Reading for the Moral

Exemplarity and the Confucian Moral Imagination in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Short Fiction

By Maria Franca Sibau

Subjects: Chinese Studies, Asian Literature, Chinese Religion And Philosophy, Literary Criticism
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438469898, 244 pages, April 2018
Paperback : 9781438469904, 244 pages, January 2019

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Table of contents

List of Figures
List of Abbreviations
Acknowledgments Introduction: Reading for the Moral

1. Filial Quests

2. Filial Transactions

3. The Spectrum of Loyalty

4. Female Exemplarity and the Violence of Virtue

5. Interchangeable Brothers

6. Friends in Need and Friends in Deed

Concluding Note


Reassesses didacticism in seventeenth-century Chinese vernacular fiction and challenges the view that the late Ming was a notoriously immoral time.


Reading for the Moral offers an innovative reassessment of the nature of moral representation and exemplarity in Chinese vernacular fiction. Maria Franca Sibau focuses on two little-studied story collections published at the end of the Ming dynasty, Exemplary Words for the World (Xingshi yan, 1632) and Bell in the Still Night (Qingye zhong, c. 1645). Far from being tediously moralistic tales, these stories of loyal ministers, filial children, chaste widows, and selfless friends provide a deeper understanding of the five cardinal relationships central to Confucian ethics. They explore the inherent tension between what we might call textbook morality, on the one hand, and untidy everyday life, on the other. The stories often take a critical view of mechanical notions of retribution, countering it with the logic of virtue as its own reward. Conflict between passion and duty is typically resolved in favor of duty, a duty redefined with a palpable sense of urgency. In constructing vernacular representations of moral exemplars from the recent historical past rather than from remote or fictitious antiquity, the story compilers show how these virtues are not abstract or monolithic norms, but play out within the contingencies of time and space.

Maria Franca Sibau is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Emory University.


"Maria Franca Sibau's study is exemplary … Surely everyone seriously interested in ethical standards and their representations in Chinese literature would benefit from reading this study. " — Monumenta Serica

"Reading for the Moral is an entertaining and insightful exploration of how seriously moralistic writers really were in a time that became notorious for its supposed immorality. Sibau's encyclopedic knowledge of both original texts and relevant secondary literature make this an excellent source of inspiration for further research. This book is an outstanding accomplishment. " — Robert E. Hegel, author of Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China