"The hsiao-p'in, a short belles-lettres prose piece or vignette, usually informal in structure and mostly casual and spontaneous in mood and tone, was established as a literary genre during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. It became a dominant literary form of the late Ming period and flourished for nearly a century, until decades after the demise of the Ming."Ye also covers the genre's decline — and occasional censorship — under Qing Neo-Confucianism and its rehabilitation and renewed study in the twentieth century.
The pieces themselves are very short: some eighty are fitted into barely a hundred pages in Vignettes From the Late Ming, along with biographical notes for the fourteen authors sampled. The bulk of them are descriptions of short journeys taken for pleasure, with the remainder on topics such as drinking, connoisseurship, and other pleasures.
Here is one of the pieces by Chang Tai, the "great synthesizer" of the hsiao-p'in:
Viewing the Snow from the Mid-Lake Gazebo
In the twelfth month of the fifth year of the Ch'ung-chen reign , I was living by West Lake. Once it snowed heavily for three days in a row. No human voice or bird cry could be heard on the lake. One day, when the last beat of the night watch was over [just before dawn], I went aboard a small boat and, sitting by a stove in my fur coat, headed for the Mid-Lake Gazebo to catch a view of the snow there. Frosty trees stood out in the vast blankness. The sky, the clouds, the hills, and the water — all was white, overhead and beneath. The only reflections on the lake were one inky stroke for the long embankment, one dot for the gazebo, one mustard seed for my boat, and the two or three jots for people in the boat.
When I reached the gazebo, there already sat two people on a rug facing each other, and a little boy was warming up a pot of wine on the stove, which had just started boiling. They were overjoyed to see me, saying, "How could there be a guy like him on the lake?" They pulled me over to join them for a drink. I had no choice but to drain three large goblets before I bade them farewell. I asked their names and found them to be natives of Chin-ling [Nanking] on a visit. When I got off the boat, the boatman murmured to himself, "Don't say that our young gentleman is crazy; there are people even crazier than he!"
The hsiao-p'in are littered with historical and literary references, which are explained in thirty pages of endnotes, and they are stylised and (to this Western reader) occasionally stilted. But some of the "displays of wit and sparkling turns of phrase" survive translation and the hsiao-p'in are easy to read and often attractive. Many will have wide appeal, though for newcomers to Ming literature they have to compete with the vernacular short stories and novels, while specialists will want to read them in the original Chinese.
One audience that springs to mind, given the dominant subject material of the hsiao-p'in, are students of comparative tourism or travel writing: they will find in Vignettes From the Late Ming an opening into the behaviour and sensibilities of Ming literati and into the world they observed.