2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 167

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Reading Genres of Discontinuous Narratives: Fragments and the Literati Culture in Traditional Chinese Texts

Organizer: Ping Wang, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Chair: David R. Knechtges, University of Washington, USA

Discussant: Ronald C. Egan, Stanford University, USA

This panel examines traditional Chinese forms of writing that have received little critical attention in their own right because they consist of an assemblage of seemingly random, discontinuous narratives. These texts, including travel notes, collections of anecdotes, anthologies of recycled and reorganized stories, and recipe books, have traditionally been assigned to the marginalized, catch-all categories such as biji (jottings, informal notes), xiaoshuo (minor discourses or tales), or their combination biji xiaoshuo. Despite their ambivalent status, these marginal works constituted a vibrant, significant part of pre-modern Chinese writings. Even a casual look at an updated comprehensive catalogue shows thousands of titles, revealing a rich and vital area in traditional Chinese culture that has yet to be recognized and studied more fully. Focusing on specific examples, our panel endeavors to investigate how writers took advantage of the casual mode of writing, namely, piecing together informational fragments, to assert their distinct visions of cultural values. In addition to different types of marginal writings, the four papers complementary chronological frameworks, Six Dynasties, Tang, Song, and Ming-Qing, also offer a useful perspective on how the cultural relevance of such writings shifted over time in changing social and historical milieus.

Fragments of “Famous Mountains:” Xie Lingyun’s “You mingshan zhi”
Ping Wang, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Dubbed the Chinese Wordsworth, Xie Lingyun (385-433) is the most important figure in the early history of Chinese landscape poetry. In the voluminous studies of the fourth century poet, seldom do we question the actual meanings of “nature,” “natural landscape,” and “man of nature,” terms frequently used without reflection. This paper proposes to look into these questions by examining a set of fragmented records on mountains by Xie. These short snippets, grouped and titled as “You mingshan zhi” or “Records of Traveling Famous Mountains,” became lost and separated from Xie’s poetry collection, and then were only found in the Tang miscellanies: Chu xue ji and Yi wen lei ju. By studying these random notes, which focus on the relia of the mountains that Xie visited, I attempt to shed light on some aspects of the Chinese landscape that is overshadowed or downplayed, namely, the economic rather than the aesthetic, the material instead of idealized nature. I will argue that the lofty-minded poet and his spiritual “nature” are but a construct of the latter day reader and critic.

Anecdotes and Community: A Kaleidoscopic History in the New Tales of the Great Tang
Manling Luo, Indiana University, USA

Collections of Tang (618-907) historical miscellanies have usually been seen as repositories of random information and useful supplements to more authoritative sources. Focusing on Liu Su’s (fl. 806-820) Da Tang xinyu (New tales of the great Tang) as a primary example, which was one of the most extensive collections from the Tang with its more than three hundred entries, I examine this kind of writing as a distinct mode of identity construction in its own right. I look into how Liu Su tried to construct composite pictures of the past by putting together diverse anecdotes that he gleaned from both oral and written sources, creating what I call a “kaleidoscopic history” for the literati community at large. I will address the following questions: How is such a kaleidoscopic history constructed? What kind of authorship does this kind of writing entail? What is the relationship between the unofficial writings and official compilations? Given that Liu Su was a low ranking official writing in the post-An Lushan Rebellion period, when the power of the court was greatly undermined by autonomous local military commissioners, what is the significance of his attempt to define images of the “Great Tang” and commemorate figures and incidents of the recent past? How does his work illustrate the formation of new literati sociality in the post-rebellion era? These issues are useful for understanding why the compilation of historical miscellanies, a marginal yet vibrant form of writing, became a continuous tradition in the Tang and carried on into the early twentieth century.

History out of the Fragmented and Trivial: A Song Perspective on Anecdotal Memories of the Tang in the Tang yulin (Forest of Anecdotes on the Tang)
Amelia Ying Qin, University of Houston, USA

The Tang yulin (Forest of Anecdotes on the Tang), compiled by Wang Dang (d. ca. 1105) in the mid Song (960-1279), contains over eleven hundred anecdotes selected from more than fifty miscellaneous collections and organized into fifty-two categories. It is often regarded as a vital source primarily for the study of Tang (618-907) history and literature, but has not yet been sufficiently studied for discerning a Song perspective on the historical and anecdotal representations of the past. This paper treats the Tang yulin as, first and foremost, a Song scholar’s effort to selectively recycle the fragmented records of the Tang, give these discontinuous narratives structure, and bestow meaning through such structure. In so doing, Wang Dang raised these trivial memories out of the vast cultural archives of the past to construct a supplement to the standard Tang histories, and thus became a historian outside of the official venues of historiography. This paper explores Wang Dang’s heterogeneous sources of inspiration, and analyzes the structure and content of the Tang yulin within its social and historical context. It aims to illustrate a Song literati perspective on the marginal genre of xiaoshuo, and offer a discussion on how such fragmented, trivial “minor discourses” on the Tang were selectively recycled and brought closer to the central norms of historical writing in order to address concerns at the heart of Song literati culture.

Pieces of Food and Culture – Yuan Mei and His Recipe Book Suiyuan shidan
Yan Liang, Grand Valley State University, USA

Chinese cuisine claims an important position in Chinese cultural tradition, and the everyday cuisine and dining became a frequent topic in literati prose in late imperial China. This paper is a study of the miscellaneous writings on cooking and dining by the eighteenth-century poet, poetry critic, essayist, and gourmet Yuan Mei (1716-1798), with an emphasis on his recipe book Suiyuan shidan and the biography he wrote for his personal chef Wang Xiaoyu. Suiyuan shidan is a systematic presentation of Yuan’s personal collection of recipes, culinary knowledge and dining experiences. Instead of foregrounding the cultural significations of food as other literati authors of his time tend to do, Yuan Mei treats food, cooking and gourmet pleasures as a worthy topic in itself that does not need apology or moral justification. By setting Yuan Mei’s miscellaneous writings on food in the context of the mid-Qing intellectual thoughts and the controversies around Yuan in the literati community of the time, this paper helps to reveal the changing values and the expanding definition of culture in eighteenth-century China and the resulting identity anxiety among the cultural elites of the time.