The Law and the Insane: Cases of Literary Censorship Involving the Mentally Insane During the Qianlong Reign

Peter Sivam

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper, not in proceedingpeer-review


In a study on the problems of censorship and interpretation from 1984, (Censorship and Interpretation; The Conditions of Reading and Writing in Early Modern England), Annabel Patterson states that British authors of the seventeenth century often used the shelter of ambiguity as a protection from the threat of censorship. But as the text had to be understood by the intended readers, Patterson argues that the writer used a set of codes for guidance to the intended meaning of the text. One of the codes identified by Patterson was the use of historical texts, such as the classics, limiting authorial responsibility as well as providing a set of allusions directing the attention to the present day.
It goes without saying that the author in late imperial China, writing under the threat of censorship, was able to use ambiguity as a protection from aggressive censorship. Some of the codes identified by Patterson in the writings from early modern England can also be traced in texts from late imperial China. But ambiguity could work in two ways; by using the cover of ambiguity the author also risked beeing accused of allusions never intended and thus becoming the victim of an arbitrary and hostile misinterpretation.
How did authorities in the Qianlong reign react when faced with texts of a highly ambiguous, or even unintelligible nature; to what extent was the decoding arbitrary? In order to explore this issue, this paper examines a number of legal cases involving the writings of people who were classified as mentally insane by the reporting official, or others involved. One of the earliest cases is that of Ding Wenbin (Shandong, 1753), which implicated the governor of Jiangsu, Zhuang Yougong.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 1996
EventThe 11th EACS Conference - Barcelona
Duration: 1996 Sept 41996 Sept 7


ConferenceThe 11th EACS Conference

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Humanities

Free keywords

  • insanity
  • Qing dynasty
  • Censorship
  • Qianlong


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