Reading Bodies: Aesthetics, Gender, and Family in the Eighteenth-Century Chinese Novel Guwangyan (Preposterous Words)
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This dissertation focuses on the Mid-Qing novel Guwangyan (Preposterous Words, preface dated, 1730s) which is a newly discovered novel with lots of graphic sexual descriptions. Guwangyan was composed between the publication of Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase, 1617) and Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, 1791). These two masterpieces represent sexuality and desire by presenting domestic life in polygamous households set within a larger social landscape. This dissertation explores the factors that shifted the literary discourse from the pornographic description of sexuality in Jin Ping Mei, to the representation of chaste love in Honglou meng. This dissertation can be divided into three parts. Part one: Chapter I and II introduce my main approach to interpret the text and the historical and aesthetic context of this novel. Chapter I introduces a large historical background of the late Ming and early Qing China from the aspects of the printing industry, gender politics and the literary criticism. I argue that the blurry boundaries between genres assigned by the May Fourth scholars do not fully satisfy the reading of Guwangyan. My reading, however, scrutinizes the textual body of Guwangyan to explore the material body and body politics demonstrated in the fictional world. Chapter II explains the meaning of the title of the text, the author, commentator, the commentary, and the current studies of Guwangyan. The second part, Chapter III and IV, illustrate a close-reading of the aesthetic body of the text. Chapter III proposes that Guwangyan is a well organized novel which has a carefully designed narrative structure and internal connections among chapters. Chapter IV demonstrates the importance of characterization in the novel. I argue that through a non-polarized yin-yang dichotomy and the yin-zhen contrast, the text demonstrates the uncertainty, transformation, and development of the characters and explores their complicated inner world. The third part, Chapter V and VI, explore two important subjects of Guwangyan, masculinity and the family. Guwangyan represents the male friendship and male same-sex relationship and how they can interact with men’s role in the public and private spheres. Chapter VI broadens the discussion of the family relationship in Guwangyan to include a much larger political landscape. I argue that the latter part of the novel establishes a significant contrast between a realistic representation of political disasters and an idealistic description of family and community unity.