Classical Tales in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Wang Tao’s Illustrated Songyin Serial and New Visual Culture in Late-Qing Shanghai
LanguageFrom 1884 to 1888, the late-Qing translator, writer, and world traveler Wang Tao 王韜 (1828-1897) serialized nearly 200 tales in the lithographically-printed Dianshizhai Pictorial 點石齋畫報, grouping them into the two collections Songyin manlu 淞隱漫錄 and Songyin xulu 淞隱續錄. Many scholars have regarded the Songyin serial as the “swan song” of the Chinese classical tale genre, maintaining that Wang’s innovative response to the advent of modernity is at cross-purposes with his choice of a moribund narrative form populated by ghosts and fox spirits. In my talk, I will discuss how this line of thinking symptomizes the negative consequences of the still-prevalent disregard among scholars for the medium and context of the tales’ original publication. Re-reading Wang’s tales alongside their accompanying illustrations, I will explore how the Songyin serial – written specifically for the Dianshizhai Pictorial – taps directly into its reader’s frequent encounter with the countless lithographic images of science novelty, foreign lands, and idealized women that proliferated in the most influential late-Qing illustrated magazine. My discussion will focus especially on the way Wang’s literary imagination of “the realm of illusion” – a recurring topos in his tales – crystallizes changing perceptions of the world in fin-de-siècle Shanghai. Through this talk, I aim to show that Wang’s serial, far from the last iteration of a genre in extremis, is actually one of the earliest Chinese literary works to embrace the age of mechanical reproduction and its new visual culture.
Wang Shengyu is a comparatist and literary scholar specializing in pre-modern Chinese literature, with a focus on the Chinese classical tale genre. He obtained his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago and currently teaches in the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Soochow University. His research interests include the fantastic and supernatural, crime, late-imperial Chinese visual and material culture, media studies, and chinoiserie. Currently, while working on a book manuscript about literatus Wang Tao’s contribution to the development of 19th century Chinese literature, he is researching late-imperial anomaly writings on animated objects and re-animated bodies.