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Session 191: The Meanings of Nonsense: Imaginations of Linguistic and Social Disorder in Chinese Literary and Visual Culture
Organizer: Paize Keulemans, Columbia University
Chair and Discussant: Hajime Nakatani, McGill University
Keywords: Chinese pre-modern literature, art-history, history.
This panel traces the power of the notion of wen (writing, graph, culture) in Chinese late-imperial history, art history, and literary culture by exploring one of its alternatives, "nonsense." In imperial Confucian orthodoxy, wen linked the political and social realms to aesthetic and linguistic processes by emphasizing how the world of nature and man functioned as a meaningful text of signs to be read, interpreted, and ordered. If so, what cultural politics informed the creation of "nonsense" by authors as diverse as courtesans and emperors, scholars and thieves? What forms of authority and anti-authority did these authors derive from the production or interpretation of nonsense? If a single, binding relationship between name and reality was thought to be crucial for social and cosmological stability, how could the obfuscation of this relationship turn into a playful and pleasurable game of riddles, rhymes and puns in genres and media as diverse as novels, paintings, and gravesites?
To address such questions, this panel brings together nonsensical visual, linguistic, and acoustic texts ranging from the middle to the late empire. Linda Feng investigates the use of nonsense ditties in one of the earliest courtesan texts, the Tang dynasty Beilizhi. Bruce Rusk focuses on the interpretation of nonsensical scripts in late Ming forgeries and contemporary visual art. Nixi Cura explores a set of seemingly meaningless syllables in the tomb of the Qianlong emperor of the Qing. Paize Keulemans examines how late-Qing martial-arts novels employ a secret language supposedly only meaningful to thieves and beggars.
Getting It Wrong: Ditties of the Alleyway and the Divergence of Scholar-Courtesan Life in Sun Qi’s Beilizhi
Linda Rui Feng, Columbia University
If nonsense offers some glimpse into another world order (or lack thereof), then, analogously, how someone in one social order tries to make sense of another order will entail making sense of the nonsensical. This is the situation facing the young literati author as he attempts to record the lives of the courtesans. On one hand, the female demimonde adopted outward structures designed to mirror the social order of the literati, thereby intriguing male authors because of their shared cultural values; on the other hand, gender relations and differences in social mobility created tensions despite attempted mirroring, and the interests of literati and courtesans inevitably diverged.
Male writings about Tang courtesans such as Sun Qi’s Beilizhi (Anecdotes of the Northern Wards), arguably the first courtesan narrative, reveal that writers like Sun did not always assume the courtesans’ social order was the same as their own, and that, for the uninitiated, the lives of the Other could well appear befuddling. I will argue that this coming to terms with the "us" versus "them" social structure is best conveyed by one plot device—that of children’s song-ditties in the alleyways of Chang’an. While male clients fail to make sense of the ditties, courtesans blessed with urban cunning employ the coded nature of the "nonsense" to render certain information inaccessible. As a result, many of the aforementioned tensions—between men and women, between social classes, and between meaning and non-meaning—are made visible.
The Illegible Truth: Reading Ancient Scripts in the Late Ming
Bruce Rusk, Stanford University
The reading of difficult old scripts was part of Chinese scholarly practice since early imperial times. Artifacts with ancient writing—or what appeared to be so—were discovered from time to time and almost inevitably someone would soon claim to decipher them. This paper examines such practices in the late Ming, when ancient writing was of particular interest. Examples of it were cherished, copied, transcribed and incorporated into dictionaries.
I will use a variety of sources to examine the assumptions behind and fruits of attempts at interpretation. How did a viewer decide that an item was "legible?" Could something be "writing" but not readable? Once it was read, what to do with it? Could it be left uninterpreted, having an unattainable meaning? I argue that writing was one end of a continuum of visual forms which included abstract signs and charts, diagrams and painting. Scholars confronted the polysemic amorphia of unreadable script—scribbles and blobs that looked like words. Meanwhile, popular art began, in the late sixteenth century, to incorporate the opposite, the polymorphous monosemy of the hundred-character print, which featured one character repeated a hundred times in fanciful, "antique" styles. This ubiquity points to an ambiguity and a debate: was ancient writing to be read (like "normal" text) for the meaning of the words or appreciated (like calligraphy) for the way it was written?
Lost in Translation: Tibetan Inscriptions in the Tomb of the Qianlong Emperor
Nixi Cura, Union College
Its stone walls carved with Buddhist texts and images, the tomb of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95) displays a distinct aesthetic orientation in Qing imperial burial practice that diverges from traditional indigenous forms. In life, the emperor—a Manchu governing a Chinese empire—eschewed overt Manchu and Chinese signs and instead chose Tibetan writing, Tibetan transliterations of Sanskrit, and Lantsa script to decorate his underground palace. In the 75 years since the opening of the tomb, scholars have identified the pictorial iconography, but the thousands of incised characters have resisted translation. Questioning the assumption of equivalence to a yet unrealized text known only to select initiates in the eighteenth century, I argue that what makes no literal sense now made no literary sense then. Although the Qing monarchs commissioned multiple translation projects towards governing a comprehensive empire, could the disorder and opacity of the Tibetan inscriptions form an integral part of an alternate sacred order of the afterlife? In reconstructing the presence and authority of nonsense in Qing conceptions of utopia, I examine illegible components of extant Chinese imperial mausolea, the role of Tibetan Buddhism at court, and Manchu shamanistic rituals. Unreadable as text, the Tibetan syllables appear as auditory and visual patterns, combining with the images to form a seamless palimpsest of a necessarily incomprehensible otherworld.
Secret Codes and Nefarious Plots: The Use of Thieves Cant (Jianghu Heihua) in Nineteenth-Century Martial Arts Fiction
Paize Keulemans, Columbia University
One of the most striking features of nineteenth-century vernacular literature is a growing interest in different forms of regional and social dialect. In this paper, I add to our understanding of this phenomenon by focusing on one particularly interesting form of dialect, thieves cant (jianghu heihua). I argue that various popular martial-arts novels produced during this period employ jianghu heihua to explore the limits of the central authoritive power of official language (guanhua). Jianghu heihua does so by creating a dystopian mirror image of the officially spoken language: just as guanhua allows officials throughout the empire to communicate and conduct official business, so does the seemingly nonsensical code of jianghu heihua allow beggars, martial-artists, and secret-society members to engage in nefarious plots against central authority. In short, in novels such as The Tale of Romance and Heroism (Ernü yingxiong zhuan, 1878), The Latter Five Gallants (Xiao wu yi, 1890), and The Cases of Judge Peng (Peng gong’an, 1893) the use of jianghu heihua gives literary and linguistic expression to broader social anxieties regarding the loss of central power by the Qing authorities.