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Abstract

Since the seventeenth century, Jin Shengtan (1608-1661) has been famous among East Asian readers for his densely annotated editions of two works of vernacular literature, the ribald adventure novel Water Margin and the song-drama Romance of the Western Chamber. He is, for this reason, widely regarded as one of the great early proponents of vernacular literature. Jin’s praise for the aesthetic appeal of such literary subjects as rebelling against official powers, giving in to sexual desire, and even indulging in the freshly cooked flesh of one’s enemy has long posed an interpretive conundrum, as Jin also insisted that these unorthodox works were composed by—and could transform readers into—paragons of orthodox morality. He grouped these two vernacular texts alongside four beloved historical, poetic, and philosophical works to propose a morally transformative program of literary commentary under the collective title Six Works of Genius.Taking an overlooked archival detail as its starting point, the present study dissolves Jin Shengtan’s supposed self-contradiction and restores his long-obscured contributions to literary hermeneutics and moral philosophy. I show that Jin Shengtan articulated his conception of Genius in opposition to the very critics with whom literary historians have associated him, in particular Li Zhi (1527-1602), who advocated for individual expression as a moral good unto itself. At the same time, Jin departed from the rationale of Neo-Confucian moralists, whose literary hermeneutics was premised on a concept of transpersonal moral principle (li). Instead, Jin Shengtan, whom the literati of Suzhou also knew as a Buddhist lay-teacher, drew on Mahāyāna Buddhist discourse to forge an original approach to literary hermeneutics founded on a particular mode of attention to form. Jin’s commentaries cultivate an appreciation of literary forms as phenomena born not of individual nature, nor of moral principle, but of causes and conditions (yinyuan) rendering them empty of intrinsic nature. By urging his readers to imagine themselves into the somatic and affective force of writing as a medium of karma, Jin invited readers to embody Genius, not as individual talent, but as One Mind (yixin) or dharmakāya (fashen): all of reality perceiving itself as at once provisionally existent and ultimately empty of self-nature. In this way, Jin sought to eliminate the basis for selfish conduct and inspire a more compassionate collective.

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