Tension and Trauma in Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor
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As a genre, the huaben話本 short story reassured readers of a Heaven who punished and rewarded human actions with perfect accuracy. Yet in the years before the Ming明 (1368-1644) collapse, the genre grew increasingly dark. Aina Jushi wrote Doupeng xianhua豆棚閒話, or Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor (c. 1668), only a few years after the Manchus solidified their rule. The only full-frame story in pre-modern Chinese literature, the text is also notable for the directness with which it confronts societal and cosmological questions arising from the fall of the Ming dynasty. It was also the last significant huaben before the genre faded into obsolescence. My dissertation asks three questions. Why was this the last major collection of the genre? How do the form and the content work together? And what does Aina contribute to the Qing cosmological questioning through a genre obsessed with an ordered cosmos? I argue that the text deserves further study because of the beautiful complexity of its narrative structure and voices and its direct confrontation of the fall of the Ming. I also argue that Aina questions if there really is a moral Heaven that rewards and punishes human action and if there is any greater significance to virtuous action. His doubts about the presence of a moral Heaven increase as the text progresses but he is unwilling to completely discard Confucian relational ethics. This is shown by his loosening of the requirements of the huaben structure. The narratives become more incoherent and the content generally grows darker. By the final narrative, Aina drops the huaben form and presents an apathetic cosmos directly to the primary diegetic audience. The resulting cognitive dissonance causes the bean arbor to collapse and the audience to disperse. Aina offers us no moral certitude or clear didacticism.