Ding Yaokang & Ming-Qing Literature


A review of Re-reading the Seventeenth Century: Ding Yaokang (1599-1669) and His Writings, by Xiaoqiao Ling.

Living through the final decades of the Ming Dynasty and the first decades of the Qing, Ding Yaokang 丁耀亢 experienced and participated in one of the most tumultuous yet artistically fruitful periods in China’s history. The Shandong scholar, teacher, essayist, poet, and playwright’s extant corpus further reveals a variety nearly unmatched among his contemporaries. Why, then, have so few scholars, especially in the West, engaged with Ding’s work to the same extent they have with that of his prolific southern predecessors and contemporaries Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574-1645) and Li Yu 李漁 (1610-1680)? Xiaoqiao Ling’s dissertation, “Re-reading the Seventeenth Century: Ding Yaokang (1599-1669) and his Writings” answers this and other questions as it explores major themes in seventeenth-century intellectual life from the variety of angles Ding’s complex corpus provides.

Chapter 1 consists of a summary of Ding’s life and work, foregrounding the unique biographical details that make Ding’s motivations for writing different from those of commercially minded writers like Li Yu, with whom Ling frequently contrasts him. Where prosperous Jiangnan was devastated by the Manchurian invasion, for example, many citizens of the war-torn North may have welcomed a return to political stability; where Li’s official career was cut short by the Ming-Qing cataclysm, ironically, Ding gained his first official degree and posting after the fall as a teacher to Manchurian students in Beijing. Perhaps most obviously, where Li followed in the footsteps of such failed examination candidates as Feng Menglong in writing fiction and drama for a commercial audience, Ding’s quasi-biographical, satiric-yet-didactic writings not only seem not to aim at commercial success, they even landed him in prison for a short time. Thus, the works of this well-to-do northerner-turned-school teacher for foreigners provide a different perspective on the major questions occupying seventeenth century writers, such as the construction of identity in literature and the use of playful and imaginary tropes to explore metaphysics.

Chapter 2 explores Ding’s varied attempts at identity construction and personal justification in his prose memoir, Chujie Jilüe 出劫紀略 (“A Brief Account of my Escape from the Kalpic Disaster”). While previous scholarly work has focused on the ways in which Ding strives to craft a consistent identity across the periods before and after the Ming-Qing cataclysm, Ling instead focuses on the fragmentary nature of the work, and how it combines the sort of nostalgia narrative typified by Zhang Dai’s Tao’an Mengyi 陶庵夢憶 (“Dream Reminiscences of Tao’an”) and the sort of “narrative on personal trials” Lynn Struve describes in her work on Ming “refugees” (yimin 遺民). Ling further notes that the essays can be broadly divided into four separate subgenres of prose, each of which provides a different perspective on Ding’s pre- and/or post-cataclysm life and thought.

The first of these groupings, essays on “mountain life” (shanju 山居), describe Ding’s pre-cataclysm life and thought from a variety of angles. In Yuyuan ji 峪園記 (“Record of the Yu Villa”) Ding describes his mountain retreat in a manner which Ling argues represents a synthesis of the discourse on seclusion and the discourse on gardens, to which Ding would have been exposed during his time spent in Suzhou with Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555-1636). By emphasizing the rough simplicity and productivity of his mountain garden, Ding presents himself as a man of refinement and leisure who has nonetheless avoided the pitfalls of excess associated with southern garden culture. In Shangui tan 山鬼談 (“Casual Talks about the Mountain Ghost”) and Mingkong Shangren zhuan 明空上人傳 (“Biography of the Superior Master Mingkong”), Ding further explores “mystically informed” eremitism — a tradition Ling traces back to Daoist mystic, Ge Hong 葛洪 (283-363) (whose case contrasts with the more secular sorts of seclusion and retreat described by Tao Qian 陶潛 (365-427) and Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 (385-433)). Shangui tan is of particular interest because it introduces the character of Qingxia 青霞, a kind of disembodied Daoist mystic with whom Ding claims to have communicated via spirit writing, and who reappears in his poetry and novels in ways that further reflect on Ding’s varied self presentation.

The next two essays, arguably the best known in Chujie Jilüe due to their historical interest, describe Ding’s time fleeing Manchurian invaders and his work as a military consultant for a general serving under the Hongguang rump court. Ling argues that Ding is able to justify his service to a corrupt official through appeals to expediency on behalf of the local people — a rhetorical move which prefigures Ding’s equally ambiguous service to the Manchurian rulers, which he presents in terms of a tradition of “educating barbarians.” The final section of Chujie Jilüe presents the work in terms of admonitions to his family and future descendants, a choice Ling argues should cause us to see the overall organization of the memoir as the product of careful planning and self-presentation, even as the writing of the various essays spanned decades and its many subgenres of essay present a complex picture of the identity Ding hoped to leave to posterity.

