I’ve read less than I expected to, just because I’ve been busy for a number of reasons, but I’ve still managed to dig into some really interesting books over the last few months. So interesting that it took me over 5000 words to sum it up!
A while back, I mentioned how, in 1632, the commoners around Shaoxing (in China) had planned to cosplay the characters from the famous wuxia novel The Outlaws of the Marsh, hoping to appease the gods into making it rain so a famine could be avoided, and some of the local literati had gotten involved, donated some cloth and lots of money, and turned the thing into a massive Harajuku-meets-Vegas stage production extravaganza.
Ah, late Ming China! Ah, Zhang Dai!
This mini-anecdote leaves me slightly skeptical about parts of the introduction of Peter H. Lee’s translation of the Imjin Rok, titled in English The Record of the Black Dragon Year (a Korean text roughly contemporaneous to The Outlaws of the Marsh, which seems to be a collection of legends and folk stories about—and contemporaneous to—the Japanese Invasion of the Korean peninsula between 1592-1598, also known as the Imjin War). Lee claims that at the time,
…writing fiction was still despised in the context of the traditional East Asian literary canon that regarded only poetry and certain forms of prose written in classical Chinese as primary genres. Fiction was still rejected as disrupting customs and corrupting morals. Broadly speaking, there were several reasons for rejection: fiction presents examples of negative human types such as malcontents, dissenters, outlaws, and rebels; it is morally harmful because it depicts passions, fantasies, and dreams that are best suppressed; it presents a distorted version of the real world and depicts at times such improbabilities as traffic between human beings and the dead, ghosts, and other supernatural beings; it exposes people’s instinctual behavior, especially sex, and stimulates base desires, a hindrance to moral education; and it creates a world other than that sanctioned by authority and therefore offers an unofficial view of reality.
Personally, this reasoning strikes me as funny, since practically everything cited as bad about fiction in the above quote, is actually something I see as a salutary effect of fiction. If it weren’t for malcontents and dissenters, there would never be peasant uprisings, or regicides1; stories of human traffic with ghosts and the dead and other supernatural beings are fun and interesting; but most of all, because fiction does have the power to challenge the—usually stupid, corrupt, and narrow—official view of reality, and spur people to change it… because those passions, dreams, and fantasies? They may not all be utopian, but utopianism of any kind—a prerequisite for fighting for radical change—is impossible without space for passions, dreams, and fantasies that transgress against both authoritarian rule and the status quo. Essentially, the objections to fiction amount to it being a threat to a proto-fascistic order. 2
Still, what jumps out at me about the above passage is how familiar all the objections are: I’ve heard the same lurid claims from my own students in the past, offered to everything from science fiction in general, to TV shows, to computer games, to historical comedy films. (One student decried the anachronisms and humor in Monty Python’s The Quest for the Holy Grail, arguing it was stupid to have peasants and knights talk in an ahistorical manner.) Especially, the objections I’ve heard to online gaming come to mind, and lest you forget, I’m talking about a society where the government actually mandated a curfew-like nighttime blockage for all underage users for domestic MMORPGs. Likewise, the moral panic over homosexuality being depicted in television dramas was mostly founded on arguments that children might be “influenced” (ie. turned into little homosexuals) by exposure to fictional homosexual characters. The Third Person Effect is pretty much taken for granted here to the point where even teenagers and college students have deeply internalized it.
(I don’t know about North American kids today, but when I was a teenager, I—and friends of mine—laughed at and mocked the idea that video games or TV shows could breed real-life violence and perversion: after all, we were constantly playing violent games, watching violent movies, and roleplaying the slaughter of any number of unsuspecting orcs, dragons, and other dungeon-dwellers… and yet none of us had gone on a killing spree or begun to worship Satan!)
What’s funny, though, is that Lee also mentions that everyone was reading fiction, from lettered commoners renting books for a small fee (a new industry, spurred by a flood of Chinese fiction into Korea), to the ladies and scholars at court reading fiction for enjoyment. There’s even a note in Lee’s introduction about The Outlaws of the Marsh, though Lee uses an alternate English title for the text:
Letters written in Korean by Queen Insŏn (1618-1674) of King Hyojong to her daughter Princess Sunmyŏng ask her to return Water Margin and two other works of fiction she had borrowed. When Princess Tŏgun, the third daughter of King Sunjo (1800-1834), married, she is said to have brought with her some five thousand volumes of books including fiction. It appears that a large number of imaginative stories entered the palace—including multivolume works of fiction kept in the Naksŏn Study in Ch’angdŏk Palace obtained probably through the lending library. (pg. 7-8)
That is, of course, in the course of a discussion of the rise of professional fiction writing in Korea, an interesting topic in itself. But anyway, it seems that traditionally the authors (and translators) wouldn’t sign their names to the texts, and the readers kept their reading activities quiet. Fiction, in Korea at least, was very much a guilty pleasure until the 1800s, according to Lee’s account, and he seems to want to suggest that this was general in East Asia as well.
