Fantastic Tales in Late Imperial China & Tokugawa Japan


A review of “The Peony Lantern” and Fantastic Tales in Late Imperial China and Tokugawa Japan: Local History, Religion, and Gender, by Fumiko Jōo.

On a festival night one year in mid-fourteenth century Ningbo, a young student glimpses a beautiful woman walking along the street in the company of a girl bearing a peony-adorned lantern. He invites the woman to his home and a passionate relationship ensues, but not long thereafter, the woman is revealed to be a ghost. Though the student enlists the protective intervention of spiritual authorities, he remains inexorably drawn to the ghostly woman and eventually perishes in the temple where her tomb lies. From its appearance in Qu You’s Jiandeng xinhua (New Tales for the Trimmed Lampwick) collection, this story of “The Peony Lantern” (Mudandeng ji) spawned numerous retellings and adaptations not only in China but in early modern Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The tale is at the center of Fumiko Jōo’s dissertation, which builds upon a large body of Chinese and Japanese scholarship that has investigated the text’s sources, traced its subsequent evolution, and clarified the lineage of its various adaptations. Yet rather than take up such questions of chronological development and textual origins, Jōo seeks to shift the focus to the specific historical and cultural contexts in which the readers and writers of these texts operated in both late imperial China and Tokugawa Japan. She argues that a reductively linear understanding of textual “influence” or “origin” can blind us to the active engagement of writers with a multiplicity of sources and that it can also prevent a full appreciation of their creative enterprise. Central to her analysis are the roles that local lore, religious beliefs, and gender have played in textual production. Challenging conventional assumptions about the primacy or presumed hierarchical supremacy of the source text, Jōo aims to show how “‘The Peony Lantern’ provokes readers’ perceptions about seductive revenants and drives them to rework those perceptions into their own versions of the tale” (p. 17).

After an Introduction that concisely outlines these objectives and situates her project in relation to existing scholarship, the first chapter of Jōo’s dissertation takes up Qu You’s “The Peony Lantern,” which she characterizes as the “flagship story” of New Tales (p. 24). Having located Qu You within the milieu of Jiangnan area literati and his collection (the first edition of which was completed in 1378) within the broader context of Ming literary history, Jōo directs our attention to the lamp that figures prominently in the titles of both the story and the collection itself. Seeking to explore the role that lamps and other illuminating devices play in the works of Qu You specifically and in the Ming literary imagination more broadly, she discusses a popular Song-Yuan cycle of “Mandarin-Duck Lantern stories,” noting several thematic links including the ornamental lantern, the desiring woman, and a sexual bond that leads to death. Her investigation of the figure of the lamp exposes a further connection between Qu You’s depiction of the return of the deceased in “The Peony Lantern” and his interest in dramatic performance and other forms of popular entertainment. Jōo identifies several features of narrative staging in “The Peony Lantern” that parallel theatrical conventions and argues that the lamp has a special role to play in this and other Qu You works as a device that reveals uncanny women, rendering the dead visible by theatricalization. To highlight this aspect of the lamp, Jōo concludes the chapter with a discussion of late Ming vernacular adaptations of “The Peony Lantern” in which the lamp is absent: “The Story of Kong Shufang’s Double-Fish Pendant” and its variants. She emphasizes the ways in which this story cycle, popular in the local taozhen storytelling repertoire, draws upon Hangzhou lore and also features a stronger affirmation of Confucian orthodoxy in its treatment of the revenant woman.

This attention to the specificity of local context and to the position of women in traditional society continues in Jōo’s second chapter, which focuses on the history of the Huxin temple in Ningbo: the site of the ghostly revenant Fu Liqing’s coffin in Qu You’s “The Peony Lantern.” Drawing upon local gazetteers, Jōo narrates the history of the Yuan sisters, unmarried Buddhist devotees who donated their dowry lands to this temple during the Southern Song. Praised for their pious charity, these lay women became objects of veneration after their deaths, but a greater emphasis on patrilineality in subsequent eras brought about a change in how they were regarded. Jōo’s analysis of documents pertaining to a 1600 lawsuit concerning the temple concludes that religious devotion by women in traditional China was praised only insofar as it did not conflict with their presumed domestic responsibilities. The Huxin temple was a site known for its connection to the historical Yuan sisters on the one hand and the fictional Fu Liqing from Qu You’s “The Peony Lantern” on the other. Yet as Jōo points out, these women were similar in that they remained unmarried and did not occupy the traditional social roles of wife and mother. Her chapter concludes with an examination of how such links between the temple and these historical and fictional women became further codified through poetic practices. Compositions in the zhuzhici (bamboo branch song) mode might allude to “The Peony Lantern” and its fictional heroine alongside the historical Yuan sisters: both as “historical ghosts who perpetually reside in the Huxin temple” (p. 95).

