The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China: The “Fragrant and Bedazzling” Movement (1600-1930)

by Xiaorong Li


This book is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

By charting a history in which sensualist poetry reached unprecedented and unsurpassed heights through late Ming poets, experienced a period of hibernation during most of the Qing, and then reemerged to awaken the senses of late Qing and early Republican readers, The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China brings to light an important Chinese literary tradition and underscores intellectual trends that have been neglected, marginalized, misunderstood, and even condemned.

Uncovering an important but neglected part of history during which the freelance intelligentsia, who emerged in late imperial and early Republican China, countered the political mainstream by drawing on a long yet marginalized tradition of sensual lyricism, this book offers the first history of how “fragrant and bedazzling” (xiangyan) became a guiding aesthetic of countercultural movements from the late Ming to the early Republican era—roughly, from the late sixteenth century to the early twentieth century. Sensualist poets and other writers of these eras extolled amorous desire and romantic love. Through erotic poetry, they rebelled against not only orthodox Neo-Confucianism but also the radical cultural reform agenda of the late Qing and the New Culture Movement of the Republic. In eras that emphasized sociopolitical functions of literature, they promoted classical lyricism and the satisfaction of individual expressive needs.

Drawing on extensive archival research, this book argues that sensual lyricism is more political than its sensuous surfaces—and that China’s lyrical tradition is sexier and more “modern”—than existing histories have led us to believe. This study demonstrates that dominant political ideologies and cultural practices of early modern China always faced counteractions in the form of a discourse of sensuality, femininity, and romance. The book examines myriad primary sources, such as the monumental anthologies of sensual poetry compiled in both the late Ming and the late Qing periods, which are brought to critical attention for the first time. Bridging literary and intellectual history, the study surveys three hundred years of poetry and essays, from individual collections to voluminous anthologies, and from traditional books to modern magazines.

The first half of the book focuses on materials produced during the Ming, and the second half examines publications of the turn of the twentieth century. In her examination of these sources, Xiaorong Li shows that the poetics of sensuality was political on personal and historical levels during and beyond the late imperial period. Sensuality and decadence, Li argues, were forces of literary modernization, as well as an important continuity between the eras often referred to as “premodern” and “modern.” Li also relates Chinese sensual literature to “decadent” movements in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. In both contexts, while perceived as a reflection of moral decay, decadent literature posed challenges to social and cultural norms by representing the repressed individual body and its cultural expressions. This comparative perspective brings us toward a better understanding of sensualism as a part of modernity.


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