The Scholar and the State: Fiction as Political Discourse in Late Imperial China. By LlANGYAN GE. Seattle: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, 2015. Pp. xi + 279. $50.
Liangyan Ge's new book deals with a topic of great significance and urgency. As the blurb announces, this is the first book-length study that seriously engages with the political dimension of traditional Chinese fiction by situating the novels under discussion in a "very specific political context" (as Margaret Wan remarked). Taking as its central concem what Ge calls the "rugged partnership" between the intellectual elite and the imperial power (the "scholar" [phrase omitted] dr and the "state" shi [phrase omitted] of the title, respectively), the book revisits several landmark works of Ming and Qing vernacular fiction such as Three Kingdoms, The Scholars, and Dream of the Red Chamber, as well as a few lesser-known erotic works.
The ambitious scope and overall narrative framework of the book are laid out in the introduction and the first chapter, where Ge paints in broad strokes the evolution of the scholar-state relationship and the emergence of vernacular fiction in the late imperial period. According to this largely familiar narrative, late imperial China witnessed a growing alienation between the literati class and state power, not only due to the ever-rising surplus of scholars excluded from public service, but also because, in Ge's account, Ming and Qing rulers increasingly appropriated the daotong, or orthodox lineage of learning, that had hitherto been the prerogative of the literati class. In this respect, the examination system played a key role, by providing rulers with a powerful tool for manipulating and tampering with the Confucian canon. The increasingly disenfranchised and disgruntled literati class, then, found an alternative outlet in vernacular fiction, which emerged as a relentlessly destabilizing counter-discourse. While this narrative inevitably tends to flatten some of the complexities of both texts and context--one especially wishes that Ge had engaged with the recent scholarship on the examination system, essay writing, and state-elite relations by Hilde De Weerdt and others, which have greatly complicated our understanding of these topics--it does offer the author a useful springboard for in-depth analyses of individual works in each of the subsequent chapters.
The first text to be scrutinized is Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in chapter 2. Ge...