Constructing a Playful Space: Eight-Legged Essays on Xixiang ji and Pipa ji

In: T'oung Pao

This article examines the “playful eight-legged essay” as a form of literary parody and discusses its circulation in printed editions of The Story of the Western Wing and The Story of the Lute in late imperial China. The rise of the playful eight-legged essay was part of a philosophical and literary tradition of “game-playing,” and occurred in the context of publications that appropriated canonical genres for fashionable entertainment. Reading the playful compositions against the generic conventions of the standard examination essay, on the one hand, and the original drama commentary, on the other, the author explores the playful eight-legged essay as an increasingly autonomous mode of critical commentary that was independent from, yet still associated with, the dramatic text. Employing dramatic impersonation, the essays opened up a playful space for the staging of passion and extended the appeal of the original play by involving the reader in its imaginative performance.


Cet article étudie les adaptations plaisantes des “dissertations en huit jambes” comme forme de parodie littéraire et en examine la diffusion à travers les éditions imprimées du Pavillon de l’ouest et de l’Histoire du luth à la fin de l’empire. L’émergence de telles adaptations, inscrites dans une tradition ludique à la fois philosophique et littéraire, est contemporaine de la parution d’ouvrages qui détournaient les genres canoniques à des fins de récréation élégante. La lecture de ces dissertations amusantes que propose l’auteur se réfère à la fois aux conventions présidant à la composition des dissertations d’examen et aux commentaires d’œuvres théâtrales proprement dits. Il en ressort que le genre de la dissertation parodique a acquis une autonomie croissante en tant que commentaire critique indépendant des œuvres dramatiques tout en y restant associé. En s’appropriant la voix des personnages des pièces, de tels textes ouvrent un espace de fantaisie propice à la mise en scène des passions et renforcent l’attrait des œuvres originales en impliquant le lecteur dans leur réalisation imaginée.


  • 4

     Ching-i Tu, “The Chinese Examination Essay: Chinese Literary Considerations,” Monumenta Serica 31 (1974-75), 405, and n. 38.

  • 16

     Pi-Ching Hsu, “Introduction,” in Feng Menglong’s Treasury of Laughs: A Seventeenth-Century Anthology of Traditional Chinese Humor (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 2-3.

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  • 18

     Pi-Ching Hsu, Beyond Eroticism: A Historian’s Reading of Humor in Feng Menglong’s Child’s Folly (Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 2006), 11-15.

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  • 22

     Mei, The Novel and Theatrical Imagination, 17.

  • 23

     Yuming He, Home and the World, 43, 73.

  • 28

     You Tong, Xitang quanji, 189; Huang Zhouxing, Jiuyan xiansheng yiji, 6.459, 466. You also expressed his anger and frustration at the civil service examinations in his play Juntian yue 鈞天樂. See Guo Yingde 郭英德, “Ruoda qiankun wuchu zhu: tan You Tong de Juntian yue chuanqi” 偌大乾坤無處住 —— 談尤侗的鈞天樂傳奇, Mingzuo xinshang 1 (1988): 60-62.

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  • 29

     You Tong, Xitang quanji, 189. Besides his playful essay on Xixiang ji, You’s collection includes such other playful works as a “Xi ce zhu furen zhi” 戲冊竹夫人制 that parodizes an imperial edict conferring the title of imperial consort on Lady Bamboo, a long, hollow cylinder made of bamboo strips that one would embrace in bed to get cool in summer. See Xitang quanji, 210-11, 267-68. You’s collection was banned in the Qianlong era and excluded from the Siku quanshu for “breaking taboos” (wei’ai 違礙), a judgment that targeted all his writings, including the anecdotes about the Shunzhi emperor, his playful essays, and his plays satirizing social reality. See Xu Kun 徐坤, “You Tong yanjiu” 尤侗研究 (Ph.D. diss., Huadong shifan daxue, 2006), 108.

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  • 30

     Huang Zhouxing, Jiuyan xiansheng yiji, 6.459-65, 466. Huang’s collection also includes five non-playful eight-legged essays on the topic “am I a bitter gourd?” (吾豈匏瓜也哉), a quotation from Analects 17.7. They were described as a writing exercise for his career as a tutor, but the topic and Huang’s preface and postscript nevertheless suggest that he may have used the essays to reflect on his own choice of political nonparticipation. While Wai-yee Li’s statement that “examination essays … were irrelevant for loyalists, whose very self-definition was based on not taking office under the Qing” is largely true, the playful eight-legged essays of Huang Zhouxing signal a way of turning the official essay to personal use. Li, “Early Qing to 1723,” in The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 2:164.

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  • 45

     Andrew Plaks, “Pa-ku wen,” in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. William H. Nienhauser (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), 641-42.

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  • 46

     Andrew Plaks, “Pa-ku wen,” in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. William H. Nienhauser (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), 641-42. For more discussion of the history and formal variations of the eight-legged essay, see Durand, “L’homme bon et la montagne,” 230-42; Benjamin A. Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2000), 133-34, 380-409; idem, “Changes in Confucian Civil Service Examinations from the Ming to the Ch’ing Dynasty,” in Education and Society in Late Imperial China, 1600-1900, ed. Elman and Alexander Woodside (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), 114-15.

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  • 49

     Elman, Cultural History, 397.

  • 52

     Liang Zhangju, Zhiyi conghua, 17.

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     Durand, “L’homme bon et la montagne,” 230, 241.

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     Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody (Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985), 31-34.

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     See Gong Duqing, Yaqu cangshu, 235-36.

  • 62

     You Tong, “Preface to Huang Zhouxing’s six eight-legged essays on ‘Autumn Ripples’” 黃九煙秋波六藝序, quoted in Wang Ying, “Xixiang zhiyi kaolun,” 179.

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  • 67

     Martin W. Huang, Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Asia Center, 2001), 26-27, 45-47.

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  • 84

     Stephen H. West, “Jin Shengtan, Mao Qiling, Commentary, and Sex,” CHINOPERL Papers 26 (2005-2006), 114-15.

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     West and Idema, The Story of the Western Wing, 169.

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     West and Idema, The Story of the Western Wing, 222.

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     West and Idema, The Story of the Western Wing, 285.

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