Wu Jingzi was born in 1701 into an extended family in the rich and cultured Yangtze Plain of southeastern China. His family had experienced great success in Chinese officialdom for four previous generations. Beginning with his great-great-grandfather Wu P’ei, members of the family regularly attained honors through the civil service examinations, the standard route to governmental office and the concomitant wealth and status to which all men of ambition aspired. Wu’s own branch of the family, however, had begun declining two generations before his birth. His grandfather Wu Tan had to purchase a lower degree and was recorded in the local histories only for his filiality. Wu Linch’i, the father Wu evidently revered, also had a rather mediocre career, holding for some years a minor educational post in northeastern Kiangsu.
Wu’s own life spanned the years 1701 to 1754, coinciding remarkably with the lives of many satirists in English literature. At Wu’s birth, John Dryden had been dead one year; Alexander Pope was a child of thirteen; Joseph Addison and Richard Steele were both twenty-nine; and Jonathan Swift, at thirty-four, had not yet begun to produce his greatest works. Henry Fielding would be born in another six years, and Samuel Johnson in another eight. The political turmoil that stimulated the satiric style in England, however, did not have its counterpart in China. Wu lived during the reigns of the Ch’ing Dynasty emperors K’ang-hsi (1661-1722), Yung-cheng (1722-1735), and Ch’ienlung (1735-1796), a period that represented the high-water mark of the dynasty’s achievement of unity, stability, peace, and prosperity.
The only natural child of his parents (he had an adopted sister of whom he was very fond), Wu was described as serious and introverted as a youth. Like other children from literati households, he was schooled in the Confucian classics, which, to the Chinese of the time, was the repository of all human reason and human morality. After his mother died at the onset of Wu’s teenage years, his father devoted much attention to Wu’s education, taking him along to his post in neighboring Kiangsu and hiring a special tutor to prepare him for the examinations and for the official life beyond. In the verse of a cousin, Wu is described as a young man of talent and promise, able to “weave smoothly together, with a sweep of the pen, a composition of a thousand words/ Covering the breadth and width of a subject like silkworms munching the leaves of the mulberry.” These abilities, however, would never be used as they were originally intended to be used, in the conventional service to the state.
Beginning about 1722, Wu’s fortunes began a downward turn. His father resigned his post and was seriously ill on returning home to Ch’üan-chiao. The following year, Wu was sent to compete in the district examinations for the sheng-yuan degree, the first of three major steps to high officialdom. The good news of success arrived almost simultaneously with his father’s death. “Before a dark scholar’s gown could adorn your happy smiles,/” his cousin recalls in verse, “Your hempen garments were like snow, your hair in disarray.” The...
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