/ Review of Bannermen Tales (Zidishu): Manchu Storytelling and Cultural Hybridity in the Qing Dynasty, by Elena Suet-Ying Chiu

Bannermen Tales (Zidishu): Manchu Storytelling and Cultural Hybridity in the Qing Dynasty, by Elena Suet-Ying Chiu. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. xiv + 366 pp. ISBN: 9780674975194.

Zidishu (“bannermen tale” or “youth book”), a form of sung verse narrative, was one of the most popular genres of entertainment literature in North China during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since it first came to scholarly attention in the early twentieth century, it has captured the interest of literary scholars with the expressive ethos and poetic quality of its texts. More recently, it has also drawn growing interest among historians, who have found it a valuable source for studying the social and cultural history of Qing bannermen. Despite the plethora of monographs, articles, and theses on zidishu in Chinese published in the last two decades, studies in Western languages remain limited. Elena Chiu’s Bannermen Tales (Zidishu): Manchu Storytelling and Cultural Hybridity in the Qing Dynasty is the first monograph in English to provide a well-rounded study of zidishu in its literary, cultural, and historical context.

Following an overview of the genre in the book’s introduction, the first chapter describes zidishu’s origins and development in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Beijing. Pointing out that the vast majority of extant texts are written in Chinese, Chiu argues convincingly that texts were likely to have been composed in Chinese from the outset, rather than having evolved from Manchu, as previous scholarship suggests. In this light, Chiu suggests that the sole example with parallel lines in Manchu and Chinese represents a translation from Chinese into Manchu in line with broader trends in Qing literary translation. The second chapter proceeds to discuss the varied performance settings of zidishu in the mid- to late Qing, from private banquets and amateur clubs to teahouses and other public venues. It highlights the participation of Manchu elites and amateur bannermen performers, who were accorded greater respect than professional storytellers and were instrumental in the propagation of the genre. In spite of the dearth of sources on zidishu music, the chapter does its best to present zidishu as a performing art (the verses were typically sung to the accompaniment of the sanxian, or three-stringed lute).

The third chapter examines the interplays of Manchu and Chinese in zidishu texts. Following an overview of the influence of Manchu on the spoken languages of Qing Beijing, the chapter provides close readings of four texts, including the bilingual text discussed in the first chapter and three additional texts in which the two languages are mixed (with the Manchu written either in the native script or in Chinese-character transcription). Chiu reveals the first text to have been a serious translation exercise, while the others playfully made use of Manchu expressions in storytelling to evoke the everyday world of bannermen. This world also emerges from zidishu written entirely in Chinese—the topic of the book’s fourth chapter—which engaged with a wide variety of themes ranging from contemporary society to stories adapted from Chinese fiction and drama. The fifth and final chapter examines the production and distribution of zidishu in North China, from the commercial manuscript and woodblock print production of zidishu in Beijing, to the printing of zidishu in Shenyang with literati involvement, to state-overseen adaptations of texts for blind performers in Republican-era Tianjin. With many photos illustrating zidishu books and catalogs, the chapter showcases the extensive archival research conducted by the author.

The central argument of Bannermen Tales is summarized in the book’s introduction: “zidishu employed cultural hybridization as a way of performing and thereby perpetuating Manchu identity in the Qing dynasty” (1). Borrowing the concept of “cultural hybridity” from postcolonial studies, Chiu argues against the sinicization thesis of Manchu assimilation into Han culture in the Qing dynasty to suggest that zidishu preserved ordinary Manchu voices while containing a fusion of Manchu and Han Chinese cultural elements: “As a type of Manchu literature and performing art, zidishu can shed light on both the popular understanding of officially defined Manchu identity and the realities of Manchu life” (1). For Chiu, the fact that Chinese was the primary language of zidishu does not rule out the agency of its Manchu composers and audiences. Citing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the concept of minor literatures written in major languages, she makes the point that “Manchu language should not be treated as a decisive element in defining Manchu literature; rather, how the Manchus responded to the Chinese language as they interacted with Chinese literature is more crucial” (9).

This last point brings a fresh perspective to the vast field of literature written in Chinese language by calling into question the too-often assumed ties between language and ethnic identity. In the context of Chiu’s argument, one might wonder just to what extent zidishu, as a literature intimately associated with Qing bannermen, ought to be understood as “Manchu literature.” While Manchu ethnic identity was perpetuated by the Eight Banners system, bannermen populations were ethnically mixed, and Beijing bannermen comprised a heterogeneous population of varying ethnic, social, and economic status. Zidishu, which arose in the distinct cultural environment of the Qing capital, bore at once elements of bannermen culture and life in the locality, as attested by the distinct colloquial terms present in many texts. By the late Qing, the readers and audiences of zidishu expanded beyond bannermen circles as performances came to take place at various public venues in the capital, and the genre also came to flourish in other locales. Zidishu’s influences by and on various forms of opera and storytelling attest to the constant change and fusion that took place in the realm of entertainment. Beyond “Manchu” and “Han,” the model of “cultural hybridity” proposed by Bannermen Tales should draw our attention to the evolving local spheres of social and cultural interaction that fostered zidishu among a range of popular performing traditions.

Much remains to be understood about the transmission of zidishu during the late Qing and early Republican eras. While the genre is often perceived to have declined during the late nineteenth century—a view Chiu shares—the substantial numbers of extant manuscripts and printed books datable to this period and beyond call for further investigation into the dates and factors behind zidishu’s decline.[1] For specialists interested in further exploring this rich body of literature, the good news is that a large part of extant zidishu has been made accessible through published editions of texts and catalogs.[2] Bannermen Tales should draw the attention of scholars in many fields, including Chinese literature, Manchu studies, performance studies, language and linguistics, and cultural studies. The book is written in a clear and accessible language that is suitable for undergraduates as well as specialists, and offers a welcome introduction to a large field to be further explored.

Zhenzhen Lu 陸珍楨, University of Pennsylvania


    1. One might make special note of extant sales catalogs, which have been dated to the late Qing, from manuscript shops in Beijing responsible for producing a large variety of extant zidishu. See Fu Xihua傅惜華, Zidishu zongmu 子弟書總目 (Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi lianhe chubanshe, 1954), 13–15; Chen Jinzhao 陳錦釗, “Zidishu de zhengli yu yanjiu shiji huigu” 子弟書的整理與研究世紀回顧, Hanxue yanjiu tongxun 漢學研究通訊, 22.2 (2003): 19–20.return to text

    2. Huang Shizhong 黃仕忠, Li Fang 李芳 and Guan Jinhua 關錦華, eds., Zidishu quanji 子弟書全集, 10 vols. (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2012), includes collated versions of over 500 texts, with the notable exclusion of the parallel Manchu-Chinese Xunfu qu 尋夫曲, which appears at the end of a large bilingual compilation (Berlin State Library, 34981 ROA, http://resolver.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/SBB0000316000000000, accessed August 14, 2019,). Chiu points this out (14), and also the fact that text in Manchu script has been omitted from Na Pangxie 拿螃蟹 (Zidishu quanji, vol. 9, 3586-93).

      Two recent catalogs of zidishu are Huang Shizhong 黃仕忠, Li Fang 李芳and Guan Jinhua 關錦華, Xinbian zidishu zongmu 新編子弟書總目 (Guilin: Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2012); and Zan Hongyu 昝紅宇, Zhang Zhongwei 張仲偉, and Li Xuemei 李雪梅, Qing dai baqi zidishu zongmu tiyao 清代八旗子弟書總目提要 (Taiyuan: Sanjin chubanshe, 2010).return to text