AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 284

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Session 284: The White Snake and the Wise Judge: Literature and the Local in Late Imperial China

Organizer: Rania Huntington, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Chair: Margaret B. Wan, University of Utah, USA

Recent scholarship on late imperial China across many disciplines has paid increasing attention to the local. Exploration of regional creation, circulation, and consumption of literature goes beyond dividing a conventional literary history into provincial units to gain fresh insight into both the local and the national. The papers on this panel discuss a wide range of regions, motifs, and genres. Roland Altenburger illuminates the ties of the later nationally famous White Snake story cycle to local dread of floods in Hangzhou and Zhenjiang. Rania Huntington explores mapping of the local and the weird in a Wanli-era collection of strange tales centered on the Suzhou/Changshu region. Yilin Liu compares scenes involving the thunder god in Mulian plays from Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Margaret Wan explores the creation of local identities in the circulation of northern Chinese drum ballads (guci). The shared discussion touches on questions of performance, writing, and publication; literary genre; and different registers of language and dialect. Thematically, both human instutions of justice and relations with divine and monstrous beings invoke systems of law which are both universal in principle and local in their application. Connections between regional and transregional motifs and genres go in two directions, as the regional becomes more widely shared, or the widely shared is made particular to a region. Our panel follows an innovative format: each paper presenter serves as discussant for one other paper, and brief paper presentations leave time for questions to the audience about their own research on literature and the local.

Localizing White Snake: Hangzhou, Zhenjiang, and the Dread of Flooding
Roland Altenburger, University of Wuerzburg, Germany

The White Snake (Bai she, Bai niangzi) narrative is among the nationally known and transregionally performed subject matters of Chinese "folk" literature. At the same time it is considered to be well embedded in Hangzhou local culture. However, while its story line indeed starts and ends at Hangzhou's West Lake, it also migrates to the cities of Suzhou and Zhenjiang, across the Wu-Yue region. All three cities are linked by the Grand Canal. White Snake, who may be identified as a water deity, is able to move via this waterway while chasing the object of her love, Xu Xuan, the representative Hangzhou man. The story incorporates a tale, or perhaps two local narratives, about the collective dread of flooding in cities located on the water. White Snake, the tutelary deity of West Lake, threatens Xu Xuan with inundating his city, therefore in the end she must be banished under Leifeng Pagoda. Prior to that, as part of the Jinshan cycle, the water deity causes an actual floding of the city of Zhenjiang by the Yangzi river. These two parallel but contrasting elements are evidently interrelated. In my paper I will discuss their implications for regional and local history and community, referring not only to the classic versions of the White Snake narrative in drama and vernacular tale, but also to lesser known versions in local drama and lore.

Zhiguai and the Local in the early seventeenth century: the case of Qian Xiyan's Kuai Yuan
Rania Huntington, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Since the genre's inception zhiguai (tales of the strange) have been linked to collecting accounts of local incidents and custom. Robert Campany has suggested a compelling model of oddities from the margins ordered and tamed at a geographical and cultural center. However, how does the genre's relation to the local change over its long history, as both the generic and cultural landscapes change? In zhiguai's resurgance in the second half of the Ming, the area centered on Suzhou was of particular importance, both for the printing of collections and the oral exchange of tales they documented. Qian Xiyan's Kuai Yuan is an important zhiguai collection of the Wanli reign, its author socially connected to many of the most important literary men of his day, particularly those involved in the writing and publication of classical language narrative. Qian organizes his tales in cateories, some resembling the orthodox divisions of early compendia (Daoist and Buddhist miracles beginning the book, ghosts and monstrosities near the end), some his own innovations, such as a section for "heterodox cults." At the same time as this conceptual scheme maps the varieties of the strange, the locations of the weird incidents and the conversations transmitting them draw another kind of map. How do the local ties of various kinds of marvels and spirits differ? Do marvels from different localities demonstrate universal principle, or reveal local distinction?

General Conventions and Local Adaptations in Mulian Drama: A case study of Mulian plays in Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhengjiang province
Yilin Liu, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

In late imperial China, plays reenacting the monk Mulian's rescue of his mother from hell spread through the entire country and were favored by both the literati and local Chinese people. The wide popularity of the Mulian drama is reflected in its various extant printed vrsions, representing its use as both a text for reading and dramatic performance. In the present paper, I will discuss two scenes that concern the thunder god in three versions of the Mulian drama: Zheng Zhizhen's Mulian jiu mu quan shan xi wen, Chaolun ben mulian, and Shaoxing jiumu ji. The latter two are based on actual theatrical performances in Gaochun, Jiangsu province, and Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. By constructing a dialogue between the literary and the theatrical, the written and the oral manifestations of the Mulian story, I want to demonstrate that a process of standardization and localization is displayed in the three versions. On the one hand, shared patterns and stereotypes define transregional characteristics of the thunder god cult; on the other hand, distinctions amongst the versions form the local flavor of the play. In conclusion, all three sources contain both standardized and localized elements of a cult so that the borders between elite and popular literature blur.

Drum Ballads as Local Literature in Nineteenth Century China
Margaret B. Wan, University of Utah, USA

Drum ballad texts (guci) evoke one of the most popular performanc genres, the drum ballad, in north China in the Qing dynasty. These texts not only drew on oral traditions but also disseminated popular stories throughout north China. While most successful novels in the Qing dynasty circulated nationally, drum ballads were often produced and circulated locally. The turn of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence in quantity (or at least the earliest survial in quantity) of local ballad texts that evoked performance genres, such as drum ballads in the North or lute ballads (tanci) around Suzhou. The quantity and variety of cheap, locally produced performance texts suggests that each form reached its own readership. Instead of writing serving a centriptal role as classical and standard Mandarin, in these local texts writing alligns with regional oral culture through the use of dialect and local storytelling forms. The drum ballads demonstrte a complex interplay of oral and written, apparent in the spread of their stories across many genres, intertextual references within the ballads, and the format of the texts. Some rely on knowledge of performance and show little visual orientation, while others are clearly tailored for reading. The ways drum ballads invoked local oral traditions appealed to people in the North across class and gender lines, from the nobility to men and women of low social status. Study of this body of narratives opens up new perspectives on the creation of local identities and their relation to a central Chinese culture.