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        Confucian Image Politics: Masculine Morality in Seventeenth-Century China. By Ying Zhang . Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2017. 306 pp. $50 (cloth).
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        Confucian Image Politics: Masculine Morality in Seventeenth-Century China. By Ying Zhang . Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2017. 306 pp. $50 (cloth).
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        Confucian Image Politics: Masculine Morality in Seventeenth-Century China. By Ying Zhang . Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2017. 306 pp. $50 (cloth).
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Few subjects in the history of China's seventeenth century can be fully studied without encountering at least some of the sociopolitical factionalism that contributed so greatly to the tumult of that period. Attempting to investigate the factionalism that we encounter, immediately we fall into a pit of black-and-white binaries—the upright versus the refractory, the righteous versus the retrograde, purists versus collaborators, loyalists versus turncoats—in both the primary record and the secondary literature. The author of this book takes a very effective approach to breaking down those binaries, showing how they originally were formed by the complex dynamics of “Confucian image politics” in the late Ming and early Qing, and underscoring their persistent appeal down to the modern era. This persuasive book will change the way seasoned scholars think about Ming-to-Qing factionalism and will prepare the less seasoned to approach the subject critically.

Of course factionalism in which the Confucian probity of scholar-officials became openly contested to imagistic effect was not new in seventeenth-century China. But Zhang argues that, at this historical point, developments in literacy and publishing, and concomitant increases in literati networking and the consumption of news, gossip, fiction, and theatrics through multiple media, reconfigured the political space in which moral images were negotiated, rendering that space no longer just court-centered but extending it to include “the literati reading public and each official's personal social base” (16). Zhang is reluctant, however, to carry the implied idea of a nascent “public sphere” into any general parallel with developments in early modern European image politics, feeling that “the superficial resemblance to European counterparts masks substantial differences between the two contexts,” especially a marked contrast between the “flight from traditional authority” in the European cases and the reaffirmation, reinscription, and transformation of tradition in the Ming-to-Qing case (217).

Absolutely central to that tradition so far as literati image-rhetoric was concerned, in Zhang's analysis, was the age-old shibboleth of Confucian prescriptive ethics, zhongxiao 忠孝, “loyalty and filiality.” The enduring importance of this value-set for Chinese sociopolitical order and stability always had derived from its conjoined dual dimensions: obedient care for parents and conscientious performance of fatherly, spousal, and friend-to-friend duties at home was thought to directly mirror, or seamlessly transfer into, faithful service to one's ruler, bureaucratic collegiality, and dedication to the people's well-being in official life. The difficulty of fulfilling expectations in both of these dimensions often was brought to a head when a serving official's parent fell very ill or died, necessitating prolonged absence from imperial service. Consequently, image-manipulating critiques of officials’ “loyalty and filiality” often swirled around cases in which bureaucrats seemed to take filial leave from politics reluctantly or incompletely, or when emperors exempted high-value servitors from returning home for the canonical twenty-seven months of mourning in a dictate called duoqing 奪情, lit. “deprive of feelings.” Zhang's examination of often subtle but significant changes in competitive public interpretations and critiques of zhongxiao performance—or failure—on the part of many prominent scholar-officials, and of how the deployment of duoqing by rulers changed from late Ming to the ethnically different power regime of early Qing is fascinating and enlightening.

Zhang proceeds in well-constructed chronological order, starting with the identity-formation of “the Donglin 東林 man as a moral paragon” in a fairly messy, unorchestrated process driven by factional rivalry and a burgeoning public appetite for political information during the Wanli reign period (1573–1620). Especially valuable here is Zhang's discussion of the various “lists” and counter-lists that were published in partisan attempts to define in zhongxiao terms just who were affiliates of good or evil factions, at a time when the boundaries of literati networks actually were quite vague. Zhang also introduces, in this chapter on an “Imagined Community of Factionalists,” the use of transgenerational family narratives to portray fathers, sons, and grandsons in the same image as upholders or corruptors of zhongxiao—a phenomenon to which she returns in subsequent chapters.

