From Moral Degeneration to Social Negotiation: Deception and Mindreading in Late Imperial Chinese Drama

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


East Asian Languages and Literatures

First Advisor

Lu, Tina


This dissertation explores how deception makes explicit the unspoken grounds on which seventeenth-century Chinese chuanqi dramatists made sense of the class conflicts and moral fluidity in their society. In seventeenth-century China, commerce sent scammers and forgeries to every corner of the country, frequent political conflicts forced officials into duplicity, and along with the new plasticity of social identity, the notion of social imposture came to the fore. Concurrently, the booming publishing industry allowed anxieties about deception to run free on the page. Seventeenth-century China was not only an age of deception, but also the period that produced the most writings about deception in Chinese history. However, scholars of this period have tended to focus on its cult of the genuine. As the first book-length study of deception in Chinese literature, my dissertation examines this prominent interest in deception by focusing on representations of lying, imposture, and forgery in seventeenth-century chuanqi drama, the most popular dramatic form in late imperial China. It argues that chuanqi drama serves as a site for questioning social hierarchies and moral norms, thereby challenging the previous scholarly understanding of chuanqi drama as a genre reinforcing social stratification and moral orthodoxy. My dissertation includes an introduction, four chapters, and a coda. The introduction investigates the historical trends and theoretical discourses that fueled the new interest in writing about deception in the seventeenth century. Chapter 1 explores Neo-Confucian conceptualizations of mendacity, with a focus on the relationship between deception and mindreading. Chapters 2 to 4 examine the works of three chuanqi dramatists who took three different approaches to deception. Chapter 2 discusses Shen Jing’s (1553-1610) populist approach. Shen Jing presents deception as a mind game, in which social subordinates successfully trick their superiors. By portraying the underdog in a subtly positive and sympathetic light, he critiques social stratification. Chapter 3 looks into Zhang Qi’s (fl. 1614-1636) elitist approach. Zhang Qi portrays deception as a literary game, in which cultural elites expose hereditary elites and newly rich merchants as social impostors. By setting cultural literacy as the only reliable marker of social class, he delegitimizes privilege by birth and the social mobility brought by an increasingly commercialized economy. Chapter 4 focuses on Li Yu’s (1611-1680) pluralist approach. Li Yu depicts deception as a mutually beneficial game, in which both the low-born tricksters and their high-born victims turn out to be winners. In doing so, he reinforces social hierarchies and orthodox moral values while celebrating tricksters who cross social boundaries and violate moral norms. The coda investigates what is unique about drama by comparing theatrical and fictional representations of deception.

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