CAS Luncheon Series
Thursday, April 19, 2018; 12:30 p.m.
CAS Conference Room

Chen Zhongxi's 1850 preface to his eponymous precious scroll ends with a plea to future publishers: “do not make my coarse words elegant for fear women will have a hard time understanding.” Whether out of respect for preserving the integrity of Chen’s sermon or a need to further educate ignorant women, printed editions instead acquired a feature not commonly seen in precious scrolls: a dual register format with secondary texts occupying the upper two-fifths of each page.  In between headnotes that explicate the sermon, later editors added a vast array of information, from morality tales and descriptions of luminaries from different traditions, to home remedies for childhood illnesses, methods to ensure conception and infant sex, and housekeeping tips.

In this project, I consider the upper register, a veritable encyclopedia of late Qing popular religion, which appears to maintain Chen's concern for women as moral actors while reimagining them as individual readers rather than listening audience. Does this upper register, comprised of materials recycled from the print culture of its time, support the authoritative text below, or does it inadvertently undermine Chen’s own words? Scholars examining similarly formatted late Ming daily-use encyclopedias see reflected in such book culture a breakdown in the hierarchical order of society and knowledge. However, by presenting approaches to piety that encompasses the varying needs of daily life instead of abstractions of filiality and chastity, might this register instead create room for new configurations of goodness to emerge from the individual experience of every reader?

Katherine Alexander received a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. Her dissertation, "Virtues of the Vernacular: Moral Reconstruction in late Qing Jiangnan and the Revitalization of Baojuan" addresses popular religious literature and culture in Jiangnan during and after the Taiping War (1850-1864). Many caught up in the turmoil believed the destruction to be heaven-sent judgment for society’s ills. In addition to revising this dissertation for publication, she is currently working on a number of smaller research projects exploring prescriptive morality aimed at early modern Chinese female audiences, building towards a second book manuscript.