Chapter 3 builds on the previous chapter by comparing treatment of three themes described in Chapter 2 — the Daoist immortal, “adventures on the sea,” and “educating barbarians” — as they manifest in three different literary genres of poetry, drama, and the vernacular novel. Ling first compares the appearance of the Daoist immortal, Qingxia, within Ding’s earliest poetry collection, Wentian ting fangyan 問天亭放言 (“Words Uttered from the Heaven Inquiring Pavilion” ), to his previously described appearance in prose accounts, and also to his fictional appearance in the vernacular novel, Xu Jin Ping Mei 續金瓶梅 (“A Sequel to Jin Ping Mei”). Whereas the pre-cataclysm appearances of Qingxia seem intended as a validation of the author’s writings in the absence of official recognition, the post-cataclysm appearances of Qingxia within poetry, by contrast, come to function as a nostalgic symbol of the lost past, including Ding’s reclusive, spiritual lifestyle in the mountains.

Lastly, Ding inscribes himself and his spirit companion into the fictional narrative of Xu Jin Ping Mei in the form of Teacher Liu 劉學官, whose honesty and diligence are rewarded by the novel’s retribution matrix. Strikingly, the above three seemingly unrelated aspects of Ding’s life are further connected across literary genres in that, for example, Teacher Liu not only serves as an alter ego for Ding in his role as honest scholar whose virtue is recognized by a Daoist immortal, but also in his role as teacher to the foreign Jürchens, who clearly stand in for the Manchurians in the early-Qing context. The differing treatment of the above themes in accordance with the differing conventions of the genres of poetry, vernacular novel, and chuanqi 傳奇 (“tales of the marvelous”) drama not only provide an interesting case study of genre, it further reflects Ding’s own, multifaceted authorial identity.

Chapter 4 analyzes Ding’s ten-act “deliverance play” zaju 雜劇, Huaren you 化人遊 (“Ramblings of the Transformed One”), in terms of the Huayan Buddhist conception of “totality,” which Ling argues is a key to understanding the drama’s unusual treatment of time and space. The visually striking play, though sometimes considered a “closet drama,” nonetheless was performed in Beijing during Ding’s lifetime, and includes detailed stage directions and costuming requirements for the diverse cast of characters hailing from different time periods. The protagonist, Hesheng 何生 ( “Mister What,” or perhaps a pun for “Whence Life”) experiences a strange physical and spiritual journey that finds him achieving enlightenment half way through the play, only to appear unenlightened later on, conversing with ancient and fictional characters like Qu Yuan 屈原 and the “slave” of Kunlun 崑崙奴, traveling in the belly of a whale (jingyu 鯨魚— played by the jing 淨 role type), conversing with old men who live inside an orange, and more. Ling argues that such toying with time and space exemplifies the Buddhist deconstruction of linear time and space, such that the audience can only focus on the eternal present (dangxia 當下).

Chapter 5 proposes a reevaluation of Ding’s Xu Jin Ping Mei, his sequel to the celebrated (and reviled) sixteenth-century erotic novel which was itself reviled in many corners — not for its eroticism, but on the one hand for its perceived pedantic tone and inferior literary quality, and on the other for its unflattering portrayal of Jürchen invaders, which Qing officials interpreted as an insult to the Manchurians. One recension of the text published during the Kangxi reign and another published in the early twentieth century both reaffirm critics’ appraisals in their removal of didactic, extraneous commentary and anti-Jürchen content, and also speak to the fact that, critical appraisals and book banning aside, the novel nonetheless attracted great interest.

Ling argues that far from representing an authorial failure, however, the didactic digressions which fill the original text were actually central to the intent, which was to instruct the audience on the workings of fate, in a manner reminiscent of Yuan Huang’s 袁黃 (1533-1606) gongguo ge 功過格 (“ledgers of merit and demerit”), a cultural phenomenon described in detail by Cynthia Brokaw. Yuan Huang became famous for keeping a written list of every minor good deed or infraction he committed, claiming it led to good fortune and material wealth in this life — a break from the traditional Mencian stance, which argued that while personal virtue was under one’s one control, the impersonal workings of Heaven ultimately decided one’s material fate in this life. For Ling, Ding’s stance, first described in his early anecdotal collection from the official history entitled Tianshi 天史 (“Heavenly History”) and further elaborated by the didactic diversions in Xu Jin Ping Mei (which Ding claims are the main point — “the guest (commentary) becomes the host” in his text), mediates between the classical and popular views of retribution by depicting two “levels” of morality: that of the commoners, which necessitates a great bureaucracy of other-worldly record keepers who mete out material punishment or reward in this life, and that of the enlightened, who see past dualities of good and evil, fortune and misfortune.

