This collection brings together a selection of the contributions written for the conference held in Prague in September 2001 under the tide “Understanding Chinese Poetics: Recarving the Dragons.” The name of the conference implied its organizers’ belief in the distinctiveness of Chinese literature as compared to the Western tradition, as well as their wish to understand the essence of this distinctiveness, even a hope to arrive at a more precise definition, eventually “recarving” the image customarily associated with Chinese literature. The conference’s central theme, as formulated in its preliminary statement, was “literariness,” reflecting the heritage of Prague structuralist literary theory centered around attributes which set a literary work apart from other products of human creativity. This statement of allegiance to the heritage of the Prague school entailed certain methodological premises which might have initially led to the expectation that the discussion would be concentrated primarily on the question of the autonomy of the aesthetic function, the close correlation between the study of literature and language, and various aspects of form and style, plus possibly problems of literary evolution, the formation of canon and its innovation. What actually happened, though, was a convergence of contributions which proved to be of a somewhat different nature. Not that the above-listed range of subjects entirely failed to reach the conference platform; once there, however, they were either removed to new contexts or projected into the treatment of partial problems. The true emphasis of the individual studies published here lay elsewhere. Namely, their authors showed a clear preference for tackling specific historically defined topics, over the production of generalizing essays on Chinese poetics, or even on literariness in the general sense of the term. On the other hand, the character of the various studies contained in the present volume makes it quite clear that an approach oriented towards particularities is by no means synonymous with a refusal to deal with more general issues; rather, it attests to an awareness of the danger lurking behind attempts at a straightforward translation between diverse traditions.
The selection of topics alone, as well as the manner of their presentation, renders an impressive testimony to the range of problems which sinologists will have to deal with before it will indeed be possible in any fundamental way to “recarve” the generally accepted image of Chinese literature, and possibly also to produce new definitions of literariness, both in the Chinese context and in that of literature in general. In that respect, it turned out to be most appropriate to bring together Chinese scholars who have studied the problem chiefly from “within” the Chinese culture, and Western sinologists who have to conduct their studies – at least to a certain degree – from a comparative perspective. Their pursuit of the most feasible method in mediating approaches to Chinese literature from diverse points of view, led the editor of the present volume to publish the individual contributions in their original language versions.
The essays selected for this volume are arranged chronologically. They cover the whole range of topics, beginning with the Warring States and Han understanding of certain texts and concepts, through the formation of crucial aesthetic ideas during the Six Dynasties period, new developments in Tang and Northern Song approach to poetry composition, Ming and Qing approaches to fiction writing, to recent developments in poetry written both in Taiwan and Mainland China.
Very few papers directly addressed the question of the difference between the Chinese and Western literary traditions. In this respect the most radical statements were made by Haun Saussy, whose essay opens the volume, at the same time conveniently framing all further possible considerations of “Chineseness” with the awareness that the statement of differences should not be oversimplified. Re-examining the importance of musical theory in Han China, including its expressive, social and ritual roles, Saussy builds a theoretical bridge, thereby gathering different aspects of Chinese thought into one coherent view of the Chinese understanding of literature. At the same time, he points out the danger of creating too neat a picture and overlooking contradictory details that might lead us to a more complex understanding of Chinese literature and its developments over the centuries.
Martin Kern addresses the issue of the authenticity and reception of one of the most fundamental Chinese literary texts, the Book of Odes, challenging some of the widely held views about the Odes and their hermeneutics. Basing his inquiry on recent archaeological finds from Warring States, Qin and Han tombs, he comes to several most interesting conclusions. Emphasising the status of the Odes in ancient China as a sacred text embracing the whole human condition and serving as a guide to human behaviour, Kern draws our attention to the primacy of the flexible use of the Odes in different situations, over any orthodox interpretation in pre-Han China. These observations when confronted with the standard explanations based on the canonical Mao Odes lead Kern to the conclusion that in the centralized bureaucratic state of Han a fundamental change occurred: the Odes ceased to be “hermeneutically open performance texts” and gained a fixed interpretation pertaining to orthodoxy.
Donald Holzman picked another important topic in Sino-Western literary comparison, namely fictionality, or rather its relative absence in the orthodox view on literature in China. Inquiring into the roots of the specifically Chinese approach, Holzman explores the early understanding of the Chinese equivalent of fiction, the term xiaoshuo
most probably coined by Liu Xiang (77–6 B.C.). Liu Xiang’s views are confronted with some earlier philosophical writings, as well as with the new evaluation of xiaoshuo,
or “small talk” genre, observable in Huang Tan’s Xinlun.
