Text-to-text analysis: Kangxi’s “Secret Edict” (1670), trans. by Lydia Gerber (original source):
Further discussion (focus on sources):
“Mainstream media” in the United States has come under increasing scrutiny for being disconnected from the lives of average Americans. The results of the 2016 election are commonly cited as evidence of this phenomenon. One publication, Politico, argued:
The ‘media bubble’ trope might feel overused by critics of journalism who want to sneer at reporters who live in Brooklyn or California and don’t get the “real America” of southern Ohio or rural Kansas. But these numbers suggest it’s no exaggeration: Not only is the bubble real, but it’s more extreme than you might realize.
China, too, has struggled with a similar phenomenon. An online fever erupted in 2012 when state news outlet China Central Television (CCTV) questioned random passersby, “Are you happy?” (Ni xingfu ma? 你幸福嗎?). Reporters assumed their interview subjects would note rising standards of living. According to the state-run China Daily, one encounter unfolded like this:
When asked, “Are you happy?,” a 73-year-old man collecting used plastic bottles in a street in Haining, Zhejiang province, said: “The bottles can be sold for 0.1 yuan each.” Asked again, he said: “I live on government subsidy of 650 yuan ($103) a month. The government is good.” The reporter pestered on: “My question is, ‘Are you happy?’ ” The senior citizen replied: “I am deaf.”
One reporter at the Beijing Evening News (Beijing wanbao 北京晚報) satirized the episode in front of her annual New Year’s gathering.
Each case shares a common thread of “elite bias,” a version of a problem that historians, too, have grappled with for several decades.
Imagine that you have been tasked by a news organization to capture “real Americans” or “real Chinese.” Take about 8-10 minutes to think through a proposal for what question you might ask (and why), who you might speak to, and what type of sources (beyond interviews) you might rely on to get a sense of the question. When we are done writing we will share our answers in pairs and report a handful back to the group.
Introduction to The Death of Woman Wang
For much of our time together, we have examined lives that have been overwhelmingly wealthy, well-educated, male, and situated in an urban context. We have focused on these stories for good reasons. After all, these were the emperors, warriors, poets, and philosophers who helped mold the course of Chinese civilization. Their stories have been recounted by generations of Chinese historians and are reflected in popular culture today.
Still, can a historian knowingly neglect the vast majority of people who were of modest means, unable to read and write beyond a rudimentary level, and who dwelled in rural contexts? What of the half of the population that lived their lives as female? What is to be learned from exploring these other stories? As Jonathan Spence notes in the preface of his book, “It is always hard to conjure up from the past the lives of the poor and the forgotten” (Spence, xii). Why should historians put in the effort to do so? This will be the first question we tackle together.
A few important notes from the Preface to orient you as a reader:
Questions for discussion:
Preparing for tonight’s reading
Note on spelling
When Spence originally published this text in 1976 he used the older Wade-Giles phonetic spelling for Chinese characters. I will use the initials “WG” to distinguish words that appear in this style from that of pinyin (“PY”), the newer phonetic system utilized by most scholars today and the spelling that has guided us throughout the semester.
Overview of tonight’s reading
Chapter 1 opens (pages 1-9) by recounting the difficult period from 1620s to 1660s, in which Tancheng suffered through political upheaval, social dislocation, and natural disaster. The details of these events are provided by Feng Kecan (WG: Feng K'o-ts'an 馮可參), who we learn is a disgraced former magistrate. One striking aspect of the local history is that it does not map entirely to the narrative of China as a whole. Take the date 1644, for example: Spence explains that the “Manchu conquest of China, with its promise of a restoration of order and prosperity and an end to the old corruption and inefficiency of the Ming, brought no sharp change of fortune to T’an-ch’eng” (Spence, 8).
The focus shifts (pages 9-19) to Huang Liuhong (WG: Huang Liu-hung 黃六鴻), who arrived as Feng’s replacement as magistrate in 1670. Huang will be familiar to us as a committed Confucian official, though provides fresh insight into how he—not to mention the common people under his charge—actually navigated balanced Confucian ideals with troubled realities of local life.
The last portion of the chapter (pages 19-32) introduces Pu Songling (WG: P’u Sung-ling 蒲松齡), the most well-known character discussed at length in the book. Spence recounts that his book, most recently translated into English as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (PW: Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異), was written “during this decade of the 1670s, while P’u waited at home for employment or worked grudgingly with local gentry families as a scribe or teacher” (Spence, 26). The book is an eclectic array of stories designed to entertain, imbued with Zhuangzi’s brand of playful Daoism, and—most importantly for Spence’s purpose—able to capture a sense of peasant life to complement the accounts of Feng and Huang.
The longue durée
We last left off with Su Dongpo, who lived from 1037-1101. We will next pick up our story at the end of the seventeenth century. What was happening right here in northwest Connecticut 600 years ago? To what extent is that a helpful comparison for thinking about China?