The second half of Jōo’s dissertation turns to Japanese intellectuals’ encounters with Qu You’s New Tales from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. In her third chapter, she discusses how Qu You’s collection was first read by Buddhist scholar monks associated with the Gozan Zen temples (one of whom actually purchased a copy while traveling to Ningbo), an aspect of the text’s reception history in Japan that has been comparatively under-examined. One factor that came to stimulate the monks’ interest in the text is that it became connected in their minds with an important collection of Zen kōans, the Wumenguan, a text that had been imported to Japan in the mid-thirteenth century. In order to shed light on how this link was forged, Jōo turns our attention to contemporary reading and annotation practices, arguing that the commentary apparatus was an inseparable part of how readers encountered a given text and indeed that annotated texts were sometimes privileged above the presumed original. Both the kōan collection and Qu You’s work from over a century later make reference to a Tang dynasty tale called Lihunji or “The Story of the Separated Soul.” Qu You’s allusion is explained with quotation from the Tang source in a Korean annotated edition of Qu You’s collection, titled Jiandeng xinhua jujie (K. Chŏndŭng sinhwa kuhae), that was imported to Japan by the beginning of the seventeenth century and reprinted widely thereafter. Jōo’s analysis points out that Hayashi Razan, a Japanese scholar who read and commented upon this Korean annotated edition of New Tales in 1602, was one of the first to draw a connection between Qu You’s allusion to the Tang story and the Zen kōan, which also alluded to this Tang precedent. She argues that the establishment of a connection between Qu You’s fantastic collection and the Zen kōan gave the former legitimacy, preparing the way for Japanese seventeenth-century Buddhist commentaries on the kōan collection to refer to Qu You’s New Tales in their exegetical treatises and also to regard “New Tales as a textual authority that legitimated certain popular teachings” (p. 123). As a fictional text concerned with the supernatural, New Tales might seem an unlikely candidate for citation by Buddhist scholar monks, but Jōo argues that “It was precisely because New Tales was commonly discussed as the source text for the well-known kōan that the former text itself received some level of acclaim among Buddhist monks” (p. 131). By “source text,” Jōo has in mind not a chronologically antecedent origin (for as she notes, the kōan predated Qu You’s New Tales), but rather an authoritative work that was deemed worthy of reference. Her discussion of these connections aims to show the importance that annotated editions such as the Korean edition of New Tales played in contemporary reading practice, contributing to her larger argument that readers attached just as much importance to annotations as they did to the main text.

In Jōo’s fourth and final chapter, she turns to the work of Arakida Reijo (1732-1806), a woman who wrote several adaptations of Japanese and Chinese tales of the strange, imitating the language and sociocultural frames of Heian court fiction. Arakida was of course only one of several Tokugawa authors (including Asai Ryōi and, most famously, Ueda Akinari) to adapt “The Peony Lantern” and other stories from Qu You’s New Tales, but her work has so far received very little attention in English, with the notable exception of Atsuko Sakaki’s scholarship. Jōo’s analysis focuses on two stories of Arakida’s that feature supernatural women who have relations with human men. She notes that there is a greater sense of reciprocity and mutuality in Arakida’s depictions of these relationships and emphasizes the fact that in Arakida’s stories, the woman is not punished for her behavior nor is the supernatural ultimately banished from the human realm. Jōo attributes these narrative features to Arakida’s background as the daughter of a prominent Shinto priest and her “critical view about the mid-Tokugawa association of women’s carnal attachment with uncanny metamorphosis” (p. 142). She therefore sees in these works Arakida’s resistance to contemporary discourses that negated femininity or depicted women as sinful beings, concluding her chapter by discussing Arakida’s dispute with nativist scholar Motoori Norinaga, central to which was this question of normative gender roles.

Jōo’s work is a welcome contribution to the growing body of Anglophone scholarship on Sino-Japanese literary interaction. By directing our attention to local history, religious discourses and the role of gender, her readings shed light on several neglected aspects of a tremendously important transnational text in motion. Alongside her consideration of discrete Peony Lantern variants and adaptations, her attention to the role of annotated editions and commentary has much to tell us about reading and writing practices in the early modern East Asia region.

Matthew Fraleigh
Assistant Professor of East Asian Literature and Culture
Department of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature
Brandeis University

Primary Sources

Jiandeng xinhua 剪燈新話 and other works by Qu You 瞿佑
Local gazetteers including Si ming zhi 四明志, Ningbo jun zhi 寧波郡志, Ningbo fu zhi 寧波府志
Xi yuanshi jiasheng 西袁氏家乘
Qu You, with annotations by Im Ki and Yun Ch’un-yŏn, Jiandeng xinhua jujie 剪燈新話句解
Ayashi no yogatari 怪世談 and other works by Arakida Reijo 荒木田麗女

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2011. vii, 212 pp. Primary Advisor: Judith Zeitlin.


Image: Yoshitoshi, “The Peony Lantern” (Botan dōrō).

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