THE ANXIETY OF DEATH - QING'S FIXATION ON IMMORTALITY

Urban literati of the Late Ming endeavored to contextualize their Problem of Ephemerality as the Ming narrative to be immortalized (thereby ‘solving’ the Problem) in the ledgers of dynastic history. Literati bemoaned the inherent lateness of aesthetic development and the paradoxical beauty of the nearly dead. Connoisseurship was a nostalgic mode for eulogizing the cult of qing, brutish Manchu armies threatened the atemporal rule of dynastic law and aristocratic privilege (and thus the literati identity), and the aesthetic principles that defined the cult of qing, derived from homoerotic fetishism of catamites and boyishness, rested upon a dewy paradigm propped by qing literature, doomed to the same death as boyhood. Ming literati outlived their very culture; ironically, the anxiety of death stoked the dialectic, heightening the requisite vapidity and obsession of qing. Qing was a quest to immortalize the delicacy of boyishness and unsullied masculine vitality, analogies for the masculinity of mania and the erotic courtship of literatus and literatus that ordered the hierarchies of intellectual societies. Through the scholar’s lens, Ming was on the precipice of death, but as long as qing was manifest in youthful ephemerality, qing obsession could become a rare, permanent fixture of the China narrative, one impervious to age and dynastic upheaval.

A main, albeit controversial, tenet of the literati’s “cultural heritage” was “[the value] of class-transcendence,” an aesthetic irony posed as part of the literati’s offensive against Neo-Confucian “doctrinaires.” Literati patrons of the theater could mimic the capriciousness of a youthful mind in their dualistic embrace of sophistication and low culture, pragmatically curating a relationship with youths and youthfulness to bolster their own qing. Literatus patrons replaced the Confucian father in the social niches emptied by the accessible capitalism of the Ming; as Hellmut Wilhelm holds: “When…the father in society is stripped of his dominant position, a filial son will dispense with the expressions of the virtue of filial piety.” Filial duty implies maturity and acknowledges the temporality of youth. Absent that ingrained cultural reflex, the youth is societally freed from a connotation of adulthood. Literati who traded young actors as catamites and protégés thus halted and obscured the transitions of adolescence and perpetuated the androgyny of boyhood. Moreover, boy actors were commodified by literati partly for their androgyny: qing writers in the field of compiling actor rosters “[appropriated] the rhetorical strategies used for courtesan entertainers to record the charms of boy actors, [signaling] their perception of opera players as purveyors of erotic…spectacle.” Boy actors’ youthful “vulnerability…spoke to [literati] senses of self,” ones tainted by the impropriety of class transcendence and homoeroticism, from which literati gleaned vignettes of coveted immortality as affected youthfulness.

Youthfulness, however, is a theme virtually omnipresent in the writings of qing literati, largely due to its litany of connotative synonyms; among them, purity, the state before arousal (weifa)—two notions rooted in eroticism. Purity as youthful chastity and naiveté, a characteristic of qing tales’ women (perhaps marketable substitutes for boy actors); and the state before arousal as evocative of the precursor to an inferred ejaculation. As Andrea Goldman astutely asserts: “[Qing stories] emphasized sensuality rather than raw sexuality, [defining] the supreme expression of sensual climax as a chaste—unspent—desire.” Literati culture’s obsession with the inert but kinetic—unspent, unsoiled, landscapes, tranquil shelves for the objects of connoisseurship--was deftly translated to the connoisseurship of young boys as the most nostalgia-inducing objects one could possess. Catamites’ persistent youthfulness provoked and pleased literati, who perhaps could see their own faces, younger, in those of boy actors. Boy actors were the unachievable standard—true thespians of qing—whose emotive theatrics and enviable figures located qing in the mathematics of nature and the materials of society. Literati’s “pain of remembrance,” Wai-yee Lee accurately claims, “retroactively legitimizes pleasure."

The self that had atrophied into the husk of a sage literatus possessed qing in itself; qing was a “wistful longing for vanished people and things.” The self had vanished in the intellectual’s eye, receded into its physical core to allocate space for qing and the qing soul that one develops through connoisseurship and embrace of the idolatry of youth. Boy actors thus were not unlike “vanished selves” onstage; the proprietor could own his past self, but only if he admitted his own death had already taken place. Therein lies the anxiety of death. Qing was obsessively dedicated to death and regeneration, though attempts at the latter are mere pastiche and lack pure qing. Qing had been found beyond the courtyard, beyond age, and beyond Ming. 

The efforts mounted by the cult of qing to “discover” qing in organic settings are clear in works by the likes of Zhang Dai, who aspired to a monastic lifestyle of aesthetic connoisseurship, but visible, even, in paintings of the Late Ming. Shen Xuan’s Bamboo and Rocks depicts a young bamboo outcropping amidst a scattering of irregular boulders, seemingly worn down by a complicated process over the course of millennia. The bamboo, by contrast, is capricious and boyish. Lanky, with needle-thin sprigs protruding spontaneously along the course of the flexed stalk—the plant is a clear reference to the desirability of youth. The stones in the composition are indicators of the permanence of the bamboo’s cycle, demonstrating a rightful, natural pairing of ancient and eternally renewed. The boulders, undying and resilient to change, reflect the sturdiness of the qing dialectic’s societal niche and the artists’ anxiety of imminent death and death’s abject failings. But they are also the “heritage,” and the “doctrinaire line,” the defiant Ming stance whose porousness enables the literatus to assume a father’s role, freezing the Confucian pistons in place and separating boy and man.

The freezing of the Ming monoculture to develop the cult of qing as a viable successor or replacement to Neo-Confucianism would have halted the capitalist dialectic that insisted on temporality. But literati of the Late Ming could not overcome their shared, debilitating anxiety toward permanent, old death. Ultimately what dismantled the ulterior thesis of the cult of qing was the thesis itself.