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Idle Talk: Gossip and Anecdote in Traditional China

Idle Talk: Gossip and Anecdote in Traditional China

Martin Lavicka13 Aug 2014Leave a comment

Written by Oliver Weingarten

Jack W. Chen and David Schaberg, ed., Idle Talk: Gossip and Anecdote in Traditional China. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-938169-09-0. $39.95.

Gossip and anecdote affect and reflect social life in crucial yet ambiguous ways. Gossip fosters a sense of identity in close-knit societies, so much so that some linguists and anthropologists have assigned social uses of communication a central role in the evolution of language.[1] Despite its cohesive effects – or perhaps precisely because of them – gossip can also erect boundaries between accepted and rejected types of behaviour and may exert a divisive influence, creating, highlighting, and enforcing distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Anecdotes have a potential to succinctly convey striking personality traits and salient aspects of events. But they can also make such distinctive qualities disappear behind a veil of clichéd preconceptions and turn history into a gallery of unquestioned stereotypes.

The contributions to Jack Chen and David Schaberg’s edited volume on gossip and anecdote range over a variety of topics, periods, and sources, and convey a number of valuable insights. As Stephen Owen points out in his postface, the book manifests “the distinct flavor of Chinese Studies” (p. 217) in its ambition to cover almost two thousand years of history. Addressing Western Han court gossip and historiography as well as the Story of the Stone (Shitou ji石頭記; also, the Dream of the Red Chamber, Honglou meng紅樓夢), the contributions span the time from the early imperial era to the Qing, though with a focus on middle-period China (Tang-Song), to which five out of ten essays are devoted.

The studies bespeak a persistent interest in the role of unverified, often orally transmitted information in the creation and circulation of social knowledge. The “epistemology of gossip” (p. 5) is repeatedly foregrounded rather than, for instance, the frequently disruptive social effects of unverified information spreading by word of mouth, issues that have been previously explored by Barend ter Haar and Philip Kuhn for instance; however, the contributions by both Ronald Egan and Beverly Bossler also probe the social dimensions of their respective topics.[2] The trustworthiness of information in social circulation is subject to systemic tensions between such conceptual opposites as public and private knowledge (p. 4); private experience and its public consequences (p. 12); secret motivations open only to conjecture on the one hand and verifiable public events on the other (p. 23); generic as compared to uniquely personal expressions of individual experiences (pp. 50–51); the “empire of texts” and the “communities of talk” (p. 8); “proximate” and “distant accounts” (p. 8); realities and conventions (p. 11); the “private spaces of the household” and the “more extended realms” of society and the state (p. 13); “oral eyewitness accounts” and the official record (p. 79). The list could go on. But even such a cursory overview will suffice to illustrate one of the great virtues of this book. It presents case studies and reflections that may contribute to a phenomenology of gossip and anecdote in China and beyond. The only regret one may have is that the distinctions between gossip, rumour, and anecdote could have been discussed in more detail in the introduction.

David Schaberg sheds light on the murky world of Western Han palace intrigue. He analyses the relationship between the “public knowledge” of the death of an empress and the unverifiable “revealed backstory” in the “Outer Relatives” (wai qi外戚) chapter of Ban Gu’s班固(32–92) Hanshu漢書 (p. 29). The unfortunate empress may have simply died in childbirth, but the gossipy version of events insists that she fell victim to a sinister plot orchestrated by the wife of the powerful general Huo Guang霍光 (?–68 BCE). In this case, gossip closes the gap in knowledge that opens up when the actual causes of events are, by their very nature, inaccessible to outsiders. In this sense, gossip “is defined largely by the veiled and unverifiable nature of its content” (p. 29). Schaberg proceeds beyond these reflections in order to ponder in more concrete terms Ban Gu’s sources of knowledge and how they informed his history writing. As member of a well-connected family, he had access to restricted texts in his family’s possession and in official archives. Perhaps more pertinent for the case at hand is the fact that he was also connected to the inner quarters of the palace through female relatives and may have picked up some unverified tales which then found their way into the Hanshu. Incidentally, this study of how gossip might have been woven into the historical record echoes a recent article by Kai Vogelsang, which tentatively identifies a particular type of Zuozhuan左傳 narrative as reflections of gossip from the inner quarters.[3]

Tian Xiaofei’s essay on “Tales from the Borderland” looks at early medieval travel narratives in prose and verse, comparing the extent to which they afford insights into the personal experiences of the travellers. The most striking item in this study is an “intensely personal anecdote” (p. 50) from Sri Lanka in Faxian’s法顯 (340–421) Foguo ji佛國記, which describes how deeply the pilgrim who has not set foot on Chinese soil for many years is moved by the sight of a plain silk fan from China that was left as a votive gift to a Buddha statue. By relating this episode, Tian demonstrates that Faixan succeeds “in turning his travel account into a personal epic” (p. 51).

