2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 53

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On Uncharted Paths: Commerce, Networks, and Moral Strategies in Early Modern China - Sponsored by the Society for Ming Studies

Organizer: S. E. Kile, University of Michigan, USA

Chair: Tobie Meyer-Fong, Johns Hopkins University, USA

Discussant: Tobie Meyer-Fong, Johns Hopkins University, USA

A variety of sources from the late Ming tell us that, for many, traditional community founded on the family and the state was proving inadequate or even irrelevant. This panel proposes to examine the strategies that real and fictional actors used to forge relationships in new, less predictable circumstances. We ask: How did people evaluate strangers they encountered? What sorts of networks did they seek to establish? Ning Ma examines the portrayal of foreign lands and their inhabitants in a late-sixteenth-century retelling of Zheng He’s voyages, focusing on the tension between the portrayal of the foreigner as Other and of a familiar Ming-centered world order. Bruce Rusk investigates the strategies merchants use to form alliances with strangers to lend security to their risky ventures in a late-sixteenth-century story collection. Exploring a late Ming novel’s portrayal of the judicial process and supernatural possession, Xiaoqiao Ling questions the existence of an unequivocal moral space, as trial scenes render justice malleable through strategic retellings of the past and grotesque supernatural torture. Sarah Kile shows how an enterprising early Qing author stopped writing stories, deciding instead to use his publishing practice as a space in which to create and manage a network of hundreds of cultural figures. By focusing on the practices, functions, and risks of building alliances among people beyond the family and outside the state, we hope to show how commerce, mobility, and encounters with strangers came to bear on interpersonal relations in early modern China.

Li Yu’s Development of Print as a Social Networking Technology in the Early Qing
S. E. Kile, University of Michigan, USA

Li Yu (1611-1680) began his career as a professional author in 1651, seven years after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, when he moved to Hangzhou from rural Zhejiang and published the scandalous chuanqi play Women in Love (Lianxiangban). Over the next thirty years, he published numerous plays, stories, essays, and collections of contemporary letters and court cases. Scholarship has tended to focus on the popularity or the originality of his writing, yet Li Yu’s great success as a writer also stems from his use of print as a social networking technology. Around 1660, there is a distinctive shift in his textual output from fiction to essays and collaborative works that is accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of individuals associated with a given text. Whereas his early plays and stories would feature a preface writer and a commentator or two, his later works feature dozens of contributors who represent a spectrum of cultural figures, from reclusive loyalist poets to educated women to prominent Qing officials. This paper explores Li Yu’s textual production with special attention to the individuals associated with each work. I argue that while many literati used the medium of print to preserve traces of the Ming or as an alternative space in the Qing, Li Yu’s collaborative projects focus squarely on the present. Rather than simply reflect existing networks, these texts create spaces in which networks could be fashioned in the new dynasty, reflecting and creating connections among a broad range of literate figures.

Law, Order, and the Supernatural: Public Trials in Xingshi yinyuan zhuan
Xiaoqiao Ling, Arizona State University, USA

Xingshi yinyuan zhuan is a satirical one-hundred-chapter novel from seventeenth-century China that recounts a story of two marriages to explicate the principle of karmic retribution. It also provides a panoramic view of sordid deeds that sometimes verge on caricature. This paper discusses how public trials establish order by creating moral spaces that are nevertheless malleable. On the one hand, public trials in the form of judicial procedure approach past events from a variety of angles, ranging from oral confessions and testimonies to court verdicts and memos of the judges. Consequently it is through constant retellings of the past that the court reaches truth, although a somewhat ambiguous moral space emerges as a result of negotiations of different values. On the other hand, supernatural beings (deities, ghosts, spirits) stage public trials by possessing an evil-doer and extracting oral confessions through gruesome tortures. This form of public trial presents truth in a way that bypasses the legal institution’s appropriation of the past. Yet the grotesque violation of the body forges a didactic space that teaches through shock and fear, thus foregrounding a fundamental doubt of human’s capacity for ethical behavior. The malleable moral space filtered through public trials ultimately illuminates fiction’s imagination of justice in early modern China: justice is a concept construed through an array of social experiences conditioned by the tension between human institutions and supernatural interference.

Rewriting the Travels of Zheng He: Xiyang Ji and the Imagination of Foreign Lands in Ming China
Ning Ma, Tufts University, USA

Sanbao Taijian Xiyang Ji (henceforth Xiyang Ji) is a one-hundred chapter novel written by Luo Maodeng towards the end of the 16th century that features a fantastic rewriting of the famous voyages led by Zheng He in the early 1400s. Its most obvious model being Xiyou ji, the book also exhibits influences from a variety of other sources, including the travelogues left by Zheng’s assistant Ma Huan and other Ming writers, military romances of the tradition of Sanguo yanyi, as well as drama and vernacular short stories. This paper intends to examine and contextualize Xiyang Ji’s portrayal of foreign lands and their relation to China. My main concern is to discern from the novel two basic and interrelated symbolic patterns: first, its construction of a sense of exoticness and otherness via a diversity of figurative devices derived from traditional models such as folkloric demonology, Buddhist and Daoist teachings, treasure-hunting stories, and gender ideology; second, its reflection of the “tributary” discourse that characterizes a Sinocentric world order and of the growing troubles in sustaining this perception of international relations during the late Ming time. Overall, the narrative of Xiyang Ji presents an intriguing fusion of old fantasies and new shifts in China’s overseas ties. In this light, it offers a unique window into both Ming China’s role in world history and its imagination of the world.

The Art of Confidence in the New Book of Swindles
Bruce Rusk, University of British Columbia, Canada

The late-sixteenth century Dupian xinshu [New book of swindles] collects stories about life in what it calls jianghu, “rivers and lakes.” In martial works like Water Margin this term refers to the liminal domain of the outlaw, but here means the lifeworld of the merchant and his predator, the swindler. Through a combination of masterful planning and quick wits these confidence men and women took advantage of the risks inherent in commercial life, especially transactions between strangers and over long distances. Just as for the swashbuckling desperadoes of Water Margin, there was safety in banding together, but also a danger of losing money, self-respect, and even one’s life. Although the stories are fictional, they help us construct an image of how trust and distrust helped create relationships in late-Ming commercial life. The stratagems of swindlers reveal what made a person seem reliable in a world of strangers. Although many of the relationships created are temporary, for example merchants on the same route joining together for safety, they nonetheless depend on larger networks that persist over time. Swindlers could appeal to these in deceiving their victims: to implicit bonds between people of the same native area in foreign parts (even when they were previously unacquainted) or to a shared profession. This paper uses some of these stories to show how the life of a merchant was imagined as enmeshed in overlapping networks that, in day-to-day practice, varied in their trustworthiness and verifiability but were made necessary by their profitability.