This panel explores how moral value and social status were negotiated in China during the economic transformations from the late Ming Dynasty to the early Maoist era. We do this through the optic of literary texts that were on the fringes of and often in opposition to elite discourse. Social and economic historians have long examined the late imperial economy, the late Qing reforms and abolition of the civil service examination, the development of modern institutions in a weak Republican polity, the rise of capitalism and its subsequent demise at the hands of new Communist rulers. For the most part, such studies have focused on archives, notes, newspapers and non-fiction records. These sources offer relatively few clues to enable study of how the literate Chinese public understood moments of wrenching economic and social transformation. But a lively reading public existed that craved popular entertainment rather than the literary texts that are the most common focus of scholars of literature. This panel, organized by historians and scholars of literature, explores popular fiction as, concurrently, a historical source for economic imaginaries and economic behavior, a reflection of changing values, and, simultaneously, as an agent of value change itself. This panel is conceived as a conversation between archival and literary sources. What unites the four case studies across a history of three hundred years is the ambiguous position of business and businessmen in the public imaginaries that were often at odds with official discourse.
Fox studies how the counter-discourse of seventeenth century drama attributed moral agency to overseas merchants, foreigners, and pirates, often treated as morally dubious by the official elites. But these dramas did not yet manage to fundamentally shatter the elite values and status aspirations of the gentry and officialdom, which became the task of the late Qing exposure novels studied by Kaske. Goodman’s paper on the 1920s stock-market fiction then explores the moral confusion that resulted from the proliferation of bourgeois institutions following the demise of the dynastic system and the attempts to find a new economic language. Only thirty years later, these same institutions were being shattered again by the Communist victory. In a play and movie originally designed to criticize them they instead inspired nostalgia as shown by Sheehan.