Jack Chen explores the relationship between “knowing men” (zhi ren知人) and being of a “well-known reputation” (zhi ming知名) in the Shishuo xinyu世說新語. In the status-obsessed world of early medieval elites, the ability to display one’s discernment in matters of status and talent as well as the social capital of a proven reputation were of central importance in establishing and maintaining one’s social standing.

Sarah M. Allen examines the relationship between oral and written accounts on the basis of three Tang tales. The first of these narrates the alleged seventh-century encounter between a monk and the ghost of the last ruler of a short-lived fifth-century dynasty who, contrary to the official historical record, claims to have escaped execution. In the second, the maid of a Grand Councilor relates the truth about a plot against her master to the emperor. The third tale records the scholarly merits of a literatus who deciphered an old inscription. In all three cases, hidden truths are revealed “through personal connections to events” (p. 81), and “meaningful alternatives to orthodox history” are presented (p. 82). Gossip thus becomes a source of “information that would otherwise be forgotten or suppressed” (p. 82). Unlike Schaberg’s example from Hanshu, gossip is not integrated into historiography but rather presented as an alternative to it.

Graham Sanders investigates a “series of nested conversations spanning five decades and punctuated by poems” (p. 103) from the ninth-century anecdote collection Yunxi youyi 雲溪友議. They narrate the encounter between the poet Li She李涉 and a robber “who appreciates the value of literature over material capital” (p. 92) and is content to have a poem by Li rather than to appropriate his worldly goods. Poet and robber do not meet again. But much later, during a nocturnal poetry recitations in the course of an encounter between a young literatus and an old recluse, it turns out that the old man is, in fact, the former robber who has reformed himself and preserves his great fondness for the long deceased Li She, still holding on to the handwritten poem he received decades earlier. Graham imagines that such stories were told when literati gathered to recite poetry and eventually entered the broader current of gossip that circulated among the scholarly elites (p. 101). What is remarkable in this case is the complex manner in which material evidence, performance, and the spread of anecdotes from one individual or group to the next are intertwined in a narrative that consciously moulds these disparate testimonies into an artful narrative in which poems appear as “talismans of truth” (p. 101).

The yuanhe元和 period (806–820) witnessed a burst of literary creativity during which some of the most famous poets of the Tang were active. Anna Shields excavates the shifting assessments of this momentous time in literary history through an investigation into how it was depicted in three successive anecdote collections, Li Zhao’s李肇 (d. after 829) Guoshi bu國史補, Zhao Lin’s趙琳 (803–after 868) Yinhua lu因話錄, and Wang Dingbao’s王定保 (870–940) Zhiyan摭言. These were increasingly removed from the yuanhe period, and Shields uses this fact to trace the change in perspective from participation and first-hand experience to retrospective construction and re-imagination at a remove of several generations. She detects a shift “from a political to an ideological framing of the past” (p. 125), which moves “from a view of literati as participants in Tang culture to literati as makers of Tang culture” (p. 126).

Shen Kuo’s 沈括 (1031–1095) Mengxi bitan 孟溪筆談 is often viewed as a crucial source for the history of science and technology. Ronald Egan adds a new facet to this perception by showing that it covers a much broader and at times unexpected range of topics. Shen himself presented his informal jottings as idle conversations that consciously avoided any topics related to politics and prominent personalities. While this kind of self-presentation may adhere to well-worn clichés, Egan argues that it opens up a space for topics that do not usually receive much attention in literati writings. Shen wrote sympathetically and respectfully about labourers and craftsmen (pp. 136–139), “eccentrics and social misfits”, including a late tenth-century Sichuanese rebel (pp. 141–145), and the “unpredictable, paradoxical and multivalent” (pp. 145–149). Though observations on nature form a significant part of this work, Shen has been criticised by Nathan Sivin for being superficial and fickle in his scientific interests. Yet Egan argues, pace Sivin, that Shen showed in fact “great industriousness” in his research activities, a fact which is, however, obscured by the loss of all his formal scientific writings. Nevertheless, his description in the Mengxi bitan of the lengthy investigation by which he determined the deviation of the Pole Star from true north shows that he carried out his work with great determination and sophistication (p. 140). On the whole, Egan concludes, the Mengxi bitan underscores the importance of hearsay as a source for topics that lie outside official and mainstream literati interests such as the achievements of craftsmen. The formal openness of the genre of “jottings” (biji 筆記), furthermore, creates the freedom to offer “preliminary observations” on topics of interest rather than conclusive statements (p. 151), which agrees well with Shen Kuo’s professed epistemological scepticism (p. 141).

