Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Watching Li Yu's Plays in Seventeenth-Century China

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Watching Li Yu's Plays in Seventeenth-Century China

Article excerpt

Li Yu & the Social Significance of his Chuanqi

The seventeenth-century writer Li Yu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1611-80) was determined to play a part, "an outrageous part if need be, in literature as in life" (Hanan 1988, 6), despite living through a turbulent dynastic transition and finding his otherwise sensuous life of a "professional writer" (Chang and Chang 1992, 2) marred by financial woes. "The best-selling Chinese author of his time" (Hanan 1988, 1), he also was recognized as an architect, critic, garden designer, publisher, theater director, and theorist. His wit and punditry entertained his scholar-official patrons, while his controversial life and career generated publicity within circles of the cultural elite. Self-fashioned as Liweng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Old Man in the Bamboo Hat), (1) a name alluding to Daoist retreat from worldly ambitions, Li was nevertheless actively social, regularly exchanging letters, notes, and poems with officials and members of the scholar-gentry class. His writings are not solitary self-expressions but windows of social interaction and commercial activity. They provided for a household that included his wife, concubines, children, sons-in-law, maids, and servants, totaling as many as fifty people by the early 1670s (Hanan 1988, 8).

Li did not hesitate to proclaim his own literary creativity. He named the collection of his works Liweng yijiayan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Liweng's School of Thought, ca. 1673), for instance. Patrick Hanan (1988, 24) identifies notes by more than 150 different critics in Li's works; Li solicited many of these and incorporated them into his works in the hope of promoting himself. (2) Shan Jinheng (1990a, 131-304) tabulates more than eight hundred such contemporaries. Li solicited help from many of these and hosted parties or performed chuanqi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--that is, plays in the style of the Southern theater--as a means of cajoling their support. (3) Constantly stretching the boundary between the gong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (public) and the si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (private), Li wrote personal letters with the expectation that they would be circulated, (4) quoted his own poems when writing popular vernacular stories, (5) used his own concubines to stage his plays, (6) and asked a much-flattered local official-patron to write the preface of his penultimate play. (7)

Li always had readers in mind when he wrote; playing with their expectations was one of his favorite literary games. Through texts laden with first-person narrators (oftentimes Li's alter egos), commentary, and meta-narratives, the author also enjoyed presenting himself as literary inventor, connoisseur, and romantic lover. For example, Gu Daisou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the shanren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (self-proclaimed hermit) in Li Yu's story "Wenguolou" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Mansion Dedicated to the Acceptance of Criticism") embodies the writer's characteristic self-mockery, but even such self-mockery is executed with deliberation--after all, the hermit's friends present him with a mansion in gratitude for the advice they received from him. The story can thus be read as a cleverly crafted exercise in wish-fulfillment.

Li's oeuvre totals about twenty volumes in a modern edition. In his own time, his chuanqi were his chief claim to fame. (8) Theatrical activities--writing, annotating, performing, reading and watching chuanqi--had been increasingly integrated into the Chinese literati culture since the beginning of the Ming Chenghua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] reign (1465). Guo Yingde [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (2004, 4) describes the five stages by which the literati transformed chuanqi into a highly deliberate form of self-expression, situating Li's plays between boxingqi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the period of efflorescence, 1587-1651) and fazhangqi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the period of growth, 1652-1718). …

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