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In Session: Conceptualizing Mind and Madness: The Local, the Global, and the Dilemmas of Cross-Cultural Historical Inquiry
3: Embracing "Madness": Kuangren in Nineteenth-century Shanghai
Thursday, March 25, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Washtington University in St. Louis, United States
When looking up abnormal mental conditions in Chinese, one may find various characters: feng, dian, kuang, and more. Their different implications must be examined in contexts beyond medical history. Inspecting how intellectuals employed kuang in literary writings in nineteenth-century Shanghai, this paper argues for the cultural significance of “madness” as an identity marker, a shared mentality, and a coping mechanism.
This paper centers around Jiang Dunfu (1808-1867), one of the “Three Madmen of Shanghai.” He adopted identities available at his time and wrote as a poet, a social critic, a recluse, and a missionary assistant. Nevertheless, he kept mediating between these identities. Being a lyricist with no official position, he struggled to make ways for his political ambitions; being a Confucian student, he oscillated between pursuing a position in the officialdom and avoiding the corrupted system; and being an advocate of classical learnings, he bitterly expressed the reluctance to work with missionaries. “Madness” is first a product of his conflicting traits. Though others associated his “madness” with acting out and indulging in drinking, I argue it mirrors intellectuals’ frustrations as they struggled to adapt to a rapidly transforming society. Meanwhile, “madness” is also a mechanism for coping with the inability to adapt. As a time-honored identity marker with Confucian values, “kuang” was employed by intellectuals to empower themselves, to justify their political ambitions, and to engage with issues of statecraft. Together, it is both a product of and a coping mechanism to finding one’s place in a transitional period.