Theses Doctoral

Toward an Extraordinary Everyday: Li Yu's (1611-1680) Vision, Writing, and Practice

Kile, Sarah

This dissertation considers how the literatus entrepreneur Li Yu (1610-1680) took advantage of the burgeoning market economy of early Qing China to engineer and market a new experience of the everyday. The world in which Li Yu's cultural products were best sellers was rife with novelty. The Ming dynasty had collapsed in 1644, yet many of its defining features remained: urban centers brimmed with gadgets, both Chinese and foreign, that offered new possibilities for engaging the material world. The status of writing and the reading public was also changing, as more books were published at lower costs than ever before. Li Yu capitalized on this ripe moment to develop and sell cultural products that directed the focus of consumers to the details and possibilities of their everyday. I argue that through his cultural production, Li Yu changed what constituted cultural capital and who had rights to it in the urban centers of southern China in the early Qing. Li Yu made a brand of his name, which he used to market his fiction and drama as well as intangible products like innovative designs and do-it-yourself technologies. I examine the strategies that traverse the range of his cultural production to demonstrate how he altered the physical makeup of the built environment and the visual experience of theatrical performance, while also revising the ways that they could be represented in language and depicted in narrative. Readers of Li Yu's writing, visitors to his gardens, and audiences for his theatrical productions could expect to encounter particulars: his language zooms in on the material world, narrating the gritty specifics of genitals and dirt; he waxes technical about his rigged stage lighting and dioramic windows. In one of his stories, a man uses a telescope to impersonate a god; in another a wily thief cannot "see" a woman's myopia, and so misjudges her. At the heart of this study is Li Yu's magnum opus, Leisure Notes (Xianqing ouji), a curious collection of several hundred essays on topics that range from theater direction to heating, choosing a concubine to balustrade design, the art of walking to pomegranate trees. This text has some commonalities with late-Ming manuals of taste, which documented the fine points of distinction around which people negotiated their status vis-à-vis conspicuous consumption of luxury commodities. In the late Ming, these markers of social distinction were hotly debated as merchants challenged literati claims to rights over cultural capital. I show how Li Yu departs from late-Ming discourse by rejecting luxury commodities to locate discernment instead in readers who join him in experimenting with his reproducible designs and technological improvements in the spaces of their everyday lives. I contend that these experiments reveal the limitations of grand narratives of the day--such as Confucian morality, gender norms, fate, and medicine--by exploiting their contingencies, and by elevating the status of individual experience.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shang, Wei
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 8, 2013