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Abstract

My dissertation is a study of popular religious literature and culture in Jiangnan during and after the Taiping War, explored through researching the contents and contexts of four baojuan. This period of baojuan florescence, at the tail end of the genre's 700-year-long history, has received little concerted scholarly attention until now. As such, the dynamics that powered this renewed interest in their proliferation and composition at this tumultuous period of Chinese history had yet to be described or related to the wider context of late Qing culture. However, in this study, by connecting these four baojuan with their religious roots and cultural branches, I reveal rich literary and social complexities underlying the simplistic surfaces of these vernacular morality texts. Many caught up in the turmoil of 1850s and 1860s Jiangnan believed the destruction to be heaven-sent judgment for society’s ills. Baojuan, because of their simple language, were immediately graspable by functionally literate readers and illiterate listeners alike. Social reformers of the late Qing like prominent philanthropist Yu Zhi (1809-1874) realized their value in reaching out to segments of society that traditional means of moral education had so far failed to influence. The perceived high stakes of moral reform – averting future disasters and shoring up the Qing against collapse – made for a fertile environment in which vernacular morality literature like baojuan proliferated. Chapter 1 addresses Liu Xiang baojuan, an older text that experienced a surge of reprints from the mid-nineteenth through to early twentieth century, and closely examines its textual history and contents. In Chapters 2 and 3, I examine three new baojuan composed in the nineteenth century. Baojuan of the late Qing, including works likely authored by Yu Zhi himself, met the needs of a populace weary of religious war and new ideologies, looking instead for entertainment and edification wrapped up in engaging tales.

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