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  • Transmutations of Desire

Transmutations of Desire

Literature and Religion in Late Imperial China

Qiancheng Li

English , 2020/11 The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Tags: Chinese Literature, Philosophy

229 x 152 x 20 mm , 316pp ISBN / ISSN : 978-988-237-122-4

  • US$50.00

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The book wins the ICAS Book Prize 2023 Translation Accolades in the Humanities

In the West, love occupies center stage in the modern age, whether in art, intellectual life, or the economic life. We may observe a similar development in China, on its own impetus, which has resulted in this characteristic of modernity—this feature of modern life has been securely and unambiguously established, not the least facilitated by the thriving of literature about qing, whether in traditional or modern forms.

Qiancheng Li concentrates on the nuances of a similar trend manifested in the Chinese context. The emphasis is on critical readings of the texts that have shaped this trend, including important Ming- and Qing-dynasty works of drama, Buddhist texts and other religious/philosophical works, in all their subtlety and evocative power.


The power of qing or strong emotion is a major theme in late imperial Chinese literature—some writers asserting that it can transcend even life itself. Qiancheng Li surveys a number of seventeenth-century philosophical, religious, and literary texts to elucidate the metaphysical aspects of emotional attachment and of sexual desire in particular. Through his broad and penetrating reading, Li demonstrates incontrovertibly how, to seventeenth-century writers, qing and religion were inextricably linked. To those writers, qing could bring enlightenment, and certainly Li’s study enlightens its readers to new levels of complexity in major literary works of that period. Transmutations of Desire sets a major new milestone in the study of traditional Chinese culture.

—Robert E. Hegel, Washington University in St. Louis

This book brings to a significantly new level the study of qing, a key concept in intellectual discourses of the late Ming which reverberated throughout the subsequent Qing period in Chinese literature. Herein we learn how, presented with the tension between passionate attraction as a fundamental force in life and religious (especially Buddhist) emphasis on release from attachments as an ultimate spiritual goal, authors of, and commentators on, the era’s most important works of drama and long fiction developed a multi-dimensional metaphysics of qing. Thereby they transmuted desire from a hindrance to spiritual fulfillment into its necessary complement.

—Lynn A. Struve, Indiana University Bloomington

In many areas, Professor Li’s new study mainly on dramatic works has demonstrated the kind of sophistication and rigor I wish I had been able to achieve in my Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China exclusively on fictional works. He has convincingly argued that we could not properly understand various “transmutations” of desire without an adequate understanding of their “scriptural foundation.” His study has significantly enriched our understanding of not only several well-known classics like The Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan but also very important but little-studied works such as those by the dramatist Jiang Shiquan from the eighteenth century.

—Martin W. Huang, University of California, Irvine

Transmutations of Desire takes on one of the most crucial tensions in late imperial Chinese literature, desire and its renunciation. Bringing into dialogue four of the most celebrated plays as well as several understudied ones, their commentary and reception history, Buddhist scripture, Western theoretical approaches to love, and ultimately the novel Honglou meng, Qiancheng Li has given us a rich and rewarding intertextual study. With its focus on drama, it is an indispensable complement to his earlier monograph Fictions of Enlightenment, which explored the interplay of religion and literature in the realm of narrative.

—Rania Huntington, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Qiancheng Li is Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University. He is the author of Fictions of Enlightenment: “Journey to the West,” “Tower of Myriad Mirrors,” and “Dream of the Red Chamber”; the editor and annotator of the variorum, critical edition of Xiyou bu; and the co-translator, with Robert E. Hegel, of it, titled Further Adventures on the Journey to the West (2020).

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