History, fiction, and public opinion: writings on mao wenlong in the early seventeenth century.

Author:Li, Han
Position:Critical essay

The consecutive executions of two important Ming (1368-1644) generals involved in the empire's warfare with the Manchus in the Liaodong region (east of the Liao River), Mao Wenlong (1576-1629) and Yuan Chonghuan (1584-1630), caused fierce controversies in the imperial court in Beijing as well as among common people during the late Ming dynasty. (1) During an inspection tour in the sixth month of 1629, Yuan Chong-huan, then the jinglue (chief commander) of Liaodong, executed Mao Wenglong under a list of twelve charges without seeking prior imperial permission. The Chongzhen emperor (1628-1644) allegedly acknowledged the news of Mao's execution with astonishment and regret. (2) Adding drama to the situation, only six months later Yuan Chonghuan, who won for the Ming house the biggest victory in its long history fighting the Manchus (Ningyuan zhi zhan, 1626), was arrested on treason charges and soon executed in a most brutal fashion--being cut into pieces in a marketplace. (3)

The intricate relationship between these two generals' deaths and their impact on the Liaodong situation has incited debates among scholars ever since. Yet modem scholars are no closer to reaching a consensus on this issue than those who lived three centuries ago. The great diversity of interpretations emerged over time largely because evaluations of one execution are contingent on the explanation of the other. Soon after Mao Wenlong died, the Manchus went by way of Mongolia and posed a serious threat to Beijing (jisi zhi bian, 1629). This development retrospectively valorized the importance of Mao's guerrilla force in northeast China. In addition, the imprisonment of Yuan Chonghuan and the prevailing rumor that he killed Mao to fulfill one of the negotiating conditions with Hong Taiji (or Abahai, 1592-1643) further influenced impressions of Mao. Many historical works written during the Ming-Qing transition time, such as Guoque (The chronicles of the Ming dynasty), Mingshijishi benmo (Narratives of Ming history from beginning to end), and Mingji beilue (A brief history of northern affairs at the end of the Ming dynasty), treat Yuan Chonghuan as a traitor and claim that Mao Wenglong died an unjust death.4 However, this view shifted when the Mingshi (History of the Ming dynasty) was finalized during the Qianlong reign (1735-1795) of the Qing dynasty. It is said that after reading the shill, (veritable records) of the Tiancong era (16271636), the Qianlong emperor was convinced that the rumor of Yuan's collaboration was part of the scheme involving Hong Taiji and the Ming Chongzhen emperor. Hence, Qian-long ordered Yuan's reputation to be clarified in Mingshi.5 Meanwhile, the defense of Mao Wenlong also continued well into the Qing period, as scholars like Wu Qian (fl. 18th century) compiled Don gjiang (Remnant affairs of Dongjiang), collecting biographical and miscellaneous records praising Mao to let "the unjust charges be known to everyone" (6)

However, efforts to rectify Mao's reputation faced serious challenges at the beginning of the twentieth century with the discovery of materials that later came to be called Man wen laodang (Old Manchu records). These manuscripts, written mainly in old Manchu, provided detailed records of the early days of the Manchu ethnic, including seven letters exchanged between Mao Wenlong and Hong Taiji. (7) In their correspondence, the two parties agreed to share the benefits once the Manchus overthrew the Ming house. 8 Inevitably these exchanges were considered "tiezheng" (solid evidence) of Mao's treachery. (9) Yet even these so-called tiezheng were subject to contradictory interpretations. Meng Sen a pioneer in the study of Ming-Qing history, once commented on one of the letters that "[Mao's] letter is disdainful, utterly devoid of the tone of surrender" (10) Meng Sen speculated that Mao Wenlong and Hong Taiji were "playing a trick with each other. [Mao] had no intention of surrendering" (11) This layer of rhetoric in the letters further complicates the assessment of Mao's relationship with the Manchus. Therefore, attitudes toward Mao's military achievements and his death continued to diverge even after these letters were discovered. 12