A final important point Xiaoqiao Ling makes in her discussion of Xu Jin Ping Mei — and elaborates in the concluding chapter — is to call attention to the self-conscious, reflexive nature of much of seventeenth century fiction, and of sequels in particular. As the sequels to both Xiyou ji 西遊記 (“Journey to the West”) and Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (“Outlaws of the Marsh”) involve “dream” worlds that cause characters and readers to reflect on the nature of reality, so too does Ding Yaokang take great pains to create distance between his reader and his content. This is not only to prevent the reader from being carried away into eroticism, but also because such distance prompts self-reflection on the part of the reader — a function often ascribed to the original Jin Ping Mei by its defenders, though less convincingly so.

In the concluding chapter, Ling elaborates on the function of “distance” in Xu Jin Ping Mei through a comparison of the novel to the roughly contemporaneous Xingshi yinyuan zhuan 醒世姻緣傳 (“Marriage as Retribution, Awakening the World”), a novel on retribution some scholars have attributed to Ding himself, though Ling refrains from taking a position on this controversy. Rather than focusing on authorship, Ling analyzes it against Xu Jin Ping Mei in terms of the problem of ethical discourse in a fallen, “post-sacred” world, as the late-Ming and early-Qing were widely perceived to be. Ling argues that the use of hyperbolic, grotesque imagery in both novels serves to “break through” the sordid reality of dystopian life, and even to incite laughter — unexpectedly, given the didactic reputation of the works. This laughter is not, however, the laughter a reader might experience upon reading the carnivalesque inversions of a Li Yu story, but rather a derisive laughter designed to unite a community of the high-minded in mocking the degenerate. Ling ascribes a portion of this difference to regional difference amongst their authors’ backgrounds, thereby introducing an additional factor to ponder in regard to the late-Ming-early-Qing anxiety surrounding material excess and moral decline.

In her dissertation, Xiaoqiao Ling not only provides a comprehensive overview of Ding’s compendious and varied corpus, she further relates the concerns expressed therein to the major aesthetic and philosophical debates of the seventeenth century. Among these, the central concern is that of the lapsarian consciousness of late-Ming and early-Qing intellectuals, who frequently used literature as a space for grappling with a sense of moral and cultural decline engendered by the rise of the commercial economy and the collapse of the Han polity. In contrast to the wholehearted embrace of commercialism and the carnivalesque we find in the works of such southern writers as Li Yu, the work of Ding Yaokang complicates the bifurcation between “playful” and “didactic” works in the late imperial period. Writing to express and instruct readers in his idiosyncratic, syncretic morality, Ding used the tools of the grotesque, fantastic, and humorous as a means to achieve these ends. In exploring these apparent contradictions from a variety of angles and across a great many genres, Ling’s dissertation helps us achieve a more nuanced view of the cultural and literary landscape of seventeenth-century China.

K. C. Schoenberger
An Wang Postdoctoral Fellow
Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Ding Yaokang 丁耀亢. Ding Yaokang quan ji 丁耀亢全集  [The Complete Works of Ding Yaokang], Li Zengpo 李增坡, ed. Zhang Qingji 張清吉, comp. Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou gu ji chu ban she, 1999.
Lu He 陸合 and Xing Yue 星月 ed. and punct. Jin Ping Mei xushu sanzhong 金瓶梅續書三種 [Three Sequels to Jin Ping Mei]. Jinan: Qilu shushe, 1988.
Xi Zhou Sheng 西周生. Xingshi yinyuan zhuan 醒世姻緣傳 [Marriage as Retribution, Awakening the World]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2002.
Yuan Huang 袁黃. Yuan Liaofan xiansheng sixun 袁了凡先生四訓 [Four Lessons from Master Yuan Liaofan]. Ed. and annotated, Yinguang dashi 印光大師. Shanghai: Guoguang yinshu ju, 1933.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2010. 291 pp. Primary Advisor: Wilt Idema,

Image: Ding Yaokang’s Xu Jin Ping Mei 續金瓶梅 (“A Sequel to Jin Ping Mei”). Auction.Artron.Net.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like