Moving on to the Fushe 復社 web of literary-political groups in the Tianqi (1621–27) and Chongzhen (1628–44) reigns, Zhang detects a shift to more self-consciously staged efforts at image-making among these “sons of the Donglin.” Now “adept at using print and social spectacles to widen their influence and strengthen mutual support among themselves, Fushe scholars groomed their images as filial sons, true friends, and self-disciplined men in order to express their feelings, articulate their families’ demands, pursue career success, and coordinate political actions” (69–70). When aimed specifically to influence the emperor, however, these attempts to create for themselves reputations for consummate Confucian sincerity and propriety “began to appear excessive and aggressive” (79), thus counterproductively alienating the Chongzhen emperor. So emblematic was Huang Daozhou 黃道周 (1585–1646) of this highly calculated Fushe activity in Confucian image-making, and of its elicitation of distrust from the emperor, that Zhang devotes her entire third chapter to Huang as “A Zhongxiao Celebrity,” laying out even schematically his alternation between court and home in making exaggerated displays of his genuine filiality. To readers like me who are familiar with Huang's transmitted reputation, his treatment at Zhang's hands can smack slightly of overzealous deconstruction. Yet one cannot deny that her approach, in laying bare the image-constructs in Huang's historical profile, challenges us to examine the sources of our prior, favorable disposition toward him.

Between Zhang's first three chapters on late Ming and her final two chapters on early Qing, she inserts a substantial “Interlude” on the dilemmas created for scholar-officials’ maintenance of their zhongxiao images by the fall of Beijing—and all of North China—first to rebel armies and then to the Manchu regime in the spring of 1644, and by the establishment of a rump Ming court in Nanjing, which lasted halfway through 1645. As Ming officials caught in the north faced awful choices between death and survival for themselves and their families, elements in the south competed for influence on the Nanjing regime by excluding partisan rivals who fled southward from the north, on grounds that they were morally compromised at best or traitors at worst. Zhang shows that in both the northern and southern capitals, “precisely because Confucian ethical ideals such as loyalty and filial piety had multiple and flexible meanings, they served as a language of political communication and were used to negotiate survival or initiate persecutions” (130). Whether for those who decided to collaborate with the Manchu-Qing government or those who managed to escape to Jiangnan, authenticating loyalty and avoiding the image of the “disloyal official” proved very difficult. No other interval under Zhang's purview better serves her point that the stark moral contrasts created by the judgmental rhetoric of Confucian virtue has drawn neat stereotypes in the historical record that mask a great deal of personal struggle.

Zhang's fourth chapter, which focuses on the unstable image of the “loyal turncoat” among erstwhile Ming officials who served the Qing court, is especially important for its attribution of considerable savvy to the Shunzhi emperor (in contrast to his posthumously repudiated regent-uncle, Dorgon) in employing this image “as a tool for asserting Manchu moral superiority” and to “mediate Manchu and Han factionalisms” (158). In Zhang's interpretation, the new Manchu overlords at first were confounded by the extremely complex and longstanding factional divisions that they inherited with the hosts of Han-Chinese literati whom they needed to help complete the conquest and run their government. Seeing such sub rosa groupings as potential threats to Manchu control, their response was to suppress factions by marshaling accusations particularly of disloyalty against selected, vulnerable figures in the turncoat community. At the same time, the early Manchu rulers, lacking mourning requirements in their heritage comparable to the Chinese stringencies, used duoqing a lot more frequently to retain bereaved Han officials at their posts. Increased familiarity with both Confucian image politics and the management of Han-versus-Manchu factionalism during the post-Dorgon years (beginning in 1651), however, enabled the Shunzhi emperor to experiment fruitfully with “the gendered image of the loyal turncoat,” turning the contradictory demands of zhongxiao and duoqing into a zone of subtle interlocution between ruler and servitor. The focus of zhongxiao discourse shifted away from the fulfillment of loyal and filial duties alone. “Now the process and effort of negotiating over when and how that performance should take place was a crucial part of political communication” (177). Further, in Zhang's view, the Shunzhi emperor's assimilation of zhongxiao to the Manchu concept of a slave's dedication to his master helped to establish claims of Manchu moral superiority, claims which, from the late seventeenth century onward, gradually focused Qing-dynasty Confucian image-making on the emperors—a subject amply treated in previous scholarship and, thus, not pursued by Zhang.