This article does not aim to discover historical truths regarding the deaths of Mao Wen-long or Yuan Chonghuan, nor does it seek to pass judgment on the historical significance or personal integrity of either figure. Both issues, as shown above, are indeed shrouded in historical myth and ongoing debate. Rather, this essay examines the texts produced in the immediate aftermath of their executions and explores their dynamic relationship with the rapidly changing social-historical situation of the Ming-Qing transition era. In reference to historical studies, Meng Sen once observed that rather than making ungrounded speculations, scholars should resort to the words from "ermu xiangji zhi ren", people who had witnessed or heard about the incident, as primary sources. (13) Unfortunately, as he soon pointed out in the case of late Ming, "it is exactly the people who have experienced the incident who particularly dispute favor and blame, right and wrong" (14)

This article explores the records concerning Mao Wenlong written by those ermu xiangji zhi ren, especially the two so-called shishi xiaoshuo, novels on current events, that came out in the wake of Mao's death: Xinjuan xiuxiang tongsu yanyi liaohai danzhong lu (Recently engraved illustrated popular elaboration of the loyal deeds in Liaodong; hereafter, Danzhong lu) and Zhenhai chunqiu (Chronic1es of guarding the sea). (15) In his study The Monster that Is History, David Der-Wei Wang demonstrates why shishi xiaoshuo should be considered a significant development in Chinese fiction by examining the works on Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627), the most notorious eunuch in Chinese history. 16 Inspired by Wang, I have previously explored the features of this unique genre through a series of shishi xiaoshuo "documenting" the Li Zicheng (1605?-1645) rebellion--the peasant rebellion precipitating the suicide of the Chongzhen emperor and the fall of the Ming imperial house. My discussion emphasized the journalistic feature of this genre by demonstrating the swiftness of the publication of shishi xiaoshtto and the ways by which the works on suppressing the Li Zicheng rebellion kept renewing themselves to keep up with the constantly evolving situation. (17) This previous analysis forms a foundation and complement to the present essay, as each seeks to contribute to the understanding of Chinese fiction as a unique genre from different vantage points.

a This article builds on earlier scholarship on shishi xiaoshuo as a unique genre and emphasizes the significance of its "political intervention" as well as the authors' awareness of the power of the text that results from a sense of historical immediacy. Here I examine the socio-political implications of shishi xiaoshuo by considering the ways that such works sought to participate in contemporary debates about controversial political figures or events and, ultimately, shape public discourse and opinion on them. Several important questions regarding Danzhong la and Zhenhai chunqiu in particular and the shishi xiaoshuo genre in general merit consideration. What are the characteristics of this special group of novels? What were the specific historical and cultural conditions that produced them? How did these fictional writings contribute to debates over contemporary politics in seventeenth-century China? Finally, how do these unique fictional works aid our understanding of Chinese fiction as a special literary genre? By examining the textual features of the various works on Mao Wenlong, and the intertextual relationships between them, and by situating them in one of the most complicated periods in Chinese history, this article explores the practice of fiction writing on contemporary events and its interplay with the cultural and sociopolitical environment in the early seventeenth century.


Interestingly, Mao Wenlong was not the only Ming general whose fate was associated with a particular xiaoshuo--despicable "small talk" according to the categorization of Chinese traditional historiographical discourse. From the mid-Ming period on, the subject matter of historical novels gradually shifted toward contemporary events and events of the recent past. Yinglie zhuan (Romance of the Ming dynasty heroes), a work completed during the Jiajing reign (1522-1566), provides an account of the heroic deeds of Ming founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) and his fellow generals. (18) Attributed to the high official Guo Xun (1475-1542), this work sought imperial acknowledgment for Guo's ancestor, Ming general Guo Ying (1337-1403), by creating a public perception of the latter as a marvelous hero who significantly contributed to the Ming empire's founding. If the traditional heroic legends intend to convey long-standing and shared moral verdicts, then Yin glie zhuan was clearly written with a practical intent--to exert immediate socio-political influence by manipulating the contemporary perception of certain figures. Thus, the purpose of Yinglie zhuan demonstrates an important departure from that of traditional historical novels.

If Yin glie zhuan was used to seek posthumous honor for Guo Ying several generations after his death, then the death of Xiong Tingbi (1569-1625), another highly controversial Ming general, demonstrates how swiftly and effectively fiction on contemporary events could influence a contemporaneous situation. In the fall of 1625 Xiong Tingbi was executed after a three-year imprisonment for losing the battle of Guangning (19) The final enforcement of his death sentence was said to be connected to a fictional work in circulation at the time. According to Ming xizong shilu (Veritable records of the Xizong emperor of the Ming...

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