San Francisco State University
The Analects of Confucius – Book VII, Chapter 201
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians – 13:12
Though existing half a world away from each other, authors Yuan Mei and J. Sheridan Le Fanu shared a similar goal when composing their respective series of short stories: to help lead their readers to understand and question their place in society. Both authors were distinctly aware of the pressures placed upon them and others by the tenets of their respective societies, the strict moral codes of neo–Confucian fundamentalists in Qing Dynasty China for Yuan, and that of mid–Victorian Britain for Le Fanu. These collections of short stories were meant to awaken the world to the existence of the
other, a nature of being that takes place outside the paradigm of conventional understanding and meaning of what's
normal. For Yuan and Le Fanu, the presence of that which goes against the grain of their respective moral/belief driven establishments, such as the supernatural and the unexplainable, is used to not only wipe clean the dark glass in which their readers view the
other, but to wipe clean the very same glass in which they view themselves.
It will be my goal to consider two works, Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, first published in 1872, and Yuan Mei's Zi buyu (
子不語 – Of What the Master Did Not Speak) published over a century before, and present the manner in which these two authors, when considering their works as a whole, seek to deconstruct the institutions in which they find themselves apart of through presentation of the
other. This will be done through an analysis of the narrative strategies Yuan and Le Fanu employ in relating their stories to their respective audiences and its content as a means of exploiting the idea of the
other and the potential for its existence on the
normative plane. Moreover, one story will be chosen from each collection in order to bring into focus the authors' intentions when presenting the danger of relying on one's culturally constructed identity when faced with the
other. Ultimately, in conjunction with both analyses, there will be an understanding of how both authors, though decidedly different culturally and/or otherwise, attempt to react against their own respective social institutions and help their readers to question the foundations of their own identity.
I: Setting the Scene for the Other
In reference to the epigraphs cited prior to my introduction, both collections draw their titles from the main canons of their respective moral/belief systems: The Confucian Analects in the case of Yuan Mei, and for Le Fanu, the Bible. In shrouding their collections under the auspices of such titles, the authors meant to lead the reader into considering the texts to which they're alluding before and during the reading of their tales. In Yuan's case, alluding to the chapter within the Analects that detail the various topics Confucius wouldn't discuss raises a red flag for readers of his generation—and he knew full well that it would. This is not to say that Yuan Mei had a bone to pick with the teachings of Confucius—quite to the contrary, Yuan Mei was very much a proponent of the Analects. However, Yuan despised the neo–Confucian fundamentalists of his era who often misinterepreted the words for their own devices and ultimately act contrary to what he felt to be the true teachings of Confucius. His motives behind titling his collection as such was specifically aimed at this group—and ironically, the scandal this collection ultimately raised amongst neo–Confucian fundamentalists caused Zi buyu to experience unprecedented popularity amongst the literati of his generation and beyond.
Although met with significantly less scandal in mid–Victorian Britain, Le Fanu's titling of his collection In a Glass Darkly was by no means arbitrary. Taken from Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, the passage could perhaps be interpreted as a consolation to those who could not see God and the meaning of his works clearly, assuring that upon meeting him face to face, all uncertainty would vanish. Le Fanu, however, makes a slight semantic twist to the segment of the passage he utilizes for his title. Instead of
through a glass darkly, Le Fanu replaces
in. Should we seriously consider this change in semantics, Le Fanu must be converting the
glass described by Saint Paul into a
looking glass—a glass made specifically for looking
into in order to view one's self and/or one's surroundings from the perspective of the
other. Moreover, this view is dark, unclear. If the biblical passage alludes to our ability for us to clearly discern the
other through a lens and visa–versa, Le Fanu places us as readers in front of a mirror, viewing ourselves and those around us as the
When considering the narrative structure of Yuan and Le Fanu's short tales, though decidedly similar in their authorial intent and subject matter, coming to terms with their stylistic differences would be a fruitful exercise. Yuan Mei, in Zi buyu, utilizes a narrative technique known as biji xiaoshuo (
筆記小說 ), a term that literally means
fiction that is penned, and a type of writing is categorized separately from
true literary writing due to its unregulated and almost free–form nature. This style of writing was prominent throughout the history of Chinese literature, possibly dating as far back as the Han Dynasty beginning in 206 B.C.E.
