AAS-in-Asia 2016 Paper Abstract

Paper Title: Tactical deployment of vernacular literature in wartime Jiangnan (1853-1864)

In this paper, I address the way “maverick philanthropist” Yu Zhi (1809-1874) adopted a stance on vernacular literature that allowed him to call for bans on popular works like Shuihu zhuan and Xixiang ji even as he also composed vernacular works intended for widespread consumption. I argue that during and after the Taiping War (1851-1864), this Jiangnan schoolteacher sought to tactically deploy vernacular literary productions, including plays, tanci, and baojuan, in opposition to vernacular works that he condemned for inculcating the immoral values that had drawn down heavenly judgment in the form of Taiping forces.

Confucian evangelicals like Yu Zhi, recognizing the failure of their pedagogical methods, instead attempted to reach uneducated at their own level via the specific genres of media they were supposed to prefer. Yu proclaimed that his new plays (and by extension, the entire spread of his vernacular works) were like medications for diseases common throughout the population, remedies that maximized philanthropic efforts to heal the moral illnesses of the poor. Popular literature, particularly vernacular performance texts written for the benefit of illiterate masses were the correct medicine for the wholesale reform of society from the bottom up. Composing and distributing them was as much a philanthropic good as donating medication in plague time. In other words, during the mid 19th century, vernacular literature was the only thing standing between the average Chinese and death by heaven’s painful retribution, embodied here by battalions of long-haired Taipings.