In this context Holzman points to the Confucian contempt for imaginative writing uninterested in historical facts and in political and ideological concerns. The hostility of Confucianism explains, in Holzman’s view, the relatively late development of fictional genres and their secondary position in China before modern times.
Minute observations and novel interpretations of some of the key-terms of traditional literary criticism in China were topics of several other papers. Cai Zongqi focuses on the term shen,
one of the central and most complicated notions in Liu Xie’s “Carving the Dragons”. Cai investigates the broad range of meanings of the term in the longer historical perspective, documenting its transformation from the “ghost and spirits” of high antiquity, to the cosmological principle of late pre-Han philosophers, to its re-deification by some Han thinkers and subsequent refusal of religious interpretation on rationalistic grounds by others, through to its reconceptualisation by Buddhist thinkers during the period of disunity following the fall of Han. On the basis of these multiple meanings associated with shen,
carefully documented with the help of numerous earlier texts, Cai demonstrates how Liu Xie employs it as a polysemous term in the service of his own theory, thus transforming it into a powerful tool “crucial to the conceptualisation of various aspects of literature by later critics”.
Yuan Xingpei in his turn provides a deep insight into the unique Chinese poetic sensibility based on the idea of “natural taste” (tianqu).
He follows the development of the idea of qu
, “taste,” from the Eastern Jin dynasty through to the Qing, highlighting its relative stability in Chinese tradition. Qu
is introduced not only as a quality of the poetic text, but also as a state of an author’s mind. As a result spontaneity in the act of creation, authentic self-expression, as well as intuitive apprehension of the world, are regarded as crucial to the “taste” of a work of art and as core values of Chinese literature. Yuan Xingpei’s essay not only addresses Chinese tradition, but is itself proof of this tradition living. The balance of his erudition and the simple elegance of his style demonstrate well the “taste” of the best of Chinese scholarship, providing a direct insight into the very heart of Chinese aesthetics as it developed through the ages.
Jiang Yin examines in greater detail another important concept of Chinese poetics: hanxu,
or “reserve”. He documents the first sporadic appearances of the term in the Late Tang and in greater detail describes its growing importance during the Song. Discussing the origins of the term, Jiang Yin points to the impact of Buddhist thought on Chinese poetics – namely the “bu shuopo
”idea of the Chan masters. In addition to correspondences with Buddhist texts, Jiang Yin also mentions the importance of the changing audience of poetry reflected in the new textbooks of poetry writing and the shige
form of literary criticism popular during the Song dynasty. The relatively late appearance of the term hanxu
and its historical context signify the historicity of this elusive quality of Chinese poetic style.
Jiang Yin’s arguments are well complemented by Charles Hartman’s study of Yinchuang zalu,
a Song Dynasty collection of writings about poetry composition, in which rare specimens of the late Tang and early Song shige
form of criticism are preserved. Following the history of the text, Hartman reconstructs the social, educational and political contexts in which this “Song Dynasty Primer of Poetic Composition” evolved, establishing its connection with the popular Rivers and Lakes school of poetry. Hartman pays considerable attention to shige
criticism in general, its form and purpose and especially its changing role from late Tang through to Southern Song society. In this context, the popularity of late Tang poetic style and the influence of Chan Buddhism on Chinese poetry are also addressed. In the end Hartman briefly compares the ideas and values expressed in Yinchuang zalu
with those of the famous late Song critic Yan Yu.
Florence Hu-Sterk adopts another perspective in search of differencies within the Chinese tradition, introducing a uniquely Chinese consciousness of space. For this purpose, she examines the theory of “Three Distances” (sanyuan)
by the Song painter Guo Xi within the context of High Tang nature poetry. Understanding Guo Xi’s concept of painting landscape as a natural continuation of Tang poetic descriptions of landscape scenery, she introduces the Chinese awareness of space as a multi-pointed perspective, in which the frontiers between the perceiving subject and the perceived object are blurred. In this context the importance of “spiritual view” and imagination are also discussed at some length. In the end, turning to the early history of Chinese script, Hu-Sterk argues that the specific view of landscape found both in Tang nature poetry and the Song theory of landscape painting has been deeply rooted in Chinese culture since earliest times.
The last concept discussed at some length is the term “poetics” (shixue)
itself. Qian Zhixi provides a historical overview of the term, documenting its use in early Chinese literary criticism which was completely different from its modern usage as an equivalent of the western term “poetics”. As a side effect of this detailed survey of Chinese literary terminology a so far little studied aspect of the traditional Chinese view of poetry – the belief in the power of learning in the making of a poet – is brought to our attention.
