Li Ju‐chen c. 1763-‐c. 1830
(Also transliterated as Li Ruzhen) Chinese novelist and nonfiction writer.
Li Ju‐chen was an accomplished scholar living in a time of transition in China. He is best known for his 1828 novel, Ching‐hua yuan (The flowers in the mirror), in which Li Ju‐chen denounced his country's educational system and its treatment of women. Through his novel, he attempted to reconcile classical Confucianism with Neo-Confucianism and meld traditional values and aesthetics with modern ideas. Li Ju‐chen is remembered today as an erudite social critic and early feminist.
Little is known of Li Ju‐chen's life. He was born c. 1763 at Ta‐hsing in Chih‐li district, near Beijing. He failed to pass the Imperial Civil Service Examination beyond the county level, earning only the Hsiu‐ts'ai degree. Li Ju‐chen's two brothers—far less talented intellectually—both passed and became government officials. Li Ju‐chen was married twice. His first wife died at a very young age, and his second wife was the sister of two associates, the famous phoneticians Hsü Kuei‐lin and Hsü Ch'iao‐lin. In 1782 Li Ju‐chen moved to Hai‐chou in northern Kiangsu province to live with his elder brother and to study under the famous philologist Ling T'ing‐k'an. He remained there for almost twenty years, doing research and writing his first book. From 1801 to 1807, Li Ju‐chen served as an assistant magistrate in Honan province, where he was occupied with problems of flood control. He left that position determined to continue his research and writing, but with no means of support he found it necessary to depend on his brother and brothers‐in‐law. Around 1810 he began to write his novel, a work that took ten years to complete and first appeared in print in 1828. Li Ju‐chen died in obscurity and poverty in approximately 1830.
The novel, The flowers in the mirror, Li Ju‐chen's most important work, is the only extant text attributed to him. His 1805 treatise on phonology, Li‐shih yin‐chien (known simply as Yin‐chien), and his 1817 chess handbook, Shou‐tzu p'u, are apparently lost, as is the original (c. 1820) manuscript of the novel. The original text of the 1828 edition is preserved in the library of Beijing University.
The novel consists of one hundred chapters and is set in the time of Empress Wu (690‐705). Li Ju‐chen’s breadth and depth of knowledge is displayed in the wide variety of subjects covered. Alternatively considered a satire, an allegory, and a novel of ideas, The flowers in the mirror has challenged critics seeking to assign it an appropriate generic classification. One of its most remarkable sections involves a society in which gender roles are reversed and men are subjected to the same types of cruel and discriminatory practices inflicted on women in Chinese society. Li Ju‐chen's representations of social reform include ending the practice of foot-binding, as well as creating special civil service exams so that women might be eligible for government positions normally restricted to men.
Criticism of Li Ju‐chen's work is confined to The flowers in the mirror and addresses three main issues in the novel: the breadth of learning Li Ju‐chen demonstrates in the text; his criticism of the education and examination systems of China; and his denunciation of harmful and discriminatory practices against women. Several critics classify the work as a scholarly novel, saying it is designed to display the scholar's extensive knowledge. An‐chi Wang provides an extensive discussion of the problems scholars have encountered in trying to categorize The flowers in the mirror because the work displays the features of several genres. Wang reports that Chinese critic Heh Man‐tzu has recently coined the term “miscellaneous novel” to describe the mixture of genres and subjects Li Ju‐chen covers. Although most critics agree that The flowers in the mirror was unusual in its support for women’s rights, many critics note, however, that Li Ju‐chen's proposed reforms did not include complete equality for women. Nancy J. F. Evans points out that Li Ju‐chen's version of Utopia is ruled by men, which “serves to substantiate the fact that The flowers in the mirror does not present a completely revolutionary vision.” Frederick P. Brandauer cautions modern scholars to avoid projecting the principles of modern feminism onto Li Ju‐chen's writings. According to Brandauer, “Li Ju‐chen does advocate a kind of feminine emancipation,” but this should not be confused with modern notions of sexual equality. Stephen J. Roddy suggests that Li Ju‐chen's criticism of the treatment of women and of the examination system are combined in The flowers in the mirror. According to Roddy, Li Ju‐chen's description of the physical constraints (such as foot‐binding) on women serves as an analogy for “the personal frustration stemming from the restrictive requirements placed on literati by the examination system.”
SOURCE: Evans, Nancy J. F. “Social Criticism in the Ch'ing: The Novel Ching‐hua yuan.” Papers on China, no. 23 (1970): 52‐64.
[In the following essay, Evans examines the characters and events in Li Ju‐chen's novel and concludes that the work is an important piece of social criticism.]
LI JUHCHEN AND HIS NOVEL
The influence of the West on the thinking of Chinese intellectuals too often has tended to obscure the period prior to Western contact, for it has lulled students of Chinese history into overlooking the diversities within the Chinese scene itself. The novel Ching‐hua yuan (The flowers in the mirror) by Li Ju‐chen, published by about 1828, provides an intriguing challenge to the view that dissent came only after the Western impact.
