A pensive Song dynasty poet. (Detail from Liang Kai, Poet strolling by a marshy bank, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Becoming an Influencer in 13th Century China

Yuan-Heng Mao, PhD Candidate in History and East Asian Languages, describes how cultural elites shared ideas and “went viral” during the Yuan Dynasty.

Stories about how people achieve fame can tell us a lot about the society of a particular time. Social media, for example, plays a vital role in shaping fame and who becomes famous in our contemporary society. Every now and then, some people suddenly become well-known or “go viral” because their posts are shared or retweeted million times overnight. Their names (or user IDs) cross social circles far and wide not because of personal connections, but because many other internet users share posts with their friends and followers. The process then goes on and on, like a snowball gaining momentum while rolling downhill.

Although social media is a recent invention, similar reputation-making mechanisms have long existed. In late 13th century China, Liu Chenweng 劉辰翁 became an “influencer” whose ideas were frequently shared among literati networks across southern China. His contemporaries enthusiastically followed his opinions on poetry.

A pensive Song dynasty poet. (Detail from Liang Kai, Poet strolling by a marshy bank, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The late 13th century was a chaotic time for people like Liu Chenweng, that is the cultural elites who engaged in Confucian learnings. The Mongols had conquered south China in the late 1270s and had brought down the Song dynasty, whose leaders cherished Confucian elites. Although these elites survived in local communities under the new government’s limited protection, they faced difficulties maintaining a wider network of their peers across different localities. Communication was challenging, and the environment was unfriendly to them.

Under such challenging circumstances, it seems improbable that a name could rise to be recognized by cultural elites of various places. Liu Chenweng, however, achieved such fame thanks to a subgroup of elites called “roaming literati” (游士). Put in modern terms, roaming literati were the enthusiastic partygoers of their time. They were willing to travel across provinces to attend parties held by officials or other elites. Roaming literati naturally met their kind at parties and built connections with each other. Even though such relationships were sometimes fragile and ephemeral, they formed social networks that bridged geographic divides and facilitated the spreading of information. In doing so, they performed what some call the power of “weak ties,” that is, the power of acquaintances to expand one’s access to information and opportunities. Information shared during a brief encounter of roaming literati would be brought by participants to future gatherings. Such a way of spreading information was not concerted, but it was no less efficient or effective than other means available in 13th-century China.

A literati party in south China under Mongol rule. (Detail from Hua Yan, Elegant gathering at the Yushan thatched hut, National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Among the many items shared by roaming literati, we find Liu Chenweng’s comments on poetry. Roaming literati wrote and talked about poetry a lot. At parties, they usually composed poems corresponding to other participants’ pieces. In other words, they took turns being authors and readers of poems. On the one hand, this practice offered roaming literati a way to socialize. On the other hand, it provided a place where participants could elegantly show off their literary talents and skills. Since poetry occupied an essential part in roaming literati’s social life, they naturally paid close attention to the latest discussions on poetry.

A 14th-century author described Liu Chenweng’s influence:

“His commentaries on various poets were lucid, and his poems were outstanding, so the crowd all took him as their model.”

Despite his influence, Liu Chenweng himself was not a roaming literatus. After the Mongol conquest, he spent most of his life in his hometown Jizhou (吉州, present-day Ji’An 吉安, Jiangxi province). Nevertheless, many people from Jizhou took the path of roaming literati. They brought word of Liu’s name and his comments far beyond their hometown, just like internet users who first share a post that has yet to go viral. Jizhou roaming literati were happy to show their familiarity with an expert’s latest views on poetry. In doing so, they also promoted and consolidated Liu’s influence and fame. An influencer of the 13th century was therefore born in the networks of roaming literati emanating from Jizhou.

Some scholars at the time frowned upon roaming literati, the circles that they moved in, and the way they made people famous. In these scholars’ eyes, Liu Chenweng’s fame was something to be questioned rather than celebrated. In some ways, these critics echo contemporary criticisms against certain posts—a bad review of a popular comment—or against social media in general. As Liu Chenweng’s case demonstrates, unconventional ways of connecting people have a long history of transforming people’s social lives and opening new possibilities (and challenges) for society.