Idle Chatter: The Productive Uses of Gossip in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature


Henry Luce Foundation/ ACLS Program in China Studies Postdoctoral Fellowships


East Asian Studies


In 17th-century China, amidst expanding print culture and political disintegration, printed forms of “idle chatter” proved remarkably productive. By simulating oral discourse, textual forms of gossip imbued growing but impersonal networks of print with a sense of intimacy. In an age of autocratic rule, printed “gossip” allowed political dialogue under the guise of disinterested chitchat. Moreover, if pre-modern China is often viewed as mired in the past, gossip reveals a rich discourse invested in the present. In comparison with modern western notions of news, China’s seventeenth-century gossip shows that the exchange of information about current events need not take the form of objective rational and public discourse for it to produce politically engaged and critically informed readers.