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Love Amid the Ruins (Paywalled)

Poetry and pleasure in a long lost Ming dynasty world

It was the end of their world. By the middle of the 17th century, the Ming dynasty, which had ruled China for over 275 years, was disintegrating. Rival warlords marched their armies across peaceful villages and swept through once elegant cities. Foreign invaders from the north charged past the Great Wall and installed their own emperor in Beijing.

These circumstances forced scholars to abandon their genteel lives of poetry contests, courtesan appreciation, and painting to become refugees. In Jiangnan, the area south of the Yangtze River which had long been the cultural and intellectual heart of the Ming dynasty, elite male writers like Mao Xiang (冒襄) and Yu Huai (余怀) responded to the cataclysm with nostalgia for a world they believed was lost forever: the pleasure quarters of Nanjing, Suzhou, and other Jiangnan cities.

In Plum Shadows and Plank Bridge: Two Memoirs about Courtesans, Wai-yee Li has translated and annotated the poignant reminisces of Mao and Yu in a book that is an essential addition to a growing body of scholarship on the lives of women in late imperial China. In houses, boats, palaces, and pavilions, the men of Jiangnan enjoyed the company of talented women who pushed and, in some cases, transcended the established norms.

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Love Amid the Ruins (Paywalled) is a story from our issue, “Disaster Warning.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.

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Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and historian based in Beijing since 2002. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Davis, and has taught Late Imperial and Modern Chinese History for over 15 years. His essays and articles on China have appeared in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Journal of Asian Studies, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The World of Chinese. His writings can also be found in China in “2008: A Year of Great Significance,” “The Insider’s Guide to Beijing,” and the 2015 collection “While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writer’s Colony.” Jeremiah frequent speaks and leads workshops on history, culture, and cultural adaptation for students, embassies, companies, and community groups. Along with David Moser, Jeremiah also hosts the podcast Barbarians at the Gate.

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