This style of prose is often marked by its brevity and is usually compiled into collections as opposed to appearing as separate short works. Moreover, due to its brevity, compilations of biji xiaoshuo were typically encyclopedic in nature, often adding a sort of epistemological seriousness to its subject matter.
The narrative style of biji xiaoshuo had taken on a number of genres over the course of its literary history. Most relevant to Yuan's collection of short tales was the zhiguai (
志怪) genre, or
records of the strange and anomalous, and later during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 C.E.) the development of the chuanqi (
傳奇) genre, or
recounting the strange. Both genres typify the idea of the strange (
other) coexisting with humanity in the realm of the
real. The zhiguai genre promotes the more fantastical idea of imagining otherworldly creatures, ghosts, and mythical lands, whereas the chuanqi genre focuses more on the domestic sphere of human adventures and romance where the supernatural appears, if at all, merely as an aid or foil to the pursuits of the main character(s).
During the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) and throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 AD), a sort of hybrid of the zhiguai and chuanqi genres was achieved and ultimately popularized through the use of biji xiaoshuo form by the author Pu Songling (1640–1715 AD). In his collection of short tales entitled Liaozhai Zhiyi
聊齋志異 (Strange Tales of Liaozhai),2 the form takes on a whole new genre through combining tales of romance, daring, and, at times, comedy one expects to find in the chuanqi genre with a deeply rooted sense of the supernatural exemplified by the zhiguai genre of fiction.
Though written in Classical Chinese3 and oftentimes pedantic in nature, this evolution of biji xiaoshuo struck an immense following amongst the upper–echelon of educated society during the Qing. Often filled with wit and humor (and in the case of Pu, an ardent ventilation of his frustrations), these particular exercises in classical Chinese prose were often a breath of fresh air to those used to reading
drier examples of the form. As a result of their output and popularity, both Pu Songling and Yuan Mei are considered amongst a group of writers of such fiction to be the
greatest storytellers of the Qing Dynasty (Louie and Edwards xxix)4.
Yuan's most controversial collection of biji xiaoshuo, Zi buyu, does not stray far in terms of form, which in and of itself had been in existence for nearly 2000 years during Yuan's lifetime, but does take the hybrid genre outlined above, with a particular emphasis on zhiguai, to new heights of expression. His utilization of the strange and
otherworldly in Zi buyu specifically denounces the hypocrisy and injustice he felt was prevalent within a society controlled largely by the tenets of neo–Confucian fundamentalists. According to Sing–chen Lydia Chiang,
the ideological conflict between Yuan Mei and Qing Confucian fundamentalists was an underlying theme of his compilation of anomaly accounts [. . .] As if in open defiance of the alleged Confucian avoidance to speak of guai [ghosts][. . .] Zi buyu was almost entirely written in the zhiguai form (41). Moreover, the content of Yuan's collection when considered in conjunction with its title, more or less flagrantly positions the collection in defiance to neo–Confucian norms, and caused great controversy amongst Qing fundamentalists who almost immediately earmarked the collection as
J. Sheridan Le Fanu and his work In a Glass Darkly, on the other hand, never met with the social animosity afforded to Yuan Mei and Zi buyu. Quite to the contrary, the work In a Glass Darkly presents no immediate evidence of
outright defiance towards the Victorian establishment above and beyond the collection's rather unorthodox dealings with sexuality, the supernatural and the occult. Closer reading of the individual tales and consideration of the work as a whole however, according to Sean McGeever,
reflect a much more realistic and pessimistic view of mid–Victorian society, and
in a more universal way, [reveal] a thorough and deep understanding of the nature and weakness of contemporary Victorian society and the individuals who peopled it (3). Indeed such tales, when considering the subject matter's obvious inclination towards a more popular audience, often escapes being read as a deeply rooted social critique.
