Fairbank Center: When Fantastic Narrative Encounters Empirical Knowledge: Imagining the World in “The Eunuch Sanbao’s Voyage to the Western Ocean


Monday, March 19, 2018, 4:00pm to 6:00pm


CGIS Knafel K262, 1737 Cambridge St, Cambridge, MA 02138

Speaker: Evelyn (Chiung-yun) Liu,  Academia Sinica, HYI Visiting Scholar

The Eunuch Sanbao’s Voyage to the Western Ocean, a late-sixteenth century novel loosely based on the historical expeditions commanded by Zheng He (1371-1433), is a peculiar mixture of factual accounts of foreign lands and fantastic narrative. In this work, popular Buddhist and Daoist figures living in a mythological landscape encounter a new worldview based on firsthand geographical accounts of maritime voyages recorded as early as the fourteenth century. While the novel is often regarded as a literary failure, a hodgepodge in which the author imitates and copies earlier texts and jumbles them together, this talk proposes to understand such “failure” as a multi-faceted response to the rapidly expanding cognitive sphere of that time. Taking the novel as a cultural product of the late Ming book market, we will examine the author’s choices of source materials in connection to his target reader, the strategies he employs to maneuver between the exotic and the familiar, and the epistemological disjunctions he faces in the attempt to create a narrative that encompasses “the end of the Western Ocean.”  We will also look at the possible changes in the conception of “the world” revealed through the ways in which the author negotiates between empirical geography and Buddhist/Daoist cosmologies.

Chiung-yun Evelyn Liu is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. She earned her B.A. from National Taiwan University, M.A. from Columbia University and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Her research interests include literature of the fantastic, mediations on historical memory, and the intersection of knowledge production, cultural imagination and psychological responses to the foreign in late imperial China. She is completing a book manuscript, which investigates how moral value, memory politics, literary sensibility and commercial media worked together in shaping and transforming historical memories. Her next project explores the function of sentiment in the process of knowledge reception and reformulation; particularly how Chinese literati coped with turbulent dynastic transitions and unsettling cross-cultural encounters through encyclopedic writing as means of reordering and comprehending the changing world.