Literati Storytelling in Late Medieval China.

Author:Patterson, Gregory
Position::Book review
 
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Literati Storytelling in Late Medieval China. By MANLING LUO. Seattle: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, 2015. Pp. xvi + 242. $50.

The last half of the Tang Dynasty was one of the great turning points in Chinese history. The transition to the Song saw a reconfiguration of the elite, as success on the imperial examinations replaced aristocratic pedigree to become the primary criterion for government service. The great clans lost their centuries-old monopoly on power and prestige, and in their place arose the literati: scholar-statesmen from diverse backgrounds whose collective identity was defined by education, examination success, and office-holding. How did this literati class, whose dominance would endure to the end of the imperial era, conceive of itself and the world around it during the period of its ascendancy? What were the pressing concerns, desires, and anxieties of late medieval men of letters?

These are among the important questions addressed by Literati Storytelling in Late Medieval China, Manling Luo's original and insightful new study of late Tang narratives. Researchers from across the humanities and sciences have long stressed the crucial role of narratives in the construction of personal and communal identities. To a large extent, the stories we tell about ourselves shape who we think we are, and reveal the kinds of people we would like to be. This understanding of narrative's psychological and social functions may help explain the proliferation of stories during the late Tang, when "tales of the marvelous" (chuanqi), historical anecdotes, narrative poems, and "transformation texts" (bianwen) were produced and consumed in unprecedented quantities. Late Tang literati were not only great poets; they were avid and gifted storytellers, as befitted a group seeking to understand and negotiate its place in a changing world.

Literati Storytelling takes an innovative, hybrid approach to this vast and heterogeneous corpus. First and foremost, it brings together kinds of texts that have traditionally been treated separately, as either historical documents or works of imaginative literature. Such a division has been problematic for a number of reasons, not least because it is such a modern one. Recognizing the need to account for both Active and documentary aspects of Tang narratives, Luo approaches them as forms of a single social practice. This is storytelling, which she defines as "the literati tradition of sharing accounts about characters and events of the past in casual conversations, as well as the gathering and transmitting of such narratives in writing" (p. 5). Tracing their discrepant treatments of recurrent themes in a series of perceptive and historically informed close readings, the study reveals how late medieval literati grappled with the problems that mattered most to them. In the process, it tells a larger story about storytelling's social function--how it "enabled late medieval scholar-officials to create communal discourses for defining themselves in response to the new reality of literati life" (p. 5).

The book is tightly organized, with each of its four chapters examining a key focal point of literati anxiety and desire, and each chapter section exploring a distinct iteration of the main theme. The first chapter, "Sovereignty," reads stories about Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-756) and his tragic love affair as venues for reimagining royal authority in the post-An Lushan period. Xuanzong was an ambivalent figure for late Tang...

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