The Gender of Memory: 2021 MLA Session

Memory plays a central role in literary production––one writes from memory and writes to make memory. Memory writing is always gendered––from the author’s self-perception to the constructed gender relations in literary works. The entanglement between gender and memory was particularly salient in early modern China (17th–19th centuries) with radical social changes and fast-growing literacy among women. Recent studies have paid much attention to gender-related literary writing of that period, especially in homosexual stories, works by women authors, accounts of female chastity, and writings involving medicine and emotion. However, the gendered construction of memory in pre-modern China is rarely studied. Focusing on cases in Chinese history, this panel interrogates the relationship between gender (sexuality) and memory in literary production. In particular, the session explores how memory writing engenders and enables negotiation with male-dominant literary discourses. The four papers in turn address the roles of memory in homosexual stories, hagiographic essays, garden writings within a family, and collective memories of historical changes.

Gender and Genre: New Books on Late Imperial China–– 2021 MLA

In the upcoming MLA annual convention, we are holding a roundtable session to discuss four new books on late imperial China. As these works together demonstrate, gender issues figured prominently in various genres of late imperial Chinese literature and history. Furthermore, gender and genre are at the nexus between many important topics that have been addressed by scholars of China, for example, Confucian paradigms (filiality; state vs. family), identities (seen through clothing, family, surnames, village/local association), emotion/affect, and space (social vs fictional). Authors and editors of those works will briefly introduce their books and discuss some of the shared issues together with the audience.

Books for discussion:

The chapters in this ground-breaking volume examine the complex practices of biographical writing in Ming and Qing China. The authors draw on a rich variety of sources to answer some basic questions: Who were the writers of these texts and the subjects of their biographical constructions? What motivated these textual productions and sustained the routes from (re)creations to (re)publications? The informed and fascinating readings illuminate the enduring appeal of representing and represented lives in Chinese history.

In this groundbreaking interdisciplinary study, Maram Epstein identifies filial piety as the dominant expression of love in Qing dynasty texts. At a time when Manchu regulations made chastity the primary metaphor for obedience and social duty, filial discourse increasingly embraced the dramatic and passionate excesses associated with late-Ming chastity narratives. Qing texts, especially those from the Jiangnan region, celebrate modes of filial piety that conflicted with the interests of the patriarchal family and the state. Analyzing filial narratives from a wide range of primary texts, including local gazetteers, autobiographical and biographical nianpu records, and fiction, Epstein shows the diversity of acts constituting exemplary filial piety. This context, Orthodox Passions argues, enables a radical rereading of the great novel of manners The Story of the Stone (ca. 1760), whose absence of filial affections and themes make it an outlier in the eighteenth-century sentimental landscape. By decentering romantic feeling as the dominant expression of love during the High Qing, Orthodox Passions calls for a new understanding of the affective landscape of late imperial China.

After toppling the Ming dynasty, the Qing conquerors forced Han Chinese males to adopt Manchu hairstyle and clothing. Yet China’s new rulers tolerated the use of traditional Chinese attire in performances, making theater one of the only areas of life where Han garments could still be seen and where Manchu rule could be contested. Staging Personhood uncovers a hidden history of the Ming–Qing transition by exploring what it meant for the clothing of a deposed dynasty to survive onstage. Reading dramatic works against Qing sartorial regulations, Guojun Wang offers an interdisciplinary lens on the entanglements between Chinese drama and nascent Manchu rule in seventeenth-century China. Through careful attention to a variety of canonical and lesser-known plays, visual and performance records, and historical documents, Staging Personhood provides a pathbreaking perspective on the cultural dynamics of early Qing China.

In Woman Rules Within: Domestic Space and Genre in Qing Vernacular Literature, Jessica Dvorak Moyer compares depictions of household space and women’s networks in texts across a range of genres from about 1600 to 1800 C.E. Analyzing vernacular transformations of classical source texts as well as vernacular stories and novels, Moyer shows that vernacular genres use expansive detail about architectural space and the everyday domestic world to navigate a variety of ideological tensions, particularly that between qing (emotion) and li (ritual propriety), and to flesh out characters whose actions challenge the norms of gendered spatial practice even as they ultimately uphold the gender order. Woman Rules Within contributes a new understanding of the role of colloquial language in late imperial literature.

Book colloquium at UC Berkeley

Thanks to the invitation from Sophie Volpp and the Center for Chinese Studies at UC Berkeley, I had a memorable conversation with a lovely audience about my recent book Staging Personhood. Thank Ling Hon Lam for the conversation and for supporting the project from the time of its inception!

It’s the first time I talked about this book after it came about during the Pandemic. It wraps up a decade of my study in the States, coinciding with a turning point in the history of this country. We will all move on ahead!

Loving the Nation From Afar

A few students in my course “Romancing the Nation in Modern Chinese Literature” (2019) created this wonderful website titled Loving the Nation from Afar (click the panel on upper left corner to see pages). It selects from materials discussed in the course and showcases the complicated relations between China as a nation-state and “Chinese” people living in different parts of the world in the past century.

Credits: Xianzhen Deng, Kayla Johnson, Alexandra Triko

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Conference Presentation: Scenes of Corpses: Forensic Examinations in Early Modern Chinese Literature

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My Abstract

Scenes of Corpses: Forensic Examinations in Early Modern Chinese Literature

The past decades have seen a growing number of studies on literature, law, and medicine in premodern China and a similar interest in literary depictions of human anatomy in European history. Building on those studies, this ongoing project examines the representations of dead bodies in forensic literature of early modern China. In particular, it focuses on the scenes of corpse examination (shichang 屍場) in written, visual, and performance materials produced from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The project anatomizes various aspects of those scenes––dead bodies for examination; different participants including families, coroners, and spectators; various modes of viewing; and the media that enabled those experiences. With a focus on the dead bodies in forensic scenes, this project aims to reveal how forensic practices influenced the representation of personhood and justice in early modern Chinese literature and society. This presentation introduces the questions and materials for the project and invites critiques.