In contrast to biji xiaoshuo, Le Fanu's writing was specifically aimed towards more popular tastes of the time (as opposed to the popular tastes of a select class of literati, as was the case with Yuan Mei's collection and the biji xiaoshuo form as a whole), and indeed, tales of mystery and the supernatural were quite in vogue during the period in which Le Fanu wrote. However, throughout his prolific career as a writer of such fiction, Le Fanu's success as an author was ultimately dependent upon the often mercurial literary tastes of the time:
He never achieved the critical or financial success of contemporary writers such as Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins, and his reputation went into decline as literary tastes changed towards the end of the century. Moreover,
he remained a largely forgotten Victorian writer for over fifty years after his death in 1873 [. . .] (McGeever 1). This fact sits in stark contrast to the output of Yuan Mei, whose work was aggressively consumed by the literati audience of the time for, if anything, its clearly subversive stance against the moral establishment.
Despite Le Fanu's lack of critical and financial success as an author, In a Glass Darkly, written towards the end of his life, is considered to be his most successful and thematically coherent collection of short fiction. Divided into five tales,
Mr. Justice Harbottle,
The Room in the Dragon Volant, and
Carmilla, McGeever sees the order of the stories as correlating with the structure of mid–Victorian British society,
beginning with the Anglican Church at the top of the structure, representing the spiritual world, and ending with women and sexuality at the bottom, representing materialism (9). Moreover, each tale is framed as a case study taken from the papers of the apparently deceased Dr. Martin Hesselius which are then communicated to the readers via the words of the doctor's medical secretary and executor:
[The case studies are] related in a series of letters to his friend Professor Van Loo of Leyden [. . . .] They are written, some in English, some in French, but the greater part in German. I am a faithful, though I am conscious, by no means a graceful translator and although here and there I omit some passages, and shorten others, and disguise names, I have interpolated nothing (Le Fanu 179 emphasis added). The nameless executor's
interpolating nothing seems to lose meaning given his/her obvious inadequacy in relating the subject matter fully. This, in conjunction with the assumed biases of Dr. Hesselius, lends an additional layer of darkness over an already darkened
Should the misinterpretation of Confucian values be that which
darkens Yuan's glass, then Dr. Hesselius and ultimately, the executor of his papers, are the embodiment of the institutions that serve as a foil to the underlying truth of Le Fanu's tales and characters. Like neo–Confucian literati who condemned Zi buyu as heretical, claiming that which the Master did not discuss should remain rightly hidden from view, Dr. Hesselius hopes to accomplish the same task through documenting the anomalies of his own career and filing them away only to be discussed and retold incompetently upon his death by a subordinate. The fact remains that while both collections cannot avoid the subjectivity of their readers, and while in contrast to Yuan, Le Fanu provides multiple layers of confused interpretation above and beyond the core narrative, their goals remain the same. Should the reader choose to shroud these collections with a certain metafictional understanding of the text, each tale as a result, cannot escape the eye of reason that haunts them, whether an embodiment of that
normative reason exists or not, it is left ultimately up to the reader to decide how reasonable this eye truly is.
II: Presenting the Other as Social Critique
Drawing the tales of Yuan Mei and J. Sheridan Le Fanu together as objects for coherent comparison can by no means be an easy task. The writers lived nearly a century apart from each other and inhabited two disparate empires driven by very distinctly different social institutions. However, it will be my task to draw them together, not for their textual similarities, but ultimately for their shared goals in leading the reader to recognize the
other and to question that which is socially and morally accepted as the
In order to complete this task, I will take one story from Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly,
Green Tea, and one from Yuan Mei's Zi buyu,
The Scholars of Nanchang). Both stories exist amongst other stories which serve to meet the authors' goals for their collection as whole; however these two tales, I feel, express the authors' strongest consideration of the individual's identity bound to social norms, hoping to cope with a sudden infusion of the
other into their lives. Moreover, I will tie the tales
Green Tea and
The Scholars of Nanchang together in order to investigate the psychological pressures of deviating from a socially accepted system of belief through recognition of the
other, and ultimately, in the recognition of the self as a cultural construct.
In the opening tale of Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly,
Green Tea, the reader is introduced to three characters in succession: Dr. Hesselius' executor who recounts this tale and those to follow, Dr. Hesselius himself, and Reverend Jennings, the tale's protagonist.
