The Cosplayers of the Late Ming Dynasty

014311445X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_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.

One famous, badass episode from The Outlaws of the Marsh, where a bandit kills a tiger with his bare hands (!) made it onto a postage stamp.
A postage stamp depicting one of the more insanely badass scenes in The Outlaws of the Marsh. (Painting not by Wu Daozi.)

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.

The promo poster for probably the most recent Chinese TV adaptation of The Outlaws of the Marsh.
The promo poster for probably the most recent Chinese TV adaptation of The Outlaws of the Marsh. (Source.)

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?

Image by Michael Mol. See the source by clicking the image, or here.

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.

  1. The literal translation of the title would be “Water Margin Chronicles,” because the bandit heroes live on the watery edge of a marsh.

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.

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