China and Inner Asia
Alia B. Goehr
University of Chicago, United States
The Suzhou literatus Jin Shengtan (1608–1661) promoted his commentary editions of Water Margin and Romance of the Western Chamber for their aesthetic excellence and didactic value. Jin compared the moral merit of his annotated editions to that of the Confucian Six Classics, but it remains unclear how these two vernacular works—a ribald adventure novel depicting the exploits of a band of outlaws and a romantic song-drama that seems to condone an unmarried couple’s sexual trysts—were to provide for readers’ moral cultivation. Jin’s claims to moral orthodoxy are complicated by the extent to which he invites readers to identify with literary characters’ morally problematic emotional situations. His commentaries treat writing as an affective conduit that gathers writer, reader, and characters into what Liangyan Ge has described as “a field of intersubjectivity” and Xiaoqiao Ling has called “a fusion of identities and subjectivities into a single body.”
This paper examines Jin’s commentaries on emotionally charged passages from these works against the backdrop of his position as a Buddhist lay-teacher and his declaration that “causes and conditions give rise to all phenomena”—including literary phenomena—to propose that we read this aesthetically mediated mode of intersubjectivity according to the Buddhist concept of One Mind. Contrary to his near-contemporary Li Zhi, Jin understands literary feeling not as a product of individual expression, but as dependently arisen and thereby infinitely intersubjective. By presenting aesthetic form as emptiness, Jin aimed to eliminate the basis for selfish conduct and establish a moral society.