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  • Feeling the Past in Seventeenth-Century China by Xiaoqiao Ling
  • David Luesink (bio)
Xiaoqiao Ling, Feeling the Past in Seventeenth-Century China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2019. xiv, 343 pp. Hardcover $60.00, isbn 978-0-674-24111-4.

When the Manchus conquered Ming China in 1644, they ordered all males to shave the front of their head in the Manchu style to indicate their acceptance of Manchu rule. While one can imagine that any mandated hairstyle by foreign conquerors might be difficult to accept, Chinese males since antiquity had grown their hair long not only as a sign of their virility, but also filial piety. The Classic of Filial Piety argues that filiality recognizes that body, hair, and skin are all gifts from parents and should therefore not be damaged or cut. Filial piety was not merely about the relationship between parents and children, it was also the model of obedience between ruler and subject. So, adherence to this requirement of the newly established Qing government required Chinese males to be twice unfilial—to both parents and to the Ming dynasty whose last heirs were being hunted down in South China. During the turbulent transition from Ming to Qing in the seventeenth century, literate Chinese males expressed the embodiment of their emotions in a variety of genres of literature that are explored in five chapters in Xiaoqiao Ling's monograph. Beginning with a genre termed "the deliverance play," then turning to memoirs and diaries, then focusing on the writings of the writer Ding Yaokang, familiar to any historian who teaches the Ming–Qing transition, and finally to erotic novels and historical plays, Ling exposes how the embodiment of emotions became historical knowledge that was passed down through the ages. The works of two main authors, Ding Yaokang and Kong Shangren, allow Ling to trace the "memorial landscape" of both pre-and postconquest generations (p. 19).

Embodiment, for the authors Ling engages with, is a way of engaging in emotions arising from the disaster of the conquest. That is, "the feeling body—as anchor of the subjective self, as seat of emotions and perceptions" reveals the devastation for both the individual self and social body of the massacres, famine, and brutality of the conquest itself, as well as the difficulties of coming to terms with the new political order (p. 23).

A deliverance play is a "sub-genre of the northern zaju play" that features "a spiritual journey of the protagonist through a period of crisis that so fundamentally destabilizes and endangers his perception of self and the world that he becomes enlightened to the futility of attachments to worldly matters" (p. 17). In Ding Yaokang's deliverance play, Transformative Ramblings, the protagonist Student He, like the Old Testament prophet Jonah, is swallowed by a whale and within the fish contemplates the meaning of life. While out in a small skiff separated from a larger boat with friends, Student He hooks the [End Page 277] whale, is plunged into the "angrily roiling whitecaps," and enters the belly of the leviathan. Inside, the protagonist realizes that his body will soon be annihilated and ponders "Could it be that my warm body will turn into wisps of bubbles or floating foam?" Soon he realizes that the small raft he had been fishing on was the seat of his self-identity and sees a way through the fear of death to reconstruct a self-identity (p. 44). But it is only later after surviving encounters with various beings that Student He realizes that the small boat—his individual identity—will not save him, he must recommit to a social body, in this case, the larger original boat (p. 51). The playwright Ding wrote the play while searching for a new place to live, and so the changing places in which the protagonist finds himself, whether the large boat, the small raft, the belly of the whale, and so on, "point to his earnest search for a habitable place" within the new political reality.

Those who teach late imperial Chinese history are generally familiar with some writings of Ding Yaokang but also Wang Xiuchu's Ten Days in Yangzhou, which...


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