How do you talk about history over a 600-year period? Which of those things can we present visually in a fairly digestible format?
First, poke around with the interactive Harvard World Map
Next, either using the map interface or doing your own outside search, pick a small handful of visuals that captures history in China from the Song to the early Qing.
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”
The following quotations are drawn from among highly-respected European and American thinkers about China.
Context: World of the Song (Google Slides)
Chen Hongshou carved the woodblock print above as a scene for the 1639 edition of The Romance of the West Chamber (Xixiang ji 西厢记), published by Zhang Shenzhi. The 21-act play is based on Yingying's Story, and revisits Zhang and Yingying's romance, though with a happy twist at the end.
This is a Tang story that could almost as easily have been written in the Song. As we discuss, think about the important role that Confucianism plays in the backdrop (a set of ethical norms that would become more pronounced in the Song with the advent of what has become known in the West as “Neo-Confucianism”). This work also foreshadows some of the themes that we will engage with after Thanksgiving break.
“Yingying’s Story” is credited to Yuan Zhen (元稹, 779-831) due to the extended poem in the latter part that is introduced by Stephen Owen, the translator, with the phrase “I, Yuan Zhen of He-nan, completed . . .” (Owen, 547). The first person reference is not present in the original (“河南元稹，亦續生 . . .”), though this may be a reasonable reading at a time when deliberate ambiguity may have served to shield the author from being dismissed for engaging in such a trivial pursuit as short-story writing. It is even possible that this is something of “an autobiographical work” (Owen, 540). Today, Yuan Zhen is remembered for what Victor Mair describes as “perhaps the most celebrated of all classical-language short stories. . . [and] probably the best known of all Chinese love stories” (Mair, 851).
Course project check in:
Introduction to the Song:
View “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” (Qingming shanghe tu 清明上河圖) (external link) by the Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145). Note that the scroll is very long, so you can navigate both left and right by clicking and dragging your mouse. You can also zoom in to see the details more clearly.
As you view the scroll, consider:
In pairs, use the Song Dynasty in China page from Columbia University dig further to understand the changes underway during the Song. These areas include:
Together, create a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast developments in the Tang and Song.
Historian Natalie Davis: “Our goal is to understand the significance of the sexes, of gender groups in the historical past. Our goal is to discover the range in sex roles and in sexual symbolism in different societies and periods, to find out what meaning they had and how they functioned to maintain the social order or to promote its change.”—Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women’s History in Transition: The European Case,” Feminist Studies, 3 (Winter 1975-76), 90.
One pattern that repeats itself in relation to the study of gender and sex is the notion of binaries. China is no exception, and the male/female split is reproduced through at least two other important dichotomies:
Separately but relatedly, there are common tropes of elite positioning and imperial intrigue, namely:
All of the above factors collide in the story of Wu Zhao’s grandson, the Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗), whose “long reign, from 712 until 756, marked both the high point of Tang power and Tang culture as well as the dramatic beginning of a long and tortuous period of decline. In the early years of his reign, Xuanzong seemed to embody all the virtues of a great Chinese emperor, a philosopher-king who was both a conscientious administrator and a brilliant intellectual. Xuanzong’s court became the center of high culture in the mid-Tang. He established schools and libraries, presided over elaborate and beautiful state ceremonies, and patronized poets and artists, all without forgetting his duties in setting fair taxes, keeping government expenses under control, and maintaining social order and peace on the borders.” —Paul S. Ropp, China in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 59-60.
So what changed? The An Lushan Rebellion broke out (755-763):
What did Yang Guifei have to do with this?
“Clearly Yang Guifei’s is a myth of womanhood that conflates the collapse of the empire with the sexual fall of the ruler, comparing the seductive powers of a woman to the treacherous powers of a general, and rendering the narration of the dynastic cycle in sexualized and even romantic language. Many historians, in fact, locate the major turning point in Chinese history at precisely this moment in time, the outbreak of the rebellion of An Lushan, placing Yang Guifei at history’s linchpin.”—Susan Mann, “Presidential Address: Myths of Asian Womanhood,” The Journal of Asian Studies 59, no. 4 (2000), 835-62.
As far as I know, if there had been a standard tune to accompany “The Song of Lasting Regret” (Chang hen ge 長恨歌) by Bai Junyi (白居易), it has been lost through time. However, YouTube contributors are doing their best to recreate the feel. Let’s listen to about a minute of the opening lines.
Next, take a moment to process what you have heard from Chloe and from me. Review the poem with a peer to:
Finally, we will return around the table to consider these questions together and further explore the broader theme:
Image: Fan Bingbing portrays Wu Zhao in the television series Empress of China (Wei meiniang chuanqi 武媚娘传奇)
Wrap up presentations
Historical image analysis: How does this sixteenth Japanese rendering of the period between the Han and Sui tell us about the changes during this period?
Welcome back / quick check in on presentations
What’s in a name?