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Feng Menglong

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Money and the commodification of Human Relations in Feng Menglong's stories

Much of Chinese literature, as we know it today, is derived from the prolific

storytelling period of the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Furthermore, during this period, the

vernacular story was particularly popular. As opposed to the more abstruse and formal

classical fiction, vernacular tales were fashioned with less rigidity and thus were often

better able to capture the more colorful and sometimes sordid details of the Chinese life

and culture of the times, such as the commoditization of human relationships that arose

with the Ming dynasty's incomparable prosperity. Feng Meng-long's works "Du Tenth

Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger," and "The Canary Murders," two stories representative of

the period, are prime examples of the way how in many instances, life became reduced to

a series of monetary transactions. Reflective of the money-centric mentality of the time,

relationships smacked of financial arrangements, and the ultimate fortunes of individual

characters were determined by their greed or, in a few noble cases, lack thereof.

Unlike in the past where, under the classical treatment, details related to money

and other distinctly non-philosophical items were glossed over or left out entirely, Feng

Meng-long and his contemporaries actively included such tidbits of information in their

writings (Stephen Owen, Anthology, 834). The story of "Du Tenth" is particularly

focused on a series of business dealings that are central to the plot development. A highly

sought-after prostitute, Du Tenth falls in love with Li Jia, a tender but timid youth, and

cunningly negotiates with her madam the price of redeeming her freedom. This exchange

begins with the madam conniving to rid Du's chambers of the now poverty-stricken Li

Jia. The madam has shed all her former good manners when she sees that Li Jia has run

out of funds to lavish upon her house. Her actions are expected from a woman used to

dealing in flesh, as she asks for three hundred taels of silver within three days, an offer

that Du Tenth coaxes her out of. "But three days is such a short time. Give him ten, and

you've got a deal" (Stephen Owen, Anthology, 839). It is unusual for a business

negotiation to be recorded in such detail in stories, much less one about a prostitute

seeking to cast off her bondage. The story continues in a similar vein, with Du and Li's

fundraising efforts explained in great detail: from their first battle of three hundred taels

with the madam, to the twenty taels given to Li to outfit himself, to the fifty taels in

traveling expenses as collected by Du's sisters, and even to the one thousand taels Li

ultimately sold Du for. The reader is spared no detail of the transactions involved, and is

constantly reminded of the difficulty of procuring these amounts of money, such as the

time when Li was unable to beg money from his relatives and stayed away from the

brothel for six days, having no face to see Du. Indeed, Du and Li's relationship prior to

their journey away from the brothel are brushed over lightly, and no concrete incidents

are spoken of at all to highlight their affections for each other, except that Li "was a big

spender and quick to say the right thing" (Stephen Owen, Anthology, 837). It is only

through the tribulations that they encounter as they try to fundraise their way out of their

impoverished circumstances that the existence of their love is made obvious at all.

With the exception of Du Tenth, no one manages to escape the rampant

materialism of the time. Even Liu Yu-Chun, the academy scholar who was later richly

rewarded for his faith in Du's intentions, started off doubtful about the true plan she had

in mind. "That mist-and-flowers woman knows you've got nowhere to go to raise that

kind of money, and is only telling you all this to put you in an impossible position"

(Stephen Owen, Anthology, 841). However, upon seeing the one hundred fifty taels of

silver that Du Tenth willingly surrendered for the sake of a clean future together with Li,

Liu Yu-Chun was moved to seek the rest of the funds on her behalf. At this point in the

story, solely on account of the silver and without any further exploration into Du's

motives, Liu has made an abrupt change in his evaluation of Du's character. Instead of

just falling short of calling her a whore like he had previously, he exclaims that "this is

truly a woman with sincere intentions Ð'... she has real feeling" (Stephen Owen, Anthology,

842). Apparently, to Liu's thinking, any woman who was able to part with such a large

amount of money without hesitation must be worthy of respect. Although his judgment of

Du's nature was ultimately correct and his actions sympathetic and generous, he was

nonetheless directed



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