Green Tea takes the reader down the path of witnessing the rapid mental decline of an Anglican clergyman who cannot successfully reconcile the epistemological power of science with that of his own spiritual beliefs.
Dr. Hesselius becomes acquainted with the troubled Reverend Jennings early in the story (this will be the first and only time that Dr. Hesselius actually takes an active role as a character in this collection) and immediately picks up on his various quirks, such as
looking sidelong upon the carpet, as if his eye followed the movements of something there and a considerable penchant for drinking green tea (Le Fanu 180). Moreover, both Hesselius and Jennings share a common interest in the spiritual writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, from whose text, Arcana Caelestia, Hesselius quotes:
'When man's interior sight is opened, which is that of his spirit, then there appear the things of another life, which cannot be made visible to the bodily sight' (Le Fanu 186). This quote will prove to be of particular use in his diagnosis of Jennings at the end of the story.
The impetus of the tale up until Jennings' own suicide by taking a razor to his throat is the fact that Jennings is consistently tormented by a
phantom monkey that no one else can see. Jennings mentions that these hauntings began to occur once he had begun a project of writing on
religious metaphysics of the ancients in conjunction with the drinking of green tea5 to maintain and intensify his power of thought as he wrote (Le Fanu 192). Moreover, the monkey would appear to Jennings sporadically, in one dramatic scene as recounted by Jennings,
At last, it reached this extremity, that while I was reading to the congregation, it would spring upon the book and squat there, so that I was unable to see the page. This happened more than once (Le Fanu 198). Upon relation of this moment to Hesselius, Jennings' decline progressed rapidly up to his last call for help:
It is always urging me to crimes, to injure others, or myself. You see, Doctor, the situation is urgent, it is indeed. (Le Fanu 201), a call left ultimately unheeded given Jennings' subsequent suicide.
Hesselius, in his final diagnosis of this particular case study, relates in his letter to Prof. Van Loo a laundry list of apparently quack metaphysical medical detail surrounding the
Cardinal Functions of the Brain (Le Fanu 206). Here Hesselius describes how Jennings' over consumption of green tea had caused an imbalance in the circulation of his bodily fluids and ultimately caused his
inner eye to open. He then goes on to explain that he, in hindsight,
should have first dimmed and ultimately sealed that inner eye which Mr. Jennings had inadvertently opened (Le Fanu 207). He adds,
Poor Mr. Jennings I cannot call a patient of mine [. . .] he had not yet given me, I am convinced, his full and unreserved confidence (Le Fanu 207). And with that, Hesselius closes his case study on Reverend Jennings, which by his own admission at the end, cannot even be considered one.
In taking a closer look at the story
Green Tea, we are to understand that through the various layers of interpretation that Le Fanu invokes in the telling of his tale, a single man exists tormented by the
other that seeks to invade the stability of his life as an Anglican clergyman. At all turns Jennings seeks guidance from members of his society in hopes of achieving the help he needs to rid himself of the
phantom monkey, that haunts him, yet no one can help, as no one can relate with the troubles he is experiencing nor ultimately can they see what he sees. How then can we understand the plight of this man, and how is it that not even a man of science such as Dr. Hesselius could help him?
Jennings, a tragic figure within the society for which he assumed the role as an Anglican minister, opens his,
inner eye, upon the introduction of the
other into his world. Jennings' station in society is to be a practitioner of the Anglican faith, deviating from his belief system would not only void his work as a minister, but would serve to shatter his culturally constructed identity:
What the Anglican clergyman implies, but does not state explicitly, is that his studies have led him into the quicksand of religious doubt from which, it appears, he is unable to extricate himself (McGeever 32). Moreover, the inability for other members of his society to adequately understand and cure Jennings of his hallucinations is due to the fact that they too possess culturally constructed identities, incompatible with that of his own:
Desperate as he is to seek help from the [. . .] doctor, however, Jennings must transform his ordeal into a more socially acceptable form in typical decorous Victorian fashion [. . .] (McGeever 33). Hence, due to his culturally determined identity as an Anglican clergyman, Jennings must inadequately translate (similar to Dr. Hesselius' executor in the story's prologue) his true thoughts and feelings into a language that can be fittingly expressed by a man of his station. This would also speak to the irony of Hesselius not considering Jennings a patient due to
confidence issues on Jennings' part. As a result of Jennings' failure to communicate adequately across identities, no one truly knows, understands, or believes that Jennings is suffering, not from the over–consumption of green tea, but from an inability to cope with the possibility of his culturally constructed identity being called into question.
