2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Bidding Farewell to Late Ming Nanjing:
Literary Accounts of Politics, Pleasure and Disruption

Hsiao-t’i Li

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

Compared to other cities in late imperial China, Nanjing in the late Ming period had a unique flavor. Though it did not develop as strong a political character as Beijing, the fact that the Ming court maintained part of its governmental institutions and establishments in Nanjing after the capital was moved to the north, enabled the city to play a certain political role. Gentry-literati from all over the nation, particularly from the south, gathered in Nanjing to criticize national politics and engage in fierce political struggle with the “enuch party.” After the sixteenth century, Nanjing also offered numerous avenues for material enjoyment and earthly pleasures. Courtesan houses along the Qinhua River constituted a source of indulgence and decadence. The fact that the Imperial Academy, examination halls and prostitution quarters existed side by side made the Qinhua River a symbol of desire, as was widely recorded by the gentry-literati. Evoking many delightful and licentious memories, Nanjing of the late Ming period became a city of pleasure.

For many gentry-literati of the early seventeenth century, radical political activities and decadent lives went hand in hand. The happy times in the courtesan houses along the Qinhuai River vanished in a matter of several years. Decadent life styles that figured so prominently among the Nanjing gentry-literati and late Ming contemporaries in general acquired accidental redemption with the sudden downfall of the Ming court. Based mainly on the accounts of the play Peach Blossom Fan and the Miscellaneous Notes on the Plank Bridge written by Yu Huai (1616-1696), this article describes the pleasures available in a Chinese city in the seveanteenth century and analyses the strong feelings of remorse and disruption which accompanied the collapse of the dynasty. The literary accounts of the Peach Blossom Fan as well as passages from the Miscellaneous Notes on the Plank Bridge not only provide a grand narrative structure that explains the vicissitudes of the dynasty, but also record the histories of a city, a river and a group of people who bore witness to the sudden rupture of a way of life.


Keywords: Peach Blossom Fan, Miscellaneous Notes on the Plank Bridge, late-Ming Nanjing, Qinhuai River, pleasure