AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 291

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Session 291: Metropologies: Imperial Cities and Literary Form in China

Organizer: Benjamin B Ridgway, Grinnell College, USA

Chair: Shuen-fu Lin, University of Michigan, USA

Discussant: Christian de Pee, University of Michigan, USA

In the capitals of the Han, Tang, and Song empires converged tax grain and tribute goods, high officials and foreign merchants, poets and criminals. The monumental walls and gates of these metropolises, their imposing buildings, and their expansive markets awed travelers and residents alike. They were among the largest cities of their time. Yet even of these famous capitals much remains unknown, as transmitted texts have preserved political debates and literary achievements, but not everyday itineraries or commercial activity. The papers of this panel attempt to recover an elusive sense of urban space, not by reconstructing the physical layout of cities, but by examining the spatial orientation inherent in literary forms. Michael Nylan argues that the neo-classical memorials of the late Western Han present Chang’an as a dynamic city of economic initiative and political negotiation. Linda Feng shows that in Tang-dynasty tales an urban culture of pageantry and sumptuary display enfolds the imperial examinations and its candidates. Benjamin Ridgway examines a Southern Song rhapsody that places the historic landscape and virtuous customs of Shaoxing above its status as subsidiary capital. The notebooks of Song loyalists, analyzed by Gang Liu, allow an unresolved juxtaposition of the luxurious beauty and corrupting decadence of the former capital at Hangzhou. By concentrating on a single genre, each of these four papers confines itself to the partial geography of one literary form, but the papers preserve thereby the historical integrity of generic tropologies, with their distinct configurations of urban space and practice.

A Neo-Classical City: Chang’an in Late Western Han Edicts and Memorials
Michael Nylan, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Memorials and edicts of the late Western Han (48 BCE-23 CE) overturn nearly every long-cherished assumption that we have held about the early empires in general, and about the capital of Emperor Chengdi (r. 33-7 BCE) in particular. The documents show a court and a capital remarkably open to innovations (such as new religious practices and welfare mechanisms for the people), quick to respond to foreign influences in art and architecture, and preoccupied with markets, merchants, and factory production, to the extent that Chang’an became a producing as much as a consuming city. The memorials and edicts also depict a consultative rather than autocratic form of government, which necessitated delicate negotiations between eunuchs and distaff relatives (waiqi), between career bureaucrats of different political persuasions (Loewe’s “modernists” and “reformers”) and the big industrialists and money-lenders residing in the huge mausoleum towns encircling the capital, and even between the representatives of the new money and local strongmen from the provinces. Recent excavations have confirmed that the allocation and occupation of space in Han Chang’an was far less rigidly determined than in later capitals such as Tang-dynasty Chang’an or Qing-dynasty Beijing. The new style of the memorials and edicts matches their innovative contents. Using dense classical quotations to maximal effect, the classicist officials recruited by Emperors Yuandi and Chengdi forged a new rhetoric to defend new policy initiatives, and to distance the court from the style of rule associated with Emperor Wudi (r. 141-87 BCE), whose economic monopolies and wars of foreign aggression were challenged for the first time.

Writ in Shadows: Urban Commerce and Social Pageantry in Tang Examination Anecdotes
Linda R. Feng, University of Toronto, Canada

Official histories and geographies render Tang-dynasty Chang’an as a space centered on the emperor and delimited by normative rituals and sumptuary codes. Informal anecdotes, in contrast, depict the city as a locus of conspicuous consumption and social pageantry, a site of entrepreneurship and image-mongering. The anecdotes narrate literati encounters with a variety of urban dwellers who are usually elided from literati writing, thereby yielding insights into urban networks and social milieus that are invisible in more exclusive literary genres. My case studies come from anecdotal collections related to the annual examinations during the late Tang. Anecdotes from the Northern Ward (Beili zhi) preserves snapshots of visits examination candidates paid to the demimonde. Its vignettes of courtesans reveal that their world and its forms of capital in fact diverged from, rather than simply mirrored, those of the literati. Among its conversation fodder concerning examinees and the examinations, Tang Gleanings (Tang zhiyan) depicts an association of townspeople-merchants known as the Jinshi tuan (Presented Scholars Club), a group that seems to have availed itself of business opportunities occasioned by examination celebrations and that appears to have helped stage new degree holders as urban celebrities in a parade-like festivity. By including what literary convention often omitted, both collections demonstrate that by the end of the ninth century, as they were maturing as a mechanism of imperial recruitment, the Tang examinations were a particularly urban institution integrated into a commercial culture eager for display and competition.

