers, presenting a nuanced picture of regional and diachronic variations in the representation of exemplary filial piety. In chapter 3, "Changing Constructions of Filial Virtue in Local Gazetteers," which primarily concentrates...