In several other essays the problem of the relationship between the author and the social context of his writing was addressed from different points of view. In the article devoted to Yongming style poetry, using historical sources Olga Lomová describes the late 5th century court milieu in South China as formed by two groups: the poets, representing Confucian nobility with family traditions of literary erudition going back to the Han dynasty, and their patrons from the imperial families which had only recently risen to the highest positions in society. She points to the different cultural backgrounds and aesthetic tastes of these two groups within the ruling elite, interpreting it as an important prerequisite for the creation of the new poetic style, of which she attempts a brief description.
Stephen Owen focuses on the phenomenon of “painstaking composition” (kuyin)
which is in direct opposition to the well-known ideal of “swift and easy” improvisation as a proof of genius, and which prevailed in traditional Chinese literary thought. Beginning with a poem by Li Jian composed around 1796 and well exemplifying the poet’s awareness of the effort invested in his composition, Owen traces the origins of this idea to the mid-Tang. A careful examination of several later Tang poems reveals a growing popularity of the term kuyin
in the ninth century going hand in hand with an increasing self-consciousness of the poet. This newly appreciated value of a poet’s investment of time and effort in poetry composition is interpreted as part of a trend towards a veiled profesionalisation of the art of poetry, as much as the efforts made in creation invite patrons to support the poet.
Thomas Zimmer is also to a large degree interested in the relationship between the author and his work, including their function in society. Zimmer examines the prefaces of several Ming and Qing story collections and novels in addressing the question of why fiction began to be written by the literati in Ming China. Zimmer summarizes various declarations of the purpose of writing, ranging from “expressions of personal grievances” (yuan)
and didactic purposes (yuan shan cheng e).
Aside from motivation, already extensively dealt with by other critics, Zimmer pays special attention to discussions dealing with the process of creation itself and the fictionality of the genre, concluding with rather exceptional views of a 18th century novelist Li Baichuan, who confesses his over-ridding passion for creating a “dreamworld of fiction”.
Unlike most of the other participants in the conference, who were primarily interested in the features which make Chinese literature different, Boris Riftin makes his point of departure the universality of the processes shaping literary evolution across cultures. He bases his views on the theory of “historical poetics” formulated by a 19th century Russian literary historian and comparatist, Aleksandr Veselovsky (1838–1906), who created a scheme of development of literature following certain literary “types” (ancient, medieval, modern). Sharing with Veselovsky his interest in the primordial sources of literature found in ancient myths and folklore, Riftin provides a brief survey of the way literary figures have been described in Chinese literature since early times through to the 20th century.
Two essays devoted to 20th century Chinese literature included at the end of this volume deal with two individual poets. Lloyd Haft introduces a contemporary poet from Taiwan – Zhou Mengdie – from the perspective of the symmetrical structure of his writings. Haft gives a full account of this device in Zhou Mengdie’s poetry, interpreting its significance as “emblems of a permanently open, continuously opening mind”. Comparing Zhou Mengdie’ s “palindromic” poems both with the tonal and “tripartite” thematic structure of traditional lushi,
and with the “circular” form, according to Michelle Yeh typical of modern Chinese poetry, Haft shows the whole range of the possible literary ties and affinities of Zhou Mengdie. As a result, Haft introduces this poet from Taiwan as both very Chinese and very modern in the Western sense.
Dealing with essays by Xi Chuan, a contemporary poet from the People’s Republic of China, Maghiel van Crevel paints a picture of the way poetry and being a poet is perceived by one of the best Chinese poets at the end of the 20th century. Using the poet’s words in explaining how he understands poetry, occasionally also compared with his poetry, van Crevel shows Xi Chuan’s views as they develop in their historical context, thus reminding us of the constant process of change in modern Chinese literature.
After reading this volume, the former claim of the organizers to “recarve” the picture of Chinese poetics may seem to be premature. Instead of a neat set of questions and answers a whole range of problems, approaches and views is presented, sometimes complementing and sometimes contradicting each other. This collection of essays, however, is valuable precisely in its diversity. It documents the state of the field in different scholarly traditions. Thus the conference provided an outline of issues to be examined and re-examined in order to arrive at a better understanding of both the uniqueness and universality of the Chinese literary tradition, as well as its transformation over the centuries. This is a never-ending task. Each time we think we arrive at an answer, new questions arise. Adopting the words of Li Qingzhao, originally meant as a description of the efforts of poets, we may say:
“Our efforts are like ravens circling a tree, Unable to cease and perch on a branch.”