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Cool Thesis of the Week: Alan Montecillo

Alan Montecillo ’13 looks past the smut to see the music.

If you mention the 17th-century Chinese novel The Plum and the Golden Vase to most people in China, says Alan Montecillo ’13, “the first thing that comes to mind is pornography.”

The impulse is understandable. The novel is filled with about 70 vividly described smutty scenes, many of them adulterous or incestuous, says Alan, a Chinese major from Hong Kong. However, he says, it’s not just porn. “Few Chinese books have had so many interpretations,” he says. Aside from the pornographic interpretation, the book, which follows the rise and of a middle-class Song dynasty merchant, has been read as everything from a work of Buddhist philosophy, to a scathing conservative orthodox Confucian political critique of the Ming dynasty, which ruled China when the book was written.

It is in the context of this last interpretation that Alan will be writing his thesis, advised by professor Alexei Ditter. Alan will examine the use of popular music in the novel, and how it underscores what he says is the book’s underlying ideological purpose. The merchant lives a life of extreme excess, says Alan, and “from the start you know the character’s abject self-deluded immorality will be his downfall.” This, he says, can be read as an allegory for the excesses of the Ming dynasty.

One notable thing about the novel is that, unlike most of its contemporary Ming dynasty novels, The Plum and the Golden Vase contains a “staggering array of literary forms,” from prose, to poetry, to musical lyrics, says Alan. This made the book “revolutionary for the time.” The musical lyrics occur throughout the narrative, many of them drawing directly on popular folk songs of the book’s time. They express the emotions that can normally be expected in pop songs and novels—longing, despair, loneliness.

However, as they’re deployed in the novel, Alan says, “there’s always something a little off about it.” In one example, the merchant protagonist is lying with his first wife, about to die. He sings a song, which would be familiar to the book’s contemporary readers, to her about faithfulness and her keeping the house in order. However, the wife was a terrible keeper of the house, and more to the point, the merchant is dying of sexual exhaustion, which he came to in a far-from-faithful manner. He has just overdosed on an aphrodisiac (which was given to him by an Indian monk who is, ironically, says Alan, “described in terms that suggest he looks like a penis”) and ejaculated so much that he can no longer stay alive. The sex scenes don’t have to be read as gratuitous in the context of this scene, says Alan. Instead they are symbols of the same excess that leads to the merchant’s demise. “This is building up to his climax, if you will, and then he dies.”

Seeing the lyrics of familiar songs, Alan says, “the reader would know where that came from and would have heard it.” But in their new dissonant context, he says, readers think, “This genre should express what I’m feeling, but it doesn’t.” This use of dissonance, he says, underlines the book’s main critique, that Ming society is not living up to what it pretends to be. In the same way that it reframes the Ming dynasty from how it’s usually seen, Alan says, the use of popular music is “definitely a case of reframing a popular genre from how it’s usually used.”

Alan also says this use of music can be seen to illuminate how the author views the Confucian philosophy. At the time, there were two strains, one which thought human nature was good, and one which thought it was bad. The belief that it was good was the dominant one, but, Alan says, this isn’t supported by the fact that many of the songs were “totally incongruous with what’s going on.” If the novel’s author believed human nature were good, he says, “at least they’d act out what they talked about.”

 

Each week, The Quest profiles the thesis of one senior whose work is worth sharing with the Reed community. The purpose of this column is to increase awareness among Reedies of the work being done in various academic fields and to make disparate forms of scholarship accessible and understandable to all. Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email ablum@reed.edu with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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