The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature
312pp. June 2007
The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature
Author: Zeitlin, Judith T.;
The "phantom heroine"—in particular the fantasy of her resurrection through sex with a living man—is one of the most striking features of traditional Chinese literature. Even today the hypersexual female ghost continues to be a source of fascination in East Asian media, much like the sexually predatory vampire in American and European movies, TV, and novels. But while vampires can be of either gender, erotic Chinese ghosts are almost exclusively female. The significance of this gender asymmetry in Chinese literary history is the subject of Judith Zeitlin’s elegantly written and meticulously researched new book.

Zeitlin’s study centers on the seventeenth century, one of the most interesting and creative periods of Chinese literature and politically one of the most traumatic, witnessing the overthrow of the Ming, the Manchu conquest, and the subsequent founding of the Qing. Drawing on fiction, drama, poetry, medical cases, and visual culture, the author departs from more traditional literary studies, which tend to focus on a single genre or author. Ranging widely across disciplines, she integrates detailed analyses of great literary works with insights drawn from the history of medicine, art history, comparative literature, anthropology, religion, and performance studies.

The Phantom Heroine probes the complex literary and cultural roots of the Chinese ghost tradition. Zeitlin is the first to address its most remarkable feature: the phenomenon of verse attributed to phantom writers—that is, authors actually reputed to be spirits of the deceased. She also makes the case for the importance of lyric poetry in developing a ghostly aesthetics and image code. Most strikingly, Zeitlin shows that the representation of female ghosts, far from being a marginal preoccupation, expresses cultural concerns of central importance.

27 illus.

"In this study of how female ghosts have been represented in Chinese narrative, poetry, and drama, Judith Zeitlin’s skills as researcher and reader of texts are fully on display. The result is a compact study of some 250 pages that distills an astonishingly broad array of sources into readings that are thoroughly grounded and brilliantly framed." —Journal of Chinese Religions (36, 2008)

"No review of The Phantom Heroine could do full justice to the many gems that readers will find in each chapter. Judith Zeitlin continues to produce work that is clear, meticulously researched, and full of provocative insights and connections. . . . Many of her literary analyses are so elegant and insightful that they are almost as pleasurable to read as the original literature. . . . The Phantom Heroine masterfully accomplishes Zeitlin’s goal of explicating the cultural logic behind the creation of female ghosts who surpass flesh-and-blood women by phantasmagorically embodying so many literary yearnings." —Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (69:1, 2009)

"A tour-de-force of interdisciplinary inquiry into the representations and uses of the female ghost in late imperial Chinese literature. Elegantly written and richly illustrated, the study draws upon diverse texts and images, ranging from traditional Chinese medical literature to contemporary cinema. In addition to carefully reconstructing the cultural and historical contexts of her primary materials, Zeitlin makes judicious and fruitful use of a wide array of critical tools, including anthropological theories and psychoanalytical approaches. Indeed, this book is exemplary in how contemporary Sinology may be significantly broadened, deepened, and updated by incorporating interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives." —Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (30, 2008)

"Zeitlin sets a new standard for general thematic studies in Chinese literature. In breadth, depth, and incisiveness of her insights, The Phantom Heroine clearly deserves to be on every graduate reading list. . . . An accomplishment of the first rank. . . . The Phantom Heroine is a major contribution to the study of Chinese literature." —Journal of Chinese Studies (fall 2008)

"Through her perceptive textual and theatrical analysis . . . Zeitlin provides the most penetrating and conceptual frame for the Chinese ghost culture and literature as a whole." —New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies (10:1, June 2008)

"Zeitlin does a masterful job of integrating her erudition, offering a learned, original, and accessible piece of scholarship." —Choice (45:5, January 2008)

"This is an accomplished book by a maverick thinker and writer. Zeitlin’s genius is to turn something hideous and freaky into the stuff of life. She adopts an archaeological approach, excavating motifs from and finding resonances in disparate genres and periods. An elegant book, it should attract readers from Chinese studies, gender studies, comparative literature, performance studies, and religion." —Dorothy Ko, Columbia University

"This astute and carefully researched study defines new perspectives by synthesizing anddeveloping insights from other disciplines, especially anthropology, psychology, art history, the history of religion, and the history of medicine. Whenever applicable, there are illuminating cross-cultural comparisons. The author has a magisterial command of the contexts of her materials. Her ability to situate literature as one strand in a web of cultural practices makes her conclusions particularly convincing." —Wai-yee Li, Harvard University

Author: Zeitlin, Judith T.;
Judith T. Zeitlin is professor of Chinese literature at the University of Chicago.
Read the introduction (PDF).

Note on Citations and Abbreviations

Selected Dynasties and Periods



1. The Ghost’s Body

2. The Ghost’s Voice

3. Ghosts and Historical Time

4. Ghosts and Theatricality

Coda: Palace of Lasting Life

Appendix:Selected List of Major Translated Book and Film Titles



Works Cited