In Yuan Mei's tale,
The Scholars of Nanchang, though decidedly shorter and less complex in its narrative, one finds a similar goal in its composition. Set in the Nanchang prefecture in Jiangxi province, the story introduces two scholars to the reader who become close friends despite their difference in age. The elder scholar, upon his return home, dies, unbeknownst to the younger scholar, who had stayed behind to continue his studies. The dead scholar then returns to his younger friend in order to say farewell and request that he complete some unfinished business he had left prior to his death before leaving for the afterlife.
Upon finishing their conversation with the younger scholar's agreement to aid his dead friend, the elder says,
I will now leave) (Yuan 4). Yet upon uttering these words, the elder scholar does not leave, and instead begins to decompose into a living corpse, still standing. The younger scholar questions the corpse as to why it was not leaving, but receives no response. The scholar then motions more violently for the corpse to leave, but it stands still until the younger man runs away horrified.
The corpse pursues the young scholar for miles until the younger man comes to a wall, climbs over it, and falls unconscious on the other side. The corpse, which cannot not climb the wall, rests its head at the top of the wall and
口中涎沫與少者之面相滴涔涔也 (Yuan 4) (drooled saliva from its mouth, drop by drop, slowly hitting the younger scholar's face). Upon which time, pedestrians locate the scholar and revive him with ginger soup, and the family of the elder scholar locates his corpse and interns it for proper burial.
Yuan Mei ends this story with commentary and attempts to explain away the phenomenon through the use of Daoist mysticism:
識者曰：'人之魂善而魄惡,人之魂靈而魄愚.其始來也,一靈不泯，魄附魂以行:其既去也,心事既畢,魂一散而魄滯.魂在,則其人也:魂去,則非其人也.世之移屍走影,皆魄為之,惟有道之人為能制魄 '(Yuan 4)
(A person of knowledge once said: '[Of the two parts of one's soul]—the hun (魂) is good and the po (魄) is evil, [and of these two parts]—the hun is intelligent and the po is stupid. When the dead scholar came to his friend, the intelligent portion of his soul was still intact—the po conducted itself in accordance with the hun. Once the dead was ready to go, and all unfinished business was complete, the hun left but the po stayed behind. When hun stays, then one is. When hun leaves, then one is no more. All the moving corpses and walking shadows of the world are products of po. Only a man of Dao can truly regulate po.')
Considering this final commentary to
The Scholars of Nanchang, it will be important to place it along side that of Dr. Hesselius in his closing remarks to Prof. Van Loo in
Green Tea. Through the introduction of popular Daoist religion, Yuan Mei attempts to explain the reasons behind the younger scholar's inability to truly say farewell to his friend and ultimately subdue the corpse that remained. Although one might immediately assume that Yuan Mei is poking fun at popular religious explanations for events of the supernatural, much like we see with Le Fanu and the medical explanations of Dr. Hesselius for Jennings' own encounter with the supernatural, it is precisely this explanation that draws the reader into questioning the nature of identity in this tale as well.
With the inclusion of this explanation at the end of
The Two Scholars, Yuan Mei calls into question the convention that Chiang outlines:
Traditional literati tales of ghosts and spirits typically treat the soul(s) as fundamentally one and consider gui (Chiang 169). Indeed, in the story when the author ceases to refer to the elder scholar as sizhe
鬼 (ghost) a person's essential (as opposed to corporeal) identity in the afterlife
死者 (the dead scholar) and refers to him, upon his ghastly transformation, as shishou
屍竟 (corpse), the reader, and the young scholar, are met with the realization that the corpse remains
alive with no social identity. Moreover, given the corpse remains animated upon relieving itself of its social duties, it becomes an even more horrific example of the
other, something that cannot
rationally exist, in literature and/or elsewhere.
