2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 58: Individual Papers: Literary Theory, Aesthetics, and Poetics in Medieval and Early Modern China

Organizer and Chair: Grace S. Fong, McGill University


The Foundation of Liu Xie’s Literary Thought

Jingsong Ma, University of Toronto

This paper will argue that the key links between Dao, the Classics, and literature form the foundation for the pursuit of pure literary theory according to Liu Xie’s (c. 465–522) Wenxin diaolong ("The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons"). The discussion will emphasize three points. First, Liu Xie attempts to establish the natural Dao as the ontological foundation of wen. This naturalistic view of literature allows the qualities of pure literature—such as spontaneous expression of sincere emotion and literary embellishment without excess—to enter his literary system. Second, Liu Xie takes the Classics as the direct source of literary genres and the paradigm of literary excellence. Because the Classics are the origin of wen, but do not exhaust its potential development, Liu Xie’s theory opens the way for new directions and qualities that the Classics lack in the development of Chinese literature. Third, he attributes the new literary features of decorative diction, imagination, and emotional expression to the apocrypha and the Sao. By including apocrypha and Sao in the "pivot of wen," he directly embraces the development of pure literature. In sum, the "pivot of wen" sets up the framework and basic principles for a system of literary thought by dealing with the ontological foundation of wen, the origins of literature, the characteristic features of pure literature, and the potential for literary change.

Genre and the Study of Tang Writing

Alexei Ditter, Princeton University

Prose genres in the Tang dynasty (618–907) were shaped by both textual and social conventions. When composing a prayer for rain, for example, a prefect was guided by the "model" prayer texts found in institutional compendia and ritual manuals as well as efficacious examples of past prayers contained in encyclopedias. At the same time, his text was produced in response to a particular social exigency (drought or flood), had nominally specific speakers (the local prefect or his appointed subordinate) and addressees (locally or nationally recognized deities), and employed rhetorical tactics designed to elicit a desired response (the provision or cessation of rain). In studying Tang prose, however, contemporary scholars typically recognize only the textual conventions of genre. This paper posits a distinction between the perceptions of Tang writing resulting from changes in twentieth-century literary theory and the realities of Tang writing as they are evident in the traces of a very different set of theories and practices left by the Tang writers themselves. Examining discussions of genre in Tang dynasty collectanea, institutional compendia, prefaces to literary collections, official histories, and recorded anecdotes, it demonstrates that Tang writers shared a common understanding of how both textual and social conventions of genre guided composition and reception. Through a brief discussion of relevant examples, this paper explores how the recognition of both the social and textual conventions of genre can be used to construct a framework for analyzing the dynamic and mutually structuring interactions between Tang dynasty social practices and written texts.

The Making of Romance and the Remaking of History: "Chang hen ge zhuan" (An Account of "The Song of Eternal Sorrow")

Manling Luo, Washington University, St. Louis

As the best-known example of twin compositions in Chinese literary history, Bai Juyi’s (772–846) "Song of Eternal Sorrow" and Chen Hong’s (785–830) "An Account of the ‘Song of Eternal Sorrow’"—both based on the liaison between Emperor Xuanzong and his consort, Yang Guifei—have shaped popular imagination ever since. It is generally believed that Bai’s song offers a romantic rendition while Chen’s account, in the form of a historical biography, a rationalized version. To demonstrate that such dichotomous perception is precisely the effect of these writers’ conscious manipulation of generic conventions, my paper focuses on Chen’s narrative account to examine how this pseudo-history of the romance reveals the tension in and the agenda of these authors’ romance-making. It romanticizes history to remake Emperor Xuanzong into a successful romantic hero even as it historicizes the romance to hold Yang Guifei responsible for the failure of the mundane romance and the An Lushan rebellion. The double agenda is made possible by the contradictory construction of Yang’s personae as both a bad and a good lover. Complementing Bai’s song, Chen’s account shows their strategy to dissolve the conflict between their romantic and didactic impulses: the illusion of compatibility is created by the displacement of the contradiction onto the genre distinctions between poetry and historiography. The communal efforts in the making of this "historical romance" reveal deeper issues in the discursive formation of romance as an essential Chinese literary trope and as a defining dimension of literati culture.

Restoration Aesthetics: The Reception of Su Shi’s Song Lyrics by Early Southern Song Literati

Benjamin Ridgway, University of Michigan

Chinese literary histories have traditionally regarded Su Shi (1037–1101) as the founder of a bold new style of song lyric writing that, in the words of Hu Yin (1098–1156), "washed away the silks and perfumes" of banquet songs written in the style of the Huajian ji and the popular urban songs of Liu Yong (987–1053). This paper seeks to contextualize the shifting aesthetic evaluations of Su Shi’s song lyrics in the political and cultural changes attendant on the collapse of the Northern Song court. Evaluations of Su Shi’s song lyrics during the late 12th century, positive or negative, judged them by the criterion of musicality. Following the collapse of the Northern Song, on the other hand, literati prefaces to song lyric collections of writers like Ye Mengde (1077–1159) and Shang Ziyan (1086–1153) praised Su Shi’s lyrics for their expressive capacity, suasive moral power, and ability to convey the memory of their author to future readers. The prefaces hailed these Southern Song writers as followers of Su Shi’s style and posited an aesthetic transformation in their works, from musical craft to expression, which was mapped onto the political and geographic transition of the Song court from North to South. This paper examines the effects of war and political relocation on the early Southern Song cultural field, and how Su Shi’s song lyrics, which are preoccupied with a philosophy of "life as a sojourn," were appropriated and promoted by early Southern Song literati concerned with the restoration of the Song court and the recovery of the North.

Striving for Perfection: Model Building and Method Seeking in the Literary Culture of Late Eleventh Century Song China

Yugen Wang, Harvard University

The late eleventh century was a critical moment in Chinese literary history and literary thinking. Many themes and concerns that had appeared only in passing and remained obscure in medieval literary culture were brought to the surface, reoriented and transformed into new discourses that would largely define the scene of late classical poetics. Key to that development was the set of attitudes and values initiated and promoted mainly by the Northern Song poet Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) and the group of writers that gathered around him labeled by later critics as Jiangxi shipai, the Jiangxi school of poetry. By stressing the importance of models and methods in the writing and reading of poetry, this group of writers made a promise too attractive to refuse to the late eleventh and early twelfth century reader born into a culture filled with printed texts: that poetic perfection could be achieved through deliberate efforts in theorizing and constructing ultimate models.

My paper focuses on the desire to construct models in the late eleventh century as represented in the canonization of the Tang poet Du Fu (712–770), a process that was integral to the initial development and final acceptance of the Jiangxi poetics. It is part of a larger program to locate and interpret the Jiangxi obsession with "methods," or fa, within the special cultural, textual, and material circumstances under which it emerged and gained currency.