Moral Images of Men and Political Culture in the Late Ming and Early Qing China

Haihong Yang

Ying Zhang’s book offers the reader a nuanced analysis of how moral images of political actors in the late-Ming and early-Qing period interacted with their social, cultural, and political contexts. It greatly enriches our understanding of gender history and political culture of this particular period by investigating into how moral images of elite male scholar-officials impacted historical events, and at the same time, were (re)constructed in various social, cultural, and political discourses. Its critical probing into the complex relations between morality, masculinity, and political and social events is based on Zhang’s close reading of extensive materials in genres varying from official histories including official gazetteers, historiographies, memorials, to poems, family romances, novels and plays. In this book, the author addresses two major research questions: how were the masculine virtues performed, negotiated and reinscribed in the everyday life of emperors, officials, and literati as well as in historical events?; and how did contested and constantly reconstructed moral images influence political process and reconfigure political spaces?

Zhang examines the two questions in case studies of historical figures chronologically arranged from the late-Ming to the early-Qing period. In the first part of the book, the author focuses on scholar-officials belonging (or in some cases allegedly belonging) to Donglin (東林) and Fushe (復社), the two important and influential literary, social, and political groups in the late Ming. Donglin identity is central to the study of officials’ moral images paradoxically because of its ambiguity and instability as both Donglin-identified officials and their political rivals used this label for their own political agendas. Zhang uses the case of Zheng Zhenxian (1572–1628) and Zheng Man (1594–1639), father and son, to illustrate how moral images could be produced and contested and in turn influenced individual officials’ political careers, identities of certain political groups, and processes of political events. Zheng Man’s case, in particular, demonstrates the crucial role which printing culture and vernacular literature played in image politics. Zheng Man died a tragic death: his body was sliced into a thousand pieces. He was initially accused of violating Confucian filial ethnics by beating his mother. Later his case became irrepressible partially because of the slanders against him for being an unworthy husband and raping his daughter-in-law, a story sensationally described in a family romance. Zheng Man, however, defended his moral integrity and the reputation of the Zheng family by having his chronological autobiography published while he was in prison.

Zhang’s study of Huang Daozhou (1585–1646) revolves around her discussion of the effect of celebrity culture on the application of Confucian ethnics in political communication on one hand, and the paradoxical relations between performativity and authenticity of a scholar-official’s moral image on the other. Huang was hailed by his contemporaries as the epitome of loyalty and filial piety (忠孝) because he observed a three-year mourning period for his deceased parents, practiced the sensational filial ritual of taking up residence near the family tombs for a long time, and copied the Classic of Filial Piety (孝經) while in prison. The construction and debate on Huang’s moral images and how they impacted his political career showcase Confucian moralism as flexible, contestable, and are subject to different interpretations, constant modification and rewriting. The cases of survivors in the Ming–Qing transition further demonstrate how Confucian ethical ideals such as loyalty and filial piety were exploited to construct certain moral images, and how they were used to justify survivals or persecutions. Zhang shrewdly examines officials who were trapped in Beijing and literati and officials in Nanjing and Jiangnan. Print culture and social network also complicated the image-making struggles in the transitional period.

Zhang’s investigation into the moral images of elite men in the early Qing period deepens and expends her arguments made in the first half of the book. This historical period witnessed image politics further complicated by factionalism among transgenerational Han officials, Manchus, and between Han and Manchu officials. The loyal and filial ideal still played a crucial role in the construction of an official’s moral image. But it had never occupied a more important place in image construction than in the images of ‘loyal turncoats’ such as Gong Dingzi (1616–1673). The cases of the loyal turncoats confirm not only how image making became the sociopolitical arena where print culture, celebrity culture, and social networks permeated every aspects of people’s social and political lives, but also how Confucian moralism was continued, negotiated, and transformed.

With its insightful observations and unique viewpoint, Confucian Image Politics is a major addition to the field of late imperial Chinese history. This book is essential to scholars interested in the study of gender history and political culture in the Ming and the Qing periods.