Keeping her own focus on the scholar-official class, Zhang rounds off this book with a fifth chapter on how the common language of zhongxiao served to overcome cleavages among literati wrought by the change of dynasties. Through zhongxiao, friendships were reaffirmed, and at funeral and birthday observances for parents and even spouses of friends, “they rebuilt their social networks by affirming their shared understanding of, and commitment to, Confucian ethical ideals” (209–10).

The handful of quotations given above scarcely serve to represent the strength of writing in this book. The need, presented by the subject matter, to explain the sometimes head-spinning complexities of factional and other sociopolitical relationships is a built-in challenge, which Zhang effectively meets with a flair for liberally iterating her themes and interpretations. Although this iteration at points can feel somewhat relentless, we are never left wondering for long about Zhang's point in taking us through a complicated narration. I, for one, also much appreciate her biographical—rather than social-scientific—mode, not only because revealing people's basic humanity is the most effective way to interrogate stereotypes, but also because it affords us nuanced treatments of many important figures whose life stories have been occluded by historiographical image-contestations. Among the close examinations from which I learned the most, let me mention those of Zheng Man 鄭鄤 and his father Zheng Zhenxian 鄭振先 in late Ming, Song Quan 宋權, his mother Madame Ding 丁太夫人, and his son Song Luo 宋犖 in early Qing, and Gong Dingzi 龔鼎孳 and his concubine Gu Mei 顧眉 in both periods. The latter two examples serve as reminders that zhongxiao very definitely included duties toward immediate female family members (though the status of concubines remained ambiguous). While the subject of this book is the Confucian masculine image, those interested in the effects of Confucian image demands on women's lives and public representations will find useful material herein.

One figure whom I expected to receive sustained treatment, but who is mentioned by Zhang only in passing, is Ruan Dacheng 阮大鋮 (1587–1646), the object of one of the most puzzling campaigns of character-assassination during the peak of Fushe stridency. That Ruan was black-balled in part for his playwriting and theatrical productions would seem to have supported one of Zhang's points: that the affluence of the increasingly urbanized political class led to indulgence in luxuries, entertainments, and the famed late-Ming courtesan culture, which in turn provided ammunition for those who sought to attack with charges of undermining zhongxiao standards.

Reading this book, someone new to the period might think that moral vigilantism was its hallmark, which case I do not think can be made. Thus, I also wish that Zhang had discussed the relationship of the particular facet on which she concentrates, the accentuated use of Confucian moral conformance as a political tool, to well-known other facets of contemporaneous literati life, for instance, extensive subscription to Buddhist and Daoist as well as Confucian values, and the assertion—sometimes blatant—of individuality, nonconformity, and alterity in both literary expression and lifestyle.

Also, in my view, since ancient times, claim to membership in the Chinese political elite had been asserted agonistically through public, ritual performance of certain self-subordinating and self-sacrificial behaviors which came to be codified as “Confucian.” This self-promotion by displays of self-subordination to duty continued until the end of shenshi 紳士 class dominance in the early twentieth century. More thorough historical exploration on Zhang's part of what might be called Confucian agonism would have framed more adequately the seventeenth-century phenomena on which she concentrates.

Among the few proofreading lapses that I spotted, let me mention some that might cause confusion: An indeterminate amount of text seems to have been omitted from the first three lines of page 51; the name of a Manchu prince, Jirgalang (Ch. 濟爾哈朗), is repeatedly given as “Jiagalang” (165 and 261n28); Feng Quan's name (馮銓) is mis-written as “Feng Han” at one point (170) and is not entered in the Glossary; at two points (203) the names of Gong Dingzi and his younger brother Gong Dingsi 孠 appear to have been confused; and in note 12 on page 232, “Huang Zongzhou” seems to mesh the name of Liu Zongzhou 劉宗周 with that of his most famous disciple, Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲.

Lastly, in my reading of this book about the wide projection of images through various media for political effect, I often wondered about just what audiences were being targeted and just what sociopolitical mechanisms were expected to generate the desired outcomes. After all, in seventeenth-century China we are not dealing with a democratic system where votes count. Channels of influence for gaining, advancing in, and keeping office remain opaque in our scholarship, as do answers to nagging questions about audiences and readerships for non-political forms of expression. Perhaps at some later point this difficult area of inquiry can be probed more deeply by Zhang, who demonstrably has the skills and talent to do so. The present work, a very strong first book by an emerging leader in late-imperial Chinese history, leads me to expect even greater contributions from her in the future.