Beverly Bossler’s essay on anecdotal representations of romantic relationships between Song literati and courtesans is unique among the essays in this volume in that the author explicitly aims to utilise narratives as historical sources to learn about the social contexts and mentalities from which they sprang. Though anecdotes need not be literally true, as Bossler concedes, they can still reveal a wealth of information about the societies that created and enjoyed them (pp. 154–155). And so Bossler mines anecdotal sources to show how banquets served “as a form of status display” that was “critical to establishing literati social credentials” (p. 157), to investigate how “entertainers calibrated their actions to the perceived social standing of their guests” (though they might occasionally be mistaken about it) (p. 158) and how fluid the boundaries could be between professional courtesans, household courtesans, and female household servants, statuses that should be clearly distinguished by the normative force of law and convention but apparently became blurred in everyday life (pp. 161–162, 168–171). The picture that emerges is one in which interactions between elite males and unrelated females were more frequent than one might expect from a society that customarily separated its members – at least the respectable ones – by their gender. Interactions with female entertainers – and possibly perceptions of them (pp. 165–168) – were strongly mediated by convention and literary stereotypes that highlighted both the beauty and sophistication of the courtesan and the fleeting and impermanent nature of the male attachment to her. The actuality of social life was probably more complicated, however, and in “highlighting the role of household entertainers as objects of romance, Song authors conventionally elided the awkward social fact that such women were sometimes the mothers of their peers” (p. 173).

Richard Strassberg’s essay on “Glyphomantic Dream Anecdotes” from early medieval to late imperial times offers fascinating glimpses into the field of dream interpretation through character analysis. Anecdotes of this type reveal “distinct beliefs about writing, reading, and human consciousness” (p. 178) and also “trace the passage from private experience to public articulation” (p. 179). Interestingly, the public articulation and interpretation of a dream experience was in some respects more important than the content – or actuality – of the dream itself. Even the interpretation of a dream that was misreported by a competent specialist could come true (pp. 188–189).

The final essay by Dore Levy on “The Retributory Power of Gossip in The Story of the Stone” explores the central role of gossip in the Jia mansion and, more specifically, its detrimental impact on the relationship of the main protagonists, Jiao Baoyu賈寶玉 and Lin Daiyu林黛玉, where Daiyu “almost never asks Baoyu to confirm or deny rumors about him directly, and so deprives herself of the emotional solace his direct answers would give”, a failure of communication which “on the cosmic level […] can be explained by their destinies” (p. 204). The complicated plot, the setting in a sprawling elite household and the large cast of characters allow for a more extensive and nuanced incorporation of gossip into the narrative than in the usually shorter sources discussed in the other contributions and, thus, allows for a more multifaceted depiction of how gossip moves back and forth between social strata and across the boundaries of the individual household.

Gossip can tighten the social fabric. If it swells into paranoid rumour, it might also tear it asunder. Anecdotes sometimes preserve quintessential insights of historical significance. They can also blot out any realistic notion of past events. Both kinds of unverified information circulating in society can become building blocks of history or can turn into its very obverse, if history is understood as an account of the past that captures essential aspects of wie es eigentlich gewesen. They can turn into unfounded hearsay, unbridled speculation, and unhinged conspiracy theory. The ambivalent properties of anecdote and gossip are reflected in their potentially two-fold epistemological effect on the reconstruction of historical realities. They may complement records of verified events or smother them under excrescences of wild fantasy and just-so stories. The contributors to this volume have chosen to approach their topics in a spirit of moderate epistemological scepticism and anthropological optimism by assuming, on the whole, that the materials they study offer meaningful insights despite their uncertain epistemological status and potentially adverse effects. Next, the more jaded reader may wish for further studies that continue the investigations of such scholars as Kuhn and ter Haar into the darker aspects of rumour and gossip.

Oliver Weingarten works at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences

[1]See, e.g., Robbins Burling, The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), ch. 10, esp. pp. 193–196.

[2]On the sometimes destabilising effects of rumours see Barend ter Haar, Telling Stories: Witchcraft and Scapegoating in Chinese History (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006), and Philip Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 1990). Jonathan Spence, Treason by the Book (New York: Viking, 2010) discusses a highly unusual case, the attempts of the Yongzheng雍正 emperor (r. 1722–1735) to counteract malicious rumours and incitement to rebellion by entering into a public conversation with the rumourmonger himself.

[3]Kai Vogelsang, “From Anecdote to History: Observations on the Composition of the Zuozhuan”, Oriens Extremus 50 (2011): 99–124.

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