But how to explain Chinese scholar Zhang Dai’s unapologetic (and very public) enthrallment with The Outlaws of the Marsh? Zhang Dai was something of an iconoclast, sure, but not only did he fast-track the event I mentioned in my last post about him—a massive cosplay festival based on The Outlaws of the Marsh/Water Margin—but he also succeeded in diverting public funds to make it happen, but he also wrote a series of poems about each of the bandit characters in the novel, as well as praising one of his artist friends who’d gone and draw illustrations of each of the figures.
Is it that Shaoxing was out in the boonies, and if Zhang Dai had been in Beijing he’d have been more secretive about it? Or is Lee overstating the case, or overgeneralizing the Korean elite’s disdain for fiction to East Asia overall? Or was Zhang Dai an outrageous eccentric in this, as in some other areas of his life?
(UPDATE (30 June 2015): Since this post has been brought up to me in person, and it seemed like my point hadn’t been clear: I believe Lee is generalizing the Korean elite’s pretended disdain for fiction to East Asia; moreover, to be frank, personally I’m dubious it was even really true of the Korean Neo-Confucian elite in the Joseon era as anything more than just public posturing. I’m pretty sure that elites were embracing fiction the same way people embrace anything fun, and just felt they needed to disclaim it publicly and in writing.)
I’m not sure of the answer to any of those questions—I don’t know enough about Chinese literary history to know if fiction really occupied quite as ignominous position there as it did in Joseon-era Korea. However, there is an interesting parallel: Chinese history was also much more turbulent in terms of uprisings and rebellions than Korea’s history was, by far, and again, part of that ties to the size of China’s empire: there were all kinds of places distant to the capital where dissent could fester, and all kinds of marginalized ethnic minorities for whom the “official view” of the world was inherently suspect, if not downright fantastical. Centuries later, when the Taiping Rebellion exploded across Southern China, it was in a landscape where wuxia stories were known and beloved, and where for that matter famous river bandits allied with Triads like Heaven-and-Earth Society, figures who could have walked right out of the pages of The Outlaws of the Marsh, trawled the local waterways and turned out to be crucial in the Taiping’s campaigns against the foreign Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty.3
As I’ve noted before, I find the idea of absolutes and fundamental essentials in culture much less useful and interesting than the idea of tensions created by between coexisting, diametrically opposite tendencies.4 I’m not just talking about the public dismissal of fiction by elites, and the enthusiastic embrace of it by the lower classes, mind you. I mean, those commoners who found solace in fiction, were also using the fiction as a form of escapist fantasy, right? Which suggests that to whatever degree fiction worked as subversive entertainment, it also braked subversive revolt. (The revolution obviously will not be televised because if it were, in any fashion even remotely entertaining, everyone would stay home and watch it, and nobody would show up for the actual revolution.)
Likewise, the elites who dismissed the stuff as morally corrupting trash, were also attracted to it because of its forbidden nature, and because on some level they realized that fiction was the place where one might encounter those truths that were routinely and necessarily suppressed from public, official culture and discourse… truths of which nobody in the elite could honestly remain wholly unaware, since they were directly involved in the manufacture and promulgation of the official discourse that actively suppressed those truths, even more so that discourse shifted, sometimes radically and sometimes within their own lifetimes.
All of which is to say that I find Lee’s version of the story a little simplified… maybe because it’s in an introduction, sure, but it’s still very black-or-white, not even black-and-white… and I don’t think one gets a properly sophisticated sense of historical attitudes until one starts to see the mushy edges of where black and white rubbed against one another and started to meld and blend into a confused mess of obvious, openly grey self-contradictions.
I’ll have more to say about The Record of the Black Dragon Year itself soon, as it is truly a bizarre text worth a few lines of discussion in and of itself.
And yes, I’m suggesting that regicide in itself is a good… though mostly because people who claim royal privileges won’t vacate the throne except in a body bag.↩
See Spence’s glorious book on the Taiping Rebellion, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, for more on the river pirates, especially on pages 81-84.↩
An idea I’ve stolen from this essay on utopian fiction by Charles Elkins and Darko Suvin.↩
Wait… cosplay? In the late Ming Dynasty?
Apparently, yes. And I don’t just mean dressing up in costumes, which is a universal and ancient activity. I mean cosplay. What’s the difference?
