Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Li Yu's "A Tower for the Summer Heat"

The Ming-Qing playwright, novelist and publisher Li Yu (1611-80) is an ingenious writer, and he is proud of his ingenuity. Time and again the narrator of his short story collection Shier Lou (Twelve Towers) praises his own inventiveness, especially in subverting some literary tradition, cultural assumption, or social hierarchy. In A Tower for the Summer Heat, Patrick Hanan has selected and translated six of the twelve stories (or "towers"), enough to give a very good idea of Li Yu's range. I have read and enjoyed Silent Operas, Li Yu's earlier collection, but I think the Towers rise above the Operas.

The title story literalizes the imagination in the form of a Western optical invention, which a man deploys to court a local beauty. In the next story "Return-to-Right Hall," invention is embodied in a successful con man. The story proves that a reformed man is greater than a good man. In "House of Gathered Refinements" a homosexual ménage à trois runs afoul of a tyrant who also loves to play "in the back courtyard." The subversion here is not so much of hetero-normality as of class. The homosexual shopkeepers are cultured and refined whereas the tyrant betrays his moral corruption.

"The Cloud-Scraper" transforms a stereotype of the maidservant. Instead of acting as a corrupting pander to her mistress, Nenghong secures marriages for both her mistress and herself, to the same man! As an antidote to the romantic comedies in the collection, "Homing Crane Lodge" offers a stoic and bleak, but also profound, view of love and life. The last story "Nativity Room" gives such an amazing series of coincidences that it amounts to a parody of the idea of fate. Singular Yin may have only one testicle, but he leaves numerous descendants behind, each born with a single testicle. In him individualism (as opposed to communalism) is shown to be socially and culturally productive too.

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