This semester, my first on the other side of the table when it comes to graduate students, I’ve found myself returning to comfortable old favorites in the Early Modern [Chinese] Fiction course I’ve been assigned to teach. Lacking any restrictions other than the loose ones posed by the title of the course, I’ve elected to take a broad understanding of both “early modern” and “fiction.”

For our first session, we read a song-suite from the Jin (1115-1234), 莊稼不識勾欄, often translated as “A Country Bumpkin Doesn’t Recognize the Theater.” Fittingly, this was the first text Yuming He assigned me to read way back in September 2007 in my first ever graduate course: a seminar on Xixiang ji.

Over the course of this semester, we’ll work our way through a Yuan zaju in both its Yuankan and Ming edited editions, a 15th century Ming huaben recovered from a tomb, a couple weeks of Shuihu zhuan, some Jin Ping Mei, a brief week on a baojuan (thanks to it cropping up in the JPM, I couldn’t resist), a couple weeks of Ming short stories (here’s where I’m least excited, those stories having never captivated my imagination as much as the novels have, and this is where I’m most willing to foster a rebellion among my students in favor of spending some extra time on novels), and ending with some Honglou meng and hopefully even a tanci.

A highlights reel of my favorites from the last 700 years of pre-twentieth-century non-Classical literature.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s get back to class this past Thursday.

I’d assigned J. I. Crump’s “The Conventions and Craft of Yuan Drama,” along with a particularly tough primary source reading from the Yuankan edition of “The Orphan of Zhao.” Even though there are a few more lucid and explicitly informative options that I could have gone with, I wanted ground our discussion (and, in a sense, our semester), in Crump’s work.

Why?

It could be personal, that J. I. Crump is one of my academic great-grandparents. Yuming He, who assigned”Zhuangjia bushi goulan” to me back in 2007 and was my PhD advisor/chair at Chicago until 2012, studied under Stephen West, who I’ve been led to understand worked with Crump back at U of M in the 1970s.

But that’s not really it.

I like Crump’s work. I really do, and that’s in spite of its flaws, mostly minor, but some rather concerning.

For example, while preparing for class, I came across a review of Crump’s book-length work on Yuan zaju, Chinese Theater in the Days of Kublai Khan, in which the reviewer writes, “The liveliness and frequent beauty of Crump’s translations are nothing short of inspirational. …It must be said, however, that the frequency of avoidable mistakes lowers the value of the translations as evidence both of dramatic style and of theatrical usage. This remark does not refer to those moot points that abound in Yuan plays, but rather to mistranslations that result from lack of care. To list them would be tedious.”

I read the above aloud in class after we had a rousing discussion about the practicalities of Yuan drama itself, as conveyed by the article, and also about some frustrations with the piece.  Crump’s inconsistent use of terms like “composer” and “dramatist,” his seeming disregard for how one of his main pieces of evidence actually undermines what appears to be a main argument, and whether we felt his complaints about the Yang’s translation of one Yuan drama was justified or not (we think yes, mostly, but that a middle ground must exist between Crump and Yang schools of translation).

After reading that section of the review, one of my students whooped in laughter and said something along the lines of “oooh, sick burn!”

I laughed too.

After that, as I tried to sum up my reasoning behind assigning this 45 year old article instead of something of a more contemporary, closely edited and careful academic style, something occurred to me mid-sentence.

I cut myself off from some meditation on the importance of extracting useful arguments from otherwise confusing works.

Crump wrote as if he loved what he was reading. His joy is infectious. His tangents and asides pull me in as if I were sitting at a table with him chatting about our mysterious mutual friend, Yuan zaju.

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I just finished nine years of graduate school, ostensibly working with ideas and literature that I enjoyed.

That I do enjoy.

Yet that enjoyment doesn’t obviate the misery of graduate school at the University of Chicago either.

My favorite sentence in that article I assigned has always been this, ever since I read it ages ago, during that awful year of preparing for my comprehensive exams.

Crump writes, “My thesis has been from the beginning that the Yuan dramatist could move as freely as he wished within shackles of his own devising.”

In the fiercely conventional worlds of both Yuan zaju and academia, the shackles are often (though not always) of our own devising. Crump brings out (albeit so exuberantly that necessary caution may sometimes be cast to the winds) the laughter and fun that we may miss if we focus exclusively on rule-bound reputation that Yuan zaju has.

That the piece of paper with the word “doctorate” sitting on my office bookshelf has.

May I too remember that between all the rules, conventions, yes, even the shackles, of academia (including all the new ones that I take on with this role shift from student to professor), the interstices are filled with joy.

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