I’ll let Jonathan Spence lay out the dots, before I connect them. Here’s a passage from Return to Dragon Mountain:
After his dismissal by the prince of Lu, [Zhang Dai’s] father returned to Shaoxing in early 1632 just before the region was smitten with a prolonged drought, which badly damaged crops and led to the threat of famine. For both father and son the ordinary fabric of life was starting to unravel. Zhang Dai, as one might expect, had been busy giving to the disorder the aura he thought it needed. In the absence of effective administrators who could help curb the famine, he tells no that he followed the townspeople in their decision to summon to their aid the characters from one of China’s most flamboyant and exciting novels, published around the time Zhang Dai was born. This was the novel The Outlaws of the Marsh, whose watery title1 promised, the townspeople hoped, to stimulate the local gods to end the drought. As was true for the courageous men who had faced down the eunuch henchmen of Wei Zhongxian, so the characters of The Outlaws of the Marsh stood for the determination of those who chose to defy the leaders of the state. The band of 108 bravados who lived long before in that lakeside marsh that gave the novel its title had the power to threaten the rulers of China as well as to offer their own services to shore up a state they despised. Zhang Dai, like many of his contemporaries, was drawn to these erratic heroes and had used the characters from The Outlaws of the Marsh in unusual ways. He wrote a series of aphoristic couplets on the main characters in the novel and also treasured the painted depictions of the work’s heroes that were made by his close friend the painter Chen Hongshou. Both of them sought to catch the elusive quality of these outlaws’ natures and Chen achieved levels of true brilliance in his own renderings, which Zhang Dai likened in achievement to the works of the celebrated painter Wu Daozi in conjuring up the images of Hell.
In the threatened villages around Shaoxing, the local farmers had been competing with each other to see who could plead with the gods for rain most effectively. Since, only four years before, high winds and freakishly high tides had smashed houses, uprooted trees and brought flood waters surging through the greets of the city, in the year 1632 each day villagers dressed up as the gods of the tides or the spirit of the sea, and spat as often as they could to imitate the water that they hoped would soon fall from the sky. In Shaoxing itself, the people decided to dress up as characters from The Outlaws of the Marsh, believing the title of the book to be auspicious, given the circumstances. To encourage them in their endeavors, Zhang Dai tells us, he went beyond these earlier depictions of the novel’s main characters in verse or paint, and instead sent his friends and servants to comb Shaoxing city and the nearby villages and hills for people who looked exactly like the fictional images envisioned by the novelist. Without a precise similitude, Zhang Dai argued, without the exact kind of blackened faces, luxuriantly bristling whiskers, helmets with streamers and weapons like tree trunks as well as authentic delivery and cadences, the performers would only catch a portion of the full possibilities of the narrative. So slowly, over weeks of effort, and with the expenditure of large sums of money, one by one Zhang and his teams of searchers located thirty-six people to represent the key figures from the novel—a dark-skinned dwarf, a powerful fighter, a portly monk, a tall seductress, a man with a twisted head, a man with florid face and bushy beard—and gave them the means to come to the city. As the chosen thirty-six made their measured approach along the roads that led to the city, the crowds of watchers grew ever larger, threatening to drive the newfound denizens of the outlaws’ fictional march to share the fate of the celebrated male beauty Wei Jie, who had been killed by the sheer concentrated force of the public’s staring eyes.2
Zhang Dai tells us that his relatives were divided over the efficacy of this planned appeal to the gods. His fifth uncle, recently returned from an official posting in Guangling, where he had accumulated several bolts of brocades and satins, was so much in favor of the project the he gave a large quantity of the material to decorate eight covered stages on which the impersonators could act out their parts. Six stages were in honor of the thunder god: one was for the god of war and one for the dragon god. Bonnets hanging beside or in front of the stages bore exemplary mottoes: “The rain that is needed,” “The Imperial Orders bring peace,” “Balmy winds and calming rain,” “With the outlaws at rest the people are peaceful.” The effect was seen by the crowds as being spectacular, though still on too small a scale to be truly effective. But a great-uncle of Zhang Dai’s (the younger brother of his late grandfather) expressed skepticism over the whole venture, bluntly asking what on earth the criminal gangs from The Outlaws of the Marsh had to contribute to the pressing search for rain? Zhang Dai explained that his 36 chosen personages fitted in with the scheme at the heart of the novel itself, in which the grand total of 108 figures who populate the novel’s band of comrades divide symbolically into a group of 36, representing the pole stars of Heaven, and a group of 72 representing the stars that are tied to the rhythms of the Earth.
