Rules Are Made to Be Broken

An Anatomy of Transgression in Ming/Qing China
11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room 3

  • Organised by Ewan Macdonald
  • Rainier Lanselle, Chair
  • Ewan Macdonald, “Transgression and Transition: Rethinking Dynastic Change in The Fiction of the ‘Hazy Crossing Ferryman of Xiaoxiang’”
  • Jiani Chen, “Singers in Song Books: Transgressing Gender and Genre in Late Ming Qu Anthologies”
  • Mariana Zegianini, “Mirror…Mirror: Transgressive Reflections of The Self in Female Self-Portraits of The Late Ming”
  • Mengxiao Wang, “Taming the Demon of Sleep: Buddhist Discourses and Practices of Staying Awake in Premodern China”
  • Rainier Lanselle, Qian Nanxiu, Discussant

As sunlight inevitably gives rise to shadow, so too does the existence of rules and norms inevitably give rise to acts transgressing them. This panel explores the transgressive shadows of Ming/Qing China, a society and era on which the accumulated norms of ages past weighed heavily; it was thus also an era in which women and men sought to challenge, defy, and reflect on the norms governing their lives. Incorporating perspectives from religion, art, and literature, this interdisciplinary panel traces the diverse elements making up this age of transgression. Mengxiao Wang examines the Buddhist conception of the transgressive nature of one of life’s most mundane behaviours—sleep. She considers how Buddhist monastics of the period negotiated an act that is simultaneously transgressive and inescapable. Chen Jiani explores how late Ming courtesans rejected their expected social role in order to play an active part in the production and transmission of song anthologies, transgressing the norms of both genre and gender as they did so. Mariana Zegianini also focuses on how Ming/Qing women transgressed gender roles, combining art and literature perspectives to explore how Du Liniang uses self-portraiture to paint her destiny with her own hands. Finally, Ewan Macdonald examines how vernacular fiction is used as a vehicle for meditations on the Ming/Qing transition, through a collection of social misfits who gleefully transgress literary archetypes and social norms. Together, these papers aim to spark a dialogue on the ways in which the phenomenon of transgression, in all its forms, informed Ming/Qing society.

Ewan Macdonald, “Transgression and Transition: Rethinking Dynastic Change In The Fiction Of The Hazy Crossing Ferryman Of Xiaoxiang”

This paper focuses on vernacular fiction, considering how the theme of transgression is used as a springboard for meditations on political turmoil in the early Qing vernacular novellas of a writer known only as “Xiaoxiang mijinduzhe” (The Hazy Crossing Ferryman of Xiaoxiang). Though the Ferryman’s five surviving novellas vary widely in style and topic, they each place the figure of the misfit centre stage. These disparate misfit protagonists, who range from pornographic painters to spoiled children and incarnated dragon spirits, share a profound alienation from society and repeatedly transgress both literary archetypes and social norms. Their transgressive acts create space for ironic meditations on the national decline and the dynastic transition. Instead of a clear declaration of loyalism, the novellas strike a far more ambiguous, conflicted note: while the Yongle period (1402–1424) of the Ming is held up as a lost golden age, the post-Yongle Ming dynasty is portrayed as an era of corruption and chaos, presided over by incompetent and/or dissolute emperors. The novellas also reflect on the lessons of the transition on a deeper level, questioning the long-standing cultural preference for the civil arts over the martial arts. While the novellas acknowledge the poignancy of the passing of an era, they also strike hopeful notes for a future under the Qing.

Jiani Chen, “Singers In Song Books: Transgressing Gender and Genre In Late Ming Qu Anthologies”

The publication of Shanben xiqu congkan 善本戲曲叢刊 (Fine Editions of qu Anthologies) calls scholarly attention to the prevalence of qu anthologies in the late Ming. One striking feature of these qu anthologies is the page layout. The page is divided into two or three registers, each having its own content and order, juxtaposing miscellaneous forms: poetry, drama, folksongs, riddles, and jokes. The particular textual form implies their “uses” in various social occasions on the one hand, and demonstrates their “transgression” of conventional textual hierarchy, blurring the well-established ya 雅 (elegant)—su 俗 (common) division on the other. This study examines how late Ming qu anthologies represent singers. Most of these singers are courtesans, who rejected expectations of a passive social role to take on significant responsibilities as co-producers and transmitters of this kind of songbook. Images of courtesans differ between different registers and media (texts and illustrations) within the same book, as well as between qu anthologies and other related texts, including “elegant” poetry anthologies and “common” daily-use encyclopaedias. The diverse images of courtesans not only afford a rich representation of female personalities in step with evolving customs and values but also contravene the norms of both genre and gender. This sheds light on transgressive expressions of sensuality and sexuality, which surface at the crossroads of distinct media, textual traditions, and stylistic/linguistic registers.

Mariana Zegianini, “Mirror…Mirror: Transgressive Reflections Of The Self In Female Self-Portraits Of The Late Ming”

Mediated by a mirror, Du Liniang, the main female character of the late Ming drama The Peony Pavilion, takes on trust the power of self-portraiture to convey notions of selfhood into the afterlife. In Chinese painting, images of women looking at their own reflection in a mirror are traditionally associated with the gender-specific female space of the boudoir. However, in The Peony Pavilion, Du Liniang’s reflection is made to transgress the boundaries of this private female space and transform the reflected image of her face and body into a painting for public display. The format chosen for her self-portrait is a hanging scroll, an object conventionally consumed by multiple, largely male, viewers. Turning the boudoir into a scholar’s studio and discarding the embroidery needle of the cultivated gentlewomen to take up the brush of the amateur literati painter, in this paper, I explore how Du Liniang’s transgression of a prescribed Confucian female role allows her to take her destiny into her own hands or rather, paint her destiny with her own hands. But of course, Du Liniang is a fictional character created by a man, the great Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu (1550–1616). This raises the question of the extent to which Du Liniang’s self-portrait reflects notions of an “authentic” late Ming female self, and also who Tang Xianzu was ultimately portraying in his work.

Mengxiao Wang, “Taming The Demon Of Sleep: Buddhist Discourses And Practices Of Staying Awake In Premodern China”

Modern psychologists often associate Buddhist concepts and practices with cures for sleep disorders. Nonetheless, rather than contemplating how to sleep well, historical Buddhist traditions generally viewed sleep as a transgressive behavior. This paper explores how Buddhists demonised sleep and adopted various strategies to stay awake in premodern China. Existing scholarship on the history of sleep in China has examined early texts from the pre-Buddhist era and Neo-Confucian discourses in the Ming. However, most studies have overlooked discourses on sleep in Chinese Buddhism. While scholars describe references to sleep in early Chinese texts as merely “rhetorical devices conveying different ideas” (Antje Richter), many Chinese Buddhist texts characterise sleep as a physical and psychological problem that needs to be cured. Drawing on a close reading of doctrinal writings, monks’ hagiographies, and local gazetteers, I argue that Chinese Buddhists fought sleep as a threatening demon external to the human body from the medieval to late imperial periods. In particular, I demonstrate that Ming-Qing monastics looked toward earlier Buddhist masters who stayed awake for years as role models of spiritual strength, and organised assemblies of collective meditation to ward off the demon of sleep. Furthermore, “the demon of sleep” became a popular trope in poetry and was embodied by characters in Ming-Qing dramas, illustrating how literary genres participated in spreading and reinterpreting Buddhist concepts in China. In sum, this paper illuminates how Buddhist discourses define a daily behaviour as transgression, and how the regulation of such transgression constitutes a significant part of Buddhist practices.

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Room 3
An Anatomy of Transgression in Ming/Qing China