Alexander Des Forges, "Testing the Literary: Prose and the Aesthetic in Early Modern China" (Harvard UP, 2021)


The eight-legged essay (bagu wen) was the one genre of writing that dominated in late imperial China. As the primary mode of expression in which men were schooled, writing and reading shiwen (modern or contemporary prose) epitomized literary production in Ming-Qing China, and it was vitally important for every  student, examination candidate, and examiner to master and know the genre intimately — but this genre hasn't yet been approached from a literary perspective. 

Alexander Des Forges' new book Testing the Literary: Prose and the Aesthetic in Early Modern China (Harvard UP, 2021) does just that. Focusing on literary practice (the work of writing, reading, and commenting), this book explores how features such as literary voice, parallelism, subjectivity, and aesthetic originality were constructed in a genre not typically thought of as literature. Through careful reading, rich analysis, and the deft translation of eight-legged essays, Alex looks at prose aesthetics not as settled conclusions, but as features that prose writers developed, adhered to, and/or contested, all while they developed as a social class of literary producers.   

Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. She works on Manchu language books and is interested in anything with a kesike. She can be reached at

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Sarah Bramao-Ramos

Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a Research Assistant Professor at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. She can be reached at
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