Literary Transmission as Political Action: Feng Menglong's Mountain Songs Compendium (c. 1610)

In this talk, Professor Jenco will explore the largely unacknowledged political possibilities at stake in the transmission of literary work, focusing specifically on the early seventeenth century folksong collection Mountain Songs 山歌 recorded by Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574-1646). Feng’s collection transmitted the sung poems of urban labourers (including textile workers, prostitutes, courtesans and fishermen) in his hometown Suzhou, one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Many of the poems are sung from female points of view, and include frank celebrations of sexual desire. Commentators on the work, particularly since its rediscovery in 1935, have focused on its contribution to the expansion of vernacular literature in the Ming era. They generally converge in viewing its circulation in terms of the new opportunities afforded elite entertainment in an age of exploding commercial print, albeit one that distinctively showcases female sexual desire amid the more common centering on the elite male gaze. Professor Jenco offers a different reading of the Mountain Songs, which also explores a new kind of political action outside the institutions of the state: the act of transmission (shù述or chuán傳), by which is meant the recording, and often recovery, of materials – textual, oral, ritual or otherwise – from the past or present, which are intended for the moral cultivation of posterity. From the time of Confucius, transmission was associated with the reproduction of Chinese literary and philosophical orthodoxy. But Feng shows how acts of transmission can also enable a redirection of moral authority, toward marginal figures whose voices challenge rather than reinforce dominant hierarchies.

Leigh Jenco is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics. Her first two monographs – Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge UP, 2010) and Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West (Oxford UP, 2015) – work at the intersection of normative political theory and the intellectual history of modern China. Her most recent research focuses on the political and literary theory of late Ming thinkers in the circle of Li Zhi. She is currently co-authoring the textbook Political Theory: A Global and Comparative Approach (SAGE: forthcoming 2025) and serves as project lead for the British Academy global convening programme Chinese Global Orders (2023–2025).