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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Non-Human Voices in Chinese Literature
3: Invented Illness and Diseased Body: Chinese Classical Tales after the Late Nineteenth Century Civil Wars
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Purdue University, United States
This paper examines representations of invented and illusory illness and the diseased body in classical tales published by China’s first modern newspaper house Shenbaoguan following the end of the Taiping Rebellion. This paper seeks to unpack the late nineteenth-century literati authors’ exploration of the satirical potential of disease and healing, and how they challenged the paradigm of the normative human body in so doing. Strange diseases were conventional metaphors for individual immorality, as writers used the freakishness of the diseased body as a didactic tool. By the late nineteenth century, illness became manifested in the most theatrical forms to function as warning signs for societal maladies and collective failings. Writers developed a taste for the spectacle of bodily oddities, which might have been both the answer to and the fuel for such a taste in the burgeoning commercial book market. Such representations simultaneously perpetuate and undermine stereotyped motifs, such as viewing the female body as unhealthy and destructive to men’s wellbeing, or the southern frontiers as dangerously miasmic. Having survived a period with profuse premature deaths and physical violence, the late Qing writers indulged in healing elixirs that miraculously revive the dead and restore order, betraying yearnings for survival, continuity, and new beginnings. This paper calls attention to the increased authorial interest in the diseased body during the late nineteenth century that leads to both innovation in the use of invented illness as an exhortative device, and a reassessment of what is human and the political implications of humanness.