By the end of the anecdote, we’ve gone from mere plans of cosplay to a huge, expensive stage production with look-alikes brought into town: something much more like a cross between Broadway and Las Vegas than like Comicon or Harajuku Bridge in Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon. Obviously, a massive rite funded in the hope that it might somehow produce rain is actually pretty interesting in its own right…
But what originally caught my eye was that initial impetus, before Zhang Dai got involved. Folks in Shaoxing figured a little cosplay might somehow supplicate the gods and ultimately bring the much-needed rains.3
Sure, people have been dressing up in costumes and disguises for millennia, and for just these kinds of religious or magical reasons. What’s interesting here is that the plan was to explicitly dress up like explicitly fictional characters from a popular novel. That’s somehow more like the kind of cosplay we see in global popular culture today than it is like any other kind of costuming behavior, isn’t it?
So now, I’m wondering about when this arrived: when people in various cultures started dressing up as fictional characters (as opposed to mythological figures understood as literally real, or disguises, or symbolic costumes, or whatever else). My guess is that we’ve been doing it since the first explicitly fictional characters were written about… but I’m also sure the details are fascinating, even for someone lacking the least bit of interest in cosplay as a hobby.
- The literal translation of the title would be “Water Margin Chronicles,” because the bandit heroes live on the watery edge of a marsh. ↩
- Yet another thing from Chinese traditional culture that makes modern Korean pop culture make a little more sense. See here for more on, I kid you not, “Pretty Men in History.” ↩
- If you think it must have been bizarre to live in a society where thinking that was normal, well… now you definitely know what it’s like to be an atheist in our world today. ↩
As I continue reading the book I mentioned the other day, Jonathan Spence’s Return to Dragon Mountain, I keep running across little passages that scream out to be shared, along with a little commentary. Here’s one, comprising the observations of Zhang Dai and his contemporary Ai regarding the horrors of the Imperial examination system, the civil service exams that we Westerners, when we’ve heard about it, sometimes know as the “Mandarinate” exams (emphasis below is mine, not Spence’s):
Ai wrote of the endless discomforts and indignities that he endured in the examination halls, joining the shivering crowds of young men at dawn, signing in at the entrance gate, shuffling forward with brush and inkstone in one hand and a coverlet in the other, enduring the cold hands of proctors giving the candidates body searches to check that they were not smuggling in written material with which to cheat on their answers. Then came the chore of finding the right booth and a miserable plank bench, sweating through the dust and mounting heat as the summer day advanced, desperately shielding their answer papers with their clothing if a sudden rain broke through the frail roof. Even finding a time and place to urinate was hard, and the enclosure stank from the hundreds of sweating bodies crammed together in the exam compound. One saving grace was that the proctors paraded past the candidates’ seats calling out the topic aloud for those whose eyes–like those of Ai himself–were too weak or weary to read the question papers; for those hard of hearing, other proctors wrote the questions in large characters on display boards. Once the exams were finished, wrote Ai, the students had to endure the uncertainties of erratic grading before being informed of their rankings and their scores. If they failed, they knew they faced the same dreary prospect all over again. “People looked like wives or slaves,” Ai noted, “deprived of all their dignity.”
Zhang Dai added his own glosses to Ai’s account. The formalized answer system known as “the eight-legged essays,” he wrote, had been imposed by the Ming rulers to “torment scholars and discourage ambitious men.” Any small slip in style or content led to demerits or failure. Even the finest of scholars would “find no use for their arsenal of talents and knowledge” unless they joined the pack, “submissive in manner, limited in scope, stale in words, poor in attire, with internal feeling rotted away.” The result was damaging to the county as a whole. Those who passed were “either old men waiting for death, or naïve youth who understood nothing.” And yet, curiously, both Ai and Zhang felt that there was something useful in the system despite all its pressures and shortcomings: the studying and the stress did create strong bonds between teachers and students; a life of leisure was not the only significant way to spend the time; hardship could lead to greater things.
While it can only be said with major caveats1 I think it’d be hard for anyone who knows anything about the major exam systems in Korea–both the University Entrance Exam system, and the Civil Service Exams that regulate entry into South Korea’s government bureaucracy (including work as a teacher in its primary and secondary level classrooms)–to miss the parallels, not just in terms of the deleterious effects of the system, but also in terms of the bizarre justifications offered despite them. For while efforts were made a few years ago to try move away from the Civil Service Exam system here, they didn’t really go very far: people protested, especially those who’d been studying for the next exam after sinking years of their lives into pointless study for earlier exams. (Well, there’s a whole industry of exam-preparations service providers predicated upon it, too, so don’t expect any changes anytime soon.)
