Feng Menglong

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Money and the commodification of Human Relations in Feng Menglong's stories Much of Chinese literature, as we know it today, is derived from the prolific storytelling period of the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Furthermore, during this period, the vernacular story was particularly popular. As opposed to the more abstruse and formal classical fiction, vernacular tales were fashioned with less rigidity and thus were often better able to capture the more colorful and sometimes sordid details of the Chinese life and culture of the times, such as the commoditization of human relationships that arose with the Ming dynasty's incomparable prosperity. Feng Meng-long's works "Du Tenth Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger," and "The Canary Murders," two stories representative of the period, are prime examples of the way how in many instances, life became reduced to a series of monetary transactions. Reflective of the money-centric mentality of the time, relationships smacked of financial arrangements, and the ultimate fortunes of individual characters were determined by their greed or, in a few noble cases, lack thereof. Unlike in the past where, under the classical treatment, details related to money and other distinctly non-philosophical items were glossed over or left out entirely, Feng Meng-long and his contemporaries actively included such tidbits of information in their writings (Stephen Owen, Anthology, 834). The story of "Du Tenth" is particularly focused on a series of business dealings that are central to the plot development. A highly sought-after prostitute, Du Tenth falls in love with Li Jia, a tender but timid youth, and cunningly negotiates with her madam the price of redeeming her freedom. This exchange begins with the madam conniving to rid Du's chambers of the now poverty-stricken Li Jia. The madam has shed all her former good manners when she sees that Li Jia has run out of funds to lavish upon her house. Her actions are expected from a woman used to dealing in flesh, as she asks for three hundred taels of silver within three days, an offer that Du Tenth coaxes her out of. "But three days is such a short time. Give him ten, and you've got a deal" (Stephen Owen, Anthology, 839). It is unusual for a business negotiation to be recorded in such detail in stories, much less one about a prostitute seeking to cast off her bondage. The story continues in a similar vein, with Du and Li's fundraising efforts explained in great detail: from their first battle of three hundred taels with the madam, to the twenty taels given to Li to outfit himself, to the fifty taels in traveling expenses as collected by Du's sisters, and even to the one thousand taels Li ultimately sold Du for. The reader is spared no detail of the transactions involved, and is constantly reminded of the difficulty of procuring these amounts of money, such as the time when Li was unable to beg money from his relatives and stayed away from the brothel for six days, having no face to see Du. Indeed, Du and Li's relationship prior to their journey away from the brothel are brushed over lightly, and no concrete incidents are spoken of at all to highlight their affections for each other, except that Li "was a big spender and quick to say the right thing" (Stephen Owen, Anthology, 837). It is only through the tribulations that they encounter as they try to fundraise their way out of their impoverished circumstances that the existence of their love is made obvious at all. With the exception of Du Tenth, no one manages to escape the rampant materialism of the time. Even Liu Yu-Chun, the academy scholar who was later richly rewarded for his faith in Du's intentions, started off doubtful about the true plan she had in mind. "That mist-and-flowers woman knows you've got nowhere to go to raise that kind of money, and is only telling you all this to put you in an impossible position" (Stephen Owen, Anthology, 841). However, upon seeing the one hundred fifty taels of silver that Du...
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