“Transmutations of Desire: Literature and Religion in Late Imperial China” by Qiancheng Li


A young lady surnamed Yu died after obsessively reading Tang Xianzu’s play, The Peony Pavilion. The Ming/Qing literary critic and editor Jin Shengtan, took to bed for four days after reading certain lines of the same play. The encounter with great literature produces an aesthetic shock, comparable to becoming lovestruck. Since Plato and Aristotle, western literary critics have pondered the significance of these emotions provoked by art. Li Qiancheng’s Transmutations of Desire describes how Chinese literary critics addressed this phenomenon, and composed some of the most compelling descriptions and explanations for it. 

After an introduction to the cultural and religious background of Ming and Qing literature and the concept of 情 qing, passionate love, Li examines five famous works of this era: The Peony Pavilion, The Western Wing, The Palace of Eternal Life, The Peach Blossom Fan and The Dream of the Red Chamber, four plays and one novel. He also discusses a couple of less-well known works, including one in which the heroine is the unfortunate Ms Yu herself.

Anyone who has enjoyed reading or watching a performance of these works (including the 1987 CCTV production of the Dream of the Red Chamber) will gain a deeper appreciation from Li’s discussion, which includes extensive excerpts from Ming and Qing era criticism. Valuable are the commentaries of Jin Shengtan, who explores his own feelings about the conflict between these tales of romance and his Buddhist convictions. Buddhism, indeed, especially of the Chan or Zen school, provides a rich vocabulary and an insightful psychology for describing and analyzing passion. To enhance the understanding of western readers, Li cautiously introduces European parallels, but concentrates on letting Ming/Qing literature speak for itself. There are just enough comparisons with western writers like Goethe, Freud and Irigaray to prompt further thinking.

On the other hand, the book assumes a robust familiarity with the main personalities and works of the late imperial era. The author shares extensive translations of the works under analysis; so even if one has not read all of the works, one can follow his argumentation. Less specialized readers will want to jump to Wikipedia from time to time to be reminded of the cultural importance of these references.


Transmutations of Desire: Literature and Religion in Late Imperial China, Qiancheng Li (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, November 2020)
Transmutations of Desire: Literature and Religion in Late Imperial China, Qiancheng Li (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, November 2020)

Transmutations of Desire explores some important questions about the role of passionate love in the world of the Ming/Qing literati that have enduring value and interest for us.

The first question Li’s Ming and Qing writers dealt with is whether passionate love or qing is blameworthy. Was writing plays about love strictly speaking something a learned person should pursue? Friends and contemporaries of Tang and Kong Shangren (author of The Peach Blossom Fan) thought they should be embarrassed, as if they were writing pornography, or penny dreadfuls. Such criticism was never leveled at Shakespeare because neither the bard nor his patrons were scholars in the sense of Tang or Kong (a descendent of Confucius). One wonders if Newton wrote love poetry what his friends would have made of this.  To the Confucian, passionate love is unnecessary, and threatens society with disorder. To the Buddhist, passionate love is the source of pain, and its consummation results in additional life bound to the wheel of rebirth, samsara. Kong’s Peach Blossom Fan ends, accordingly, with the lovers entering a monastery and renouncing qing.

Moralizers frequently find passionate love blameworthy since, from the outside, it can easily appear to be a mere infatuation. If love can indeed be a transcendental experience, none but the lovers see or understand this. Great poets’ verses express the transcendental nature of passion. One can well understand why the unhappy Ms Yu died from reading the Peony Pavilion.

The second question, formulated also by Tennyson: “is it better to have loved and lost?” Tang Xianzu makes a Kierkegaardian leap of faith in the Peony Pavilion by insisting that full embracing of passion transcends passion. Hong Sheng, the author of The Palace of Eternal Life, wants “those who do not possess qing to have qing, and those that possess qing to forget qing.” His heroine Precious Concubine Yang repents her life consumed by passion and so is restored to her pre-birth status as an immortal.

The third question asks, “Is life tragic?” In many Chinese operas a tragic false denouement is followed by a happy ending. In the play A Couple of Soles the lovers drown themselves, are turned into fish, and then reunited in their own forms. This leads Li to wonder whether Chinese people are not just hopeless optimists. Where else can one bribe the judges in Hell? Yet Buddhism undoubtedly views the world as suffering. Ever the devout Buddhist, Jin Shengtan re-edited The Western Pavilion to remove the happy ending, condemning the lovers to separation and sadness. As he puts it, it is important to get at the “right meaning” since often a play has its own significance, one that the original author may or may not have understood. The task of the scholar is to help find the real meaning, including rewrites and alterations.


What then is the value of passionate love? A scholar expounded on this topic before the Kangxi Emperor. Only people who love passionately can find the way or dao. The Buddha teaches (in a beautiful text by Jin Shengtan) that separation from love brings them to enlightenment. “Worldly people do not see this, Tang Xianzu himself did not see this.” The Kangxi Emperor nodded silently in agreement.

Whether qing is necessary to have, or to transcend on the road to enlightenment, Li notes the importance of qing as an element of great art. “What is rare,” opined the husband and wife team of Qing literati, Wu and Cheng, “is those talented in the expression of qing, who contribute to the pleasure of being human.” Li’s book helps us understand the shock of qing we encounter in these Ming and Qing era works, and shows why these works have universal appeal.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.