The net result? The system is still very much in effect, and more and more young people are signing up for the exams that will leave them, too, “submissive in manner, limited in scope, stale in words, poor in attire, with internal feeling rotted away.” Worse, that University Entrance Exam is pretty much inflicted on every young person of even mediocre intellectual promise: every promising young mind (and many unpromising ones) must endure it each year.
But of course, school teachers are technically civil servants here too: they went through the emotional and psychological wringer of the Civil Service Exam themselves in order to become teachers, which is to say they were hired through a system that preferentially selects for a relative lack of imagination, overwhelming risk aversion, a traumatized sense of failure, and prolonged experiences of social isolation, extreme self-abnegation, and willingness to endure the explicitly depressive effects of exam preparations, often repeatedly for years on end.
There are not just cultural but also economic reasons — tied to the widening wealth gap, apparently — which explain why people are willing to endure all this, and in fact are doing so in increasing numbers. But if you think those are precisely the traits needed in your country’s educators, then congratulations: now you know the best way to hire them. But be warned: you might find there are side effects you hadn’t anticipated.
- Such as that the Imperial examination system was actually imitated worldwide in the 19th century, to positive effect in that it added a degree of meritocracy to bureaucracies; that Europe’s premodern systems for deciding on who landed in office were certainly even less meritocratic; that there are at least some advances that have been made in Korea in terms of ostensible impartiality in grading, and so on… ↩
I’m reading Jonathan Spence’s book about Zhang Dai at the moment, and Spence certainly succeeds early on in making Zhang seem like the guy of person you would want to hang out with… at least for a while. He was swept up by random, sweeping passions, and a powerful drive to write and write and write about everything that interested him. Manifestoes were kind of a thing with him, and those passions were constantly renewing, eclectic but thoughtful, if a bit over the top… or that’s how it seems thirty pages into the book, anyway.
So far, among many other things, Spence has discussed Zhang’s starting a music group with the express purpose of saving his province from musical mediocrity, and launching a massive tea craze because he noted that tea made with the water of a particular spring tasted better… which ended up prompting the local monks to defile the spring multiple times, just to make all the damned tea speculators get lost. (And the local bumpkins kept on making tea with the dung-fouled waters, and proclaiming it the best tea ever, as Zhang wryly noted in a moment that I’ll admit provoked feelings of profound déjà-vu.1)
I feel like Ezra Pound would have written a whole bunch of his “Chinese Cantos” on Zhang, if he’d ever heard of him. Here’s a characteristically interesting observation, on pages 28-29:
… Zhang always harbored the conviction that people remained self-conscious even when they seemed the most self-absorbed. He knew that in our minds we are never far away from scrutinizing the image we are conveying to others, and moon viewing provided no exception to this rule of life. As he drifted one evening at leisure on Hangzhou’s West Lake, at the time of the September moon festival, despite the varied delights of the occasion there was nothing more absorbing to Zhang than watching the other people who were also out on the lake watching the moon.
Zhang categorized the moon watchers into five classes, each of which he sketched in words. There were the very rich, in their formal clothes, entertained by actors as they ate their banquets. Distracted by their many pleasures, though they were indeed floating wader the moon, “they never really saw it, though they themselves were worth watching.” There were those distracted by their efforts at seduction, as they sought the attention of the courtesans and pretty boys bunched on the decks of their vessels: “Though their bodies mere under the moon, they never really looked at it, though they too were worth watching.” There were those who reclined on their boats and sipped their wine in the company of women and Buddhist priests, talking quietly as the music softly played. “They did watch the moon, but they wanted others to watch them watching the moon.” Then there were the onshore rowdies, who owned no boats but racketed along the lakeshore, stuffed with food and pretending to be drunker than they really were, shouting and singing out of key. These were the eclectic ones, watching the moon to some extent, and also watching others who were watching the moon, “but also watching those who were not watching them moon and themselves seeing nothing.” And lastly there were the studiedly elegant aesthetes, who traveled in small boats, their figures sheltered behind fine curtains, sipping tea from delicate white porcelain with their female companions, quietly watching the moon but in such a may that others could not view them watching it. Since “they did not watch the moon self-consciously, they too were worth watching.”
I’m not very far into it yet, but like pretty much everything else I’ve read by Spence, it’s great so far.
- From my first restaurant experiences in Korea, I’ve noticed a surprising number of people–more, it was apparent to me, than I’d ever seen back home, though maybe it’s just the places I’ve lived–who were more focused on the decor and the reputation of the restaurant than on the quality of the food. Then again, I imagine there’s just as many night clubs in Canadian metropoli as in Seoul that people went to not because they’re fun places to be, but because they’re the place to be seen… ↩