China and Inner Asia
University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
Many zhiguai (records of the strange) collections contain entries describing transformations of various kinds, including records of women who turn into men and vice versa. The High Qing zhiguai collection Zibuyu (What the Master Would Not Discuss) by Yuan Mei (1716–1798), too, contains various records of bodily transformations, involving a change of reproductive organs, as well as transformations of appearance through cross-dressing performances. The reasons behind these transformations and the intentions of the parties involved range from intentional deception for personal gains to escape from predestined fate. While Zibuyu (and its sequel Xu Zibuyu) shares with other Qing zhiguai collections a sense of fascination with the process of moving from one state of existence into another and allows for the above stated motivations and reasons for transformation, this paper argues that Yuan Mei’s records about gender and sex change also employ the concept of transformation as a means of empowerment for protagonists to overcome the cultural conservatism of their environments, especially regarding gender roles and expectations. The category of gender and sex transformation records within Yuan Mei’s Zibuyu also challenges contemporary Qing intellectuals’ conception of what constitutes (or rather does not constitute) proper topics of literati discourse and emphasizes the possibility of zhiguai to work outside of its own genre expectations.