Since the source of information about the social and political thought of Li Ju‐chen was a novel, conclusions about his social message are impossible to substantiate fully. As a result much of this paper is necessarily inferential. Whereas the philosopher or the political propagandist is moved to make his position definite, the author of a piece of fiction leaves much for the reader to glean for himself. It is my belief that much can be deduced from the novel Ching‐hua yuan through interpretation of the description of characters and events, and that the implications of the novel make...
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SOURCE: Brandauer, Frederick P. “Women in the Ching‐hua yüan: Emancipation toward a Confucian Ideal.” Journal of Asian Studies 36, no. 4 (August 1977): 647‐60.
[In the following revised essay, originally presented in 1975, Brandauer warns against judging Li Ju‐chen's treatment of women in his novel according to the ideals of modern Western feminism.]
The Ching‐hua yüan,1 the work of vernacular fiction by Li Ju‐chen (ca. 1763‐1830) shows remarkable diversity in both narrative content and purpose. Critics have observed that it is encyclopedic in scope,2 and suggested that it reflects the wide range of interests and activities prevalent among scholars in early nineteenth‐century China.3 The author's intention has been variously interpreted as private entertainment,4 display of erudition,5 or social criticism.6 In his recent anthology of Chinese popular fiction and drama, H. C. Chang7 gives us what may be the most succinct statement of this diversity when he describes the work as “an inimitable blend of mythology and adventure story, fantasy and allegory, satire and straight instruction, throughout informed with learning and sustained by wit, with an admixture of games and puzzles for the unhurried reader.” Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the Ching‐hua yüan [hereafter CHY]...
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SOURCE: Wang, An‐chi. “Ching‐hua yuan.” In Gulliver's Travels and Ching‐hua yuan Revisited: A Menippean Approach, pp. 77‐100. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Wang contends that Li Ju‐chen's novel, like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, should be considered a work of Menippean satire.]
In Chinese literature, Ching‐hua yuan is most celebrated for the story of T'ang Ao and his adventurous travels to the bizarre and exotic overseas countries in ancient legends (chapters 7‐40). This part makes Ching‐hua yuan a Chinese counterpart of Gulliver's Travels, and has become the focus of many affinity studies in comparative literature. To re‐evaluate the significance of their striking resemblance is the project of my study. But I wish to go beyond studying the adventure and satiric themes; I would like to focus on their literary and cultural background, and to include their other common features such as the pedantic style, encyclopedic form, utopian yearning, cultural critique, and especially their attitudes toward the established authority. Before embarking on that grand topic we need to confirm again the status of Ching‐hua yuan in the history of Chinese literature.
Ching‐hua yuan represents a unique style of prose fiction and an unsurpassed display of pedantic scholarship in Chinese literature. It...
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SOURCE: Roddy, Stephen J. “The Philological Musings of Jinghua yuan.” In Literati Identity and Its Fictional Representations in Late Imperial China, pp. 171‐206. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Roddy examines gender role reversals in Li Ju‐chen's novel in the context of its overall image of the literati.]
Much better known as an example of scholarly fiction than Yesou puyan is Jinghua yuan by Li Ruzhen,1 written in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This work also bears the strong imprint of the scholarly interests of its author, who unlike the obscure Xia Jingqu seems to have achieved some limited renown in learned circles of his day. It also betrays an analogous preoccupation with literati concerns, preeminent among them the achievement of recognition through public service, or what I have called yu. But while Confucian in conception Jinghua yuan exhibits a much greater catholicity in its use of non‐Confucian traditions, drawing substantially from Taoist and Buddhist mythology and doctrines.2 Esoteric knowledge of alchemical techniques instrumental in attaining immortality is complemented by a wide spectrum of literary and scholarly subjects, all discussed in often tedious detail by its cast of erudite characters. Set during Wu Zetian's usurpation of the Tang in the seventh and...
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Chang, H. C. “Allegory and the Theme of Temptation: A Comparative Study.” In Allegory and Courtesy in Spenser, pp. 75‐107. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1955.
Studies the allegorical elements in The Faerie Queene and Ching‐hua yuan.
———. “The Women's Kingdom.” In Chinese Literature: Popular Fiction and Drama, pp. 405‐20. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1973.
Discusses chapters 32 through 37 of Ching‐hua yuan.
Eberhard, Wolfram. “Ideas about Social Reforms in the Novel Ching‐hua yüan.” In Festschrift für Ad. E. Jensen, edited by Eike Haberland, Meinhard Schuster, and Helmut Straube, pp. 113-21. München, Germany: Klaus Renner Verlag, 1964.
Contends that Ching‐hua yuan's lasting importance lies in its author’s criticism of the treatment of women in China.
Hsia, C. T. “The Scholar‐Novelist and Chinese Culture: A Reappraisal of Ching‐hua yüan.” In Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Andrew H. Plaks, pp. 266‐305. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Examines Ching‐hua yuan as the quintessential scholarly novel.
Hu, Shih. “A Chinese Declaration of the Rights of Women.”...
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