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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Creating the Past: Memory, Writing and Nostalgia in Medieval China
1: The Power of Nostalgia: Memory, Identity and Authority in the Shishuo xinyu
Thursday, March 25, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
City University of New York, United States
The Shishuo xinyu (A New Account of Tales of the World) is a collection of anecdotes concerning extraordinary historical figures active in the second through fourth century. Little is known about its compilation except that it is attributed to Liu Yiqing (403-444), a prince of the Liu-Song dynasty (420-479). The collection has been viewed variously as a guidebook for elite literati, a manual for character appraisal, an escape from contemporary politics, and even a covert advocacy for orthodox Confucian values. This paper reads the Shishuo xinyu as an attempt to preserve cultural legacy and construct cultural identity through the lens of individual memory. It is a product of the prevailing cultural nostalgia that first occurred after the loss of the northern central land in the 310s and continued into the fifth century. Through remembrances and reenactments of remarkable figures and events in the recent past, elite literati established and reinforced a collective identity as true decedents and carriers of its cultural legacy. The claim of intimate and personal connections to the past provided them the cultural and political authority much needed in a changing aristocratic society. The personal and sentimental approach to the past in the Shishuo xinyu is echoed in many writings of the fourth and fifth centuries. It makes an interesting contrast with a scholarly approach to the past emerging in the Liang dynasty (502-557) that treated the past as objects and texts for editing, study and canonization.