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Chen Yinque and the "Alternative Biography of Liu Rushi"

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Having spent decades revising his manuscript, Chen Yinque completed Liu Rushi Biezhuan (A New Biography of Liu Rushi) shortly before his death. It was the longest and the most structured work that he had ever written. Although he was blind and sick, he dictated the entire manuscript to his assistant Ms. Wang Xuan, and checked its every word and sentence. Unfortunately, fulfilling his ominous predication made in 1962, he did not live to see the publication of his masterpiece.

In this essay I examine Chen Yinque's historical, cultural, and artistic achievements in Liu Rushi Biezhuan. I focus on three aspects: his unique way of studying history by commenting on poetry, his attempt to memorialise talented females by writing biographies for them, and his originality in writing biographies to re-examine history. I argue that in Liu Rushi Biezhuan Chen creates a new genre in which he creatively combines biography and poetic commentary with historical narrative and philological study. If Chen's other work, Lun zaisheng yuan (A Study of Zaisheng yuan), is his first attempt to apply his new genre to studying history, then in Liu Rushi Biezhuan we find a model of this composite approach to history, culture, and arts. In narrating the cultural changes during the Ming-Qing transition, Chen offers us a complex view of history.

Some scholars have criticized Chen for the length of Liu Rushi Biezhuan and for the twists and turns in his analyses. However, if we keep in mind of Chen's intention in "re-examining history by writing a biography," we will not find his lengthy comments annoying. On the contrary, we will be more appreciative of his precision in his choice of diction.


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