A City of Substance: Regional Custom and the Political Landscape of Shaoxing in a Southern Song Rhapsody
Benjamin B Ridgway, Grinnell College, USA

Since the Han dynasty, poets had used the genre of the Grand Rhapsody (dafu) to describe the capital as the spatial locus of imperial majesty, diminishing regional cities to the status of deficient copies. In his 1158 “Rhapsody of Kuaiji,” however, the Southern Song official Wang Shipeng (1112-1171) overturned this traditional spatial hierarchy. Rather than praise the newly reestablished imperial center at Hangzhou, Wang used the rhapsody to celebrate the regional city of Shaoxing as the pinnacle of the customs of Yue. Wang transformed the geo-political orientation of the rhapsody by importing the categories and evidentiary rhetoric (shi) of “regional customs” (su) from local gazetteers, to criticize both the exaggerated, “empty” (xu) rhetoric of the dafu genre and its monocentric spatial hierarchy. Wang’s critique reveals two competing visions of Shaoxing during the Restoration Era (1131-1163). The court defined Shaoxing as subsidiary to Hangzhou. Following the collapse of the Northern Song (960-1127), Emperor Gaozong chose Shaoxing as his temporary refuge in 1129-1130, made it the site of the imperial tombs in 1142, and claimed the city as an “auxiliary capital.” Wang, by contrast, defined the city in relation to the “substance” (shi) of its regional customs, detailing local mountains and rivers (shanchuan), invoking historical rulers like Gou Jian (497-465 BCE) who restored the ancient Yue kingdom, and praising local martyrs (renwu) of the recent wars. Wang creates in his rhapsody an urban space that is informed by local pride, but also by the hope that this prideful Shaoxing will be integrated into a fully restored empire.

A City of Remembrance and Remorse: Literary Representations of Hangzhou in Yuan-Dynasty Notebooks (Biji)
Gang Liu, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

From the notebooks (biji) written by Song loyalists during the early Yuan dynasty, Hangzhou emerges as a city of remembrance and remorse. Where Marco Polo saw astonishing wealth and prosperity, Wu Zimu’s Dreams of Glory (Mengliang lu, ca. 1280), Zhou Mi’s Former Things of Wulin (Wulin jiushi, ca. 1290), Liu Yiqing’s Anecdotes of Qiantang (Qiantang yishi, ca. 1290-1300) perceive traces of an alluring but shameful past. In their discussions of scenic spots, social events, festivals, and local products in Hangzhou, these three notebooks limn a vivid picture of the burgeoning life and culture of the Southern Song capital. Although this picture bears an indelible mark of nostalgia, a longing for the city as it existed before the Mongol conquest, the notebooks at the same time criticize the seductive affluence and beauty of that earlier city, which they blame for the sociopolitical decline of the Southern Song. The miscellaneous nature of the notebooks allows the reproduction of the bustling urban life in Hangzhou during its heyday. At the same time it enables the expression of their authors’ ambivalent sentiments toward the bygone days. Visions of metropolitan sophistication and political incompetence, of elevated beauty and corrupted morality, stand juxtaposed in unresolved tension, like the Song loyalists themselves in Yuan-dynasty Hangzhou. As Song loyalist texts, the notebooks both memorialize and incriminate Hangzhou, preserving thereby the authors’ remorseful sense of longing for a glamorous but disgraceful past that was irrevocably lost.