Xi Xi’s Playful Image-texts:
Ekphrasis, Parergon, and the Concept of Toy

By Xiaofan Amy Li

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.2  (Fall 2021), 127-168

What does the ludic have to do with Xi Xi’s writings and creative concerns? This essay addresses the question by examining Xi Xi’s “little prose pieces,” or xiaopin sanwen, which take the format of the intermedial image-text and exist as a third category of her writing besides fiction and poetry. I explore how Xi Xi’s image-texts offer new articulations of play by discussing these questions: how are these image-texts constructed in game-like ways? What modes of play do they engage with? And what playful experience do they offer to readers and viewers?

The author first considers the image-text’s intermediality in Xi Xi’s earlier works, including Scrapbook, Picture/Storybook, and Jigsaw Puzzles. Xi Xi relates to two key concepts in art history to augment the ludic dimension of her works: ekphrasis, generally denoting writing that represents and expounds images and artworks, and the parergon, understood as “supplement” to the artwork and as visual framing. The image-text in these earlier works functions as a toy. Second, the essay addresses Xi Xi’s engagement with material playthings in her recent image-texts that are explicitly about toys, such as The Teddy Bear Chronicles and My Toys. Here, the concept of toy intersects with premodern Chinese leisure (xianqing) culture.

Tracing the evolution of Xi Xi’s relation to the ludic over time, the essay argues that Xi Xi’s image-texts are a site of ludic aesthetics that highlights two modes of play: the youxi mode encompasses the notion of literature as a game with particular techniques and rules and ludicity as a dynamic and liminal experience; the wanshang mode posits play as leisure and the cultivation of style and taste, as well as a space of temporary withdrawal from the world of obligations. Both ludic modes affirm play as an aesthetic experience, appreciated for its intrinsic value. Literary play, as found in Xi Xi’s image-texts, therefore produces aesthetically sophisticated and significant works that engage readers on multiple levels of creative reading and seeing.