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21st February, 2018

One Writer, Many Guises

Dr Ewan MacDonald, Peterhouse, Cambridge

In his lecture on Chinese vernacular fiction in the Ming dynasty, Dr Ewan MacDonald introduced listeners to this uniquely eclectic form of Chinese narrative literature through the lens of the late-Ming collection of stories known as "Slapping the Table in Amazement" (拍案惊奇). Composed of two collections published in 1628 and 1632, "Slapping the Table" used lively vernacular language and a focus on the extraordinary in the everyday to both entertain and edify its readers. These characteristics reflected the belief of the collection's author, Ling Mengchu (凌濛初), that entertainment and didacticism were key functions of vernacular fiction. As Ling said of his stories, "This collection is primarily about persuasion and warning. Therefore, [I have] made repeated efforts at this within every story." How, then, did Ling go about "persuading and warning" his readers, while at the same time entertaining them?

According to Dr MacDonald, the writer used a number of key literary devices in his guise as an entertainer. Story I-31 of "Slapping the Table" is based on source materials that outline the story of a female monk from Shandong known as Tang Sai'er, who amassed a large following and took a string of cities before her revolt was crushed. In his version of the story, however, Ling introduces a neater narrative parallelism, while also adding humorous episodes and elements of eroticism into what was originally a predominantly military and political plot. In his role as an educator, meanwhile, the author takes on the roles of both storyteller and commentator, with the two playing separate but complementary roles. While the storyteller represents genuine popular opinion, and narrates the story in the foreground, the separate, more educated "marginal commentator" persona stands in the background, reacting to events in the story and backing up the story's main argument.

Thus, as Dr MacDonald concluded, with its incorporation of poetry, song, prose, and disquisition, as well as its use of multiple voices, “Slapping the Table” is an excellent example of the formally heterogeneous Chinese vernacular short stories of the late Ming dynasty. The collection’s ability to marshal so many disparate characteristics and voices in service of a common aim, as well as its conscious and sophisticated manipulation of generic features, also make it one of the most innovative. 

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman