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The Phantom Heroine

The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature

Copyright Date: 2007
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    The Phantom Heroine
    Book Description:

    The "phantom heroine"—in particular the fantasy of her resurrection through sex with a living man—is one of the most striking features of traditional Chinese literature. Even today the hypersexual female ghost continues to be a source of fascination in East Asian media, much like the sexually predatory vampire in American and European movies, TV, and novels. But while vampires can be of either gender, erotic Chinese ghosts are almost exclusively female. The significance of this gender asymmetry in Chinese literary history is the subject of Judith Zeitlin’s elegantly written and meticulously researched new book. Zeitlin’s study centers on the seventeenth century, one of the most interesting and creative periods of Chinese literature and politically one of the most traumatic, witnessing the overthrow of the Ming, the Manchu conquest, and the subsequent founding of the Qing. Drawing on fiction, drama, poetry, medical cases, and visual culture, the author departs from more traditional literary studies, which tend to focus on a single genre or author. Ranging widely across disciplines, she integrates detailed analyses of great literary works with insights drawn from the history of medicine, art history, comparative literature, anthropology, religion, and performance studies. The Phantom Heroine probes the complex literary and cultural roots of the Chinese ghost tradition. Zeitlin is the first to address its most remarkable feature: the phenomenon of verse attributed to phantom writers—that is, authors actually reputed to be spirits of the deceased. She also makes the case for the importance of lyric poetry in developing a ghostly aesthetics and image code. Most strikingly, Zeitlin shows that the representation of female ghosts, far from being a marginal preoccupation, expresses cultural concerns of central importance.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6493-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Note on Citations and Abbreviations
    (pp. XI-XII)
  5. Selected Dynasties and Periods
    (pp. XIII-XIII)
    (pp. XIV-XIV)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This is a book about seventeenth-century Chinese literature, but the legacy of the stories, poems, and plays I explore in these pages still exerts a strong grip on the contemporary imagination. The 1987 hit Hong Kong film,A Chinese Ghost Story (Qiannü youhun), directed by Ching Siu Tung and produced by Tsui Hark, is a case in point. Loosely based on a seventeenth-century tale fromLiaozhai’s Records of the Strange (Liaozhai zhiyi), and a remake of a 1960 Shaw Brothers film, the movie retells the classic Chinese fantasy of sex between a female ghost and a living man.¹ At one...

  8. 1 The Ghost’s Body
    (pp. 13-52)

    Death is not personified in Chinese thought or rhetoric, and consequently death cannot be represented as a feminine figure as it is at many points in Indo-European traditions.¹ Yet the prominence of the female revenant and the frequent fantasy of her resurrection or rebirth is one of the most striking features of seventeenth-century Chinese literature. The taste for “phantom heroines” is part of the widespread fascination with the death of beautiful, talented women in the sentimental culture of this period, exemplified by the phenomenal success of Tang Xianzu’s southern drama of 1598,Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting), which was subtitledThe...

  9. 2 The Ghost’s Voice
    (pp. 53-86)

    Perhaps the most obvious thing about death,” write Sarah Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen, “is that it is always only represented.”¹ We can never truly know first hand what it would be like to be dead; we can only imagine it. This chapter is about a fantasy inside view of death. It is not an exposé of the topography or organization or activities of the afterlife, (although there are many Chinese stories that do this), but rather what it means to inhabit the subjective viewpoint of the dead. In contrast to the previous chapter, which was about imagining the Other’s dead...

  10. 3 Ghosts and Historical Time
    (pp. 87-130)

    In the previous chapter I explored how the ghost was used in Chinese literature to stage a confrontation with mortality. Endowing the ghost with a voice capable of expressing subjective emotion, primarily through the vehicle of lyric poetry, opened a window onto the unknowable: what would it feel like to be dead, to be on the other side? Accordingly, these ghost stories represent death as an interior state of exile in which suffering and longing are intensified rather than annihilated. The paradigmatic sites of such stories are the cemetery, the unmarked grave, uninhabited wasteland; the paradigmatic poetic genres involved are...

  11. 4 Ghosts and Theatricality
    (pp. 131-180)

    The years from 1580 to 1700 witnessed an explosion of ghosts in writings for the stage. In part, this increase stemmed from a general proliferation of new plays, for this was the heyday of the southern drama(chuanqi). As the playwright Yuan Yuling (1592–1674) declared: “There’s never been such a superabundance of plays as nowadays.”¹ This surge had as much to do with the late Ming boom in publishing as with the passion of literary men for the theater. The lengthiness of southern drama play texts—thirty or forty acts was average, but fifty acts was not uncommon—meant...

  12. Coda: Palace of Lasting Life
    (pp. 181-198)

    Hong sheng’s masterpiece,Palace of Lasting Life, has long been acknowledged as one of the two last great works of the southern drama, representing both the culmination and the virtual endpoint of the literary playwright’s creative engagement with this form of theater.¹ Begun in 1679 and completed around 1688, after nearly ten years of work, this fifty-act play is also important as one of several early Qing plays to reflect upon the fall of the Ming in 1644 and the memory of its loss.² This occurs on several planes inPalace of Lasting Life. On the narrative level, the play...

  13. Appendix: Selected List of Major Translated Book and Film Titles
    (pp. 199-202)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 203-250)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 251-258)
  16. Works Cited
    (pp. 259-282)
  17. Index
    (pp. 283-296)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-298)