Since other examples of literati fiction, as outlined above, focus on the gui as existing upon the death of the body, it becomes a popular construct when considering
ghosts both literarily and socially, that the gui must dissipate upon fulfillment of its obligations on the plane of the living. Yuan Mei perhaps feels that members of society trivialize identity and do not adequately give credence to the possibility of an individual questioning their culturally and/or socially constructed identities. According to Chiang,
losing one's social identity is considered far more horrendous than one's natural, biological death. By exposing the multiplicity of human identities, the story foregrounds the concept of self as a cultural construct. Such a notion dictates that a person's life and death are not defined by the individual but by society at large, so much so that this culturally determined identity may even contradict physical reality (170). Indeed, through something as simple and unimposing as espousing popular religious ideas on the nature of the soul in his commentary, Yuan Mei is able to shatter a convention of fixing a culturally constructed identity presented popularly in literature and perhaps beyond. A horror, to those bound by such an identity, far worse than death.
Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly and Yuan Mei's Zi buyu both have been shown to be expressions by their authors of a certain discontent with, or a strong willingness to question, the social institutions and culturally constructed identities they see being imposed by their respective societies. In Le Fanu's case, In a Glass Darkly is structured as a reflection of social institution. The reader is to consider that certain aspects of mid–Victorian society cannot be considered fixed identities as they are consistently in danger of having their identities invaded by the
other. Le Fanu titled his work accordingly, allowing the reader to gaze into a glass darkly in hopes that they too may question the culturally constructed identities that they may have assumed in anticipation of the
other. Moreover, the tale
Green Tea gives us an example of the culturally constructed identity of an Anglican clergyman—unable to cope with the
other of scientific epistemology and paganism, his faith in the church deviates off course. Told through the papers of a seemingly inept member of the medical profession, Dr Hesselius, and ultimately through the faulty transliterations of his medical secretary/executor, Le Fanu further problematizes the ability of those with fixed socially determined identities to communicate effectively within a society that expects them to communicate in a certain fashion, which brings into question even further the epistemological basis for identity in mid–Victorian society.
In Yuan Mei's Zi buyu we see the author naming his work in order to directly question the neo–Confucian fundamentalist tenets upheld by the literati audience of his time. Taken from a chapter in the Confucian Analects that specifically states the topics that Confucius would not discuss, Yuan Mei spreads these topics across the collection's over 700 tales written in biji xiaoshuo form, and invites, as a result, the controversy and condemnation of those who wished these topics to remain hidden from view and marginalized. Moreover, one tale chosen from this vast collection,
The Two Scholars of Nanchang, directly indicts the formal literati institution of fixed identity through the presentation of a figure whose identity deviates from that which had been culturally constructed by society. Moreover, the wall separating the younger scholar from the animated corpse as it, in the story's most horrifically drawn out scene, slowly drools on the face of his unconscious friend, represents the forced separation of the culturally constructed identity from the
other, and the constant reminder of the horror of its existence.
In tying Le Fanu's and Yuan Mei's stories together, we see a genuine interest on the part of the authors in challenging the idea of fixed culturally constructed identities within their respective societies. The reader is to come away, upon reading these stories, with a sense of doubt when considering the basis for their own culturally determined identities and their preparedness for dealing with the
other. The tragedy of Reverend Jennings and the final farewell of the two scholars resulted from their inability to cope with the
other being introduced into their world. Reverend Jennings—in his almost frenzied motivation to establish a scientific epistemological foundation for his belief system and identity—conjured a visual representation of the
other that began to suddenly invade his identity and ultimately cause him to take his own life. The younger scholar in Yuan Mei's tale, in expectation of his elder friend's gui to drift into the afterlife upon relieving him of his social obligations, is instead met with his friend's living corpse as a challenge to his own culturally constructed identity. Both stories present a certain horror in the realization of the
other invading and deconstructing the comfort zone of one's already culturally determined identity. For Yuan and Le Fanu the key to acceptance of the
other is in understanding that identity is not fixed but in constant flux, that invasion by the
other is inevitable, and that it is ultimately up to us to choose how we react to it.