Reading for the Moral
Exemplarity and the Confucian Moral Imagination in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Short Fiction
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Reading for the Moral offers an innovative reassessment of the nature of moral representation and exemplarity in Chinese vernacular fiction. Maria Franca Sibau focuses on two little-studied story collections published at the end of the Ming dynasty, Exemplary Words for the World (Xingshi yan, 1632) and Bell in the Still Night (Qingye zhong, c. 1645). Far from being tediously moralistic tales, these stories of loyal ministers, filial children, chaste widows, and selfless friends provide a deeper understanding of the five cardinal relationships central to Confucian ethics. They explore the inherent tension between what we might call textbook morality, on the one hand, and untidy everyday life, on the other. The stories often take a critical view of mechanical notions of retribution, countering it with the logic of virtue as its own reward. Conflict between passion and duty is typically resolved in favor of duty, a duty redefined with a palpable sense of urgency. In constructing vernacular representations of moral exemplars from the recent historical past rather than from remote or fictitious antiquity, the story compilers show how these virtues are not abstract or monolithic norms, but play out within the contingencies of time and space.
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