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date: 03 June 2020

(p. 235) Modern Perspectives on Genre

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter seeks to give a historical overview of elite shi, popular shi, fu, and Chuci forms up until 1000 ce, emphasizing the role of traditional theoretical perspectives in shaping or problematizing modern views. In the case of shi, these perspectives include the Mao school’s interpretation of the Shijing; the retroactive creation of a shi tradition by pre-Tang court anthologists and critics in an attempt to privilege elite participation; the explosion of shi composition among the literate classes from the eighth century on due to its significant role in social exchange and in civil service examinations, and the concomitant decline of court aesthetics; the gradual triumph of a self-expressive and autobiographical model for shi composition; and the elite tradition’s general disregard for forms of verse production that did not fit its ideals. In discussing fu and Chuci, it is important to note its changing social roles as well as continuing existence.

Editor’s Introduction (Wai-yee Li)

The past is a foreign country. To navigate such unfamiliar terrains, one can choose either the vantage point of the past or that of the present—to understand a text from the past, one can “restore it to history” and reconstruct its frames of reference, or one can reclaim its “relevance” by bringing modern conceptual categories to bear on it. Of course these two perspectives are often intertwined. The previous section, “Traditional Genre Spectrum,” explores views from within traditional notions of genre and textual order. In order to do so, however, Chapters 12–15 also bring in perspectives of comparative culture (e.g., the Greek word historía in Chapter 13, Greek philosophy and Hellenistic traditions in Chapter 14) and questions traditional definitions (e.g., “Classics” as the embodiment of immutable values [Chapter 12] and “Collection” as the summation of a person’s literary character [Chapter 15]). The next three chapters will explore modern perspectives on genre, but they will test the heuristic value of these categories by mapping them against formulations of relevant genres in the tradition.

Modern discussions of genres in the Chinese tradition sometimes become a hunt for “missing genres.” The idea that all traditions should have some sort of epic has led some scholars to identify the poems about early Zhou leaders and the founding of the Zhou dynasty in Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry) as “epic” (translated as shishi 史詩) in ambition if not in form (Chapter 17). Others (e.g., Li Changzhi 李長之 [1910–1978]) claim the mantle of epic as foundational narrative for early historical writings like Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian). With a focus on metrical qualities, length, and (p. 236) narrative sweep, Chen Yinke 陳寅恪 (1890–1969) compares the woman writer Chen Duansheng’s 陳端生 (1751–ca. 1796) tanci 彈詞 (prosimetric narrative), Zaisheng yuan 再生緣 (Love in Two Lives), to epic in the Greek and Indian traditions (Chen 1980: 1). Likewise, the relatively late rise of drama in the Chinese context (as compared to the Greek, Roman, and Sanskrit traditions) might have compelled Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877–1927) to define pre-tenth-century antecedents when he wrote Song Yuan xiqu shi 宋元戲曲史 (History of Drama During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, 1915). Wang sought the roots of Chinese drama in ritual and shamanistic performance in Shijing and Chuci 楚辭 (Verses of Chu); in the verbal, musical, and acrobatic performance of jesters and entertainers noted in early historical writings and rhapsodies or poetic expositions (fu 賦); and in “proto-drama” such as “masked play” (daimian 代面), “adjutant play” (canjun 參軍), and “head moves” (a literal translation of botou 撥頭, a transliterated term sometimes written with different characters) from the Tang dynasty (Wang 1996: 1–13). Sporadic references are thus fashioned into a genealogy. The immense prestige of tragedy in the Western tradition has also inspired many Chinese scholars to look for Yuan, Ming, and Qing plays worthy of the label as they valiantly tailor Aristotelian, Hegelian, or Nietzschean definitions of tragedy.

One may be tempted to dismiss such endeavors as manifestations of a kind of “me-too” cultural inferiority complex. But to do so would be to underestimate the lure of the universalist claims of the poetics and aesthetics rooted in German Idealism. When Aristotle describes how “the poet may imitate by narration—in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged—or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us” (Poetics III, Adams 1971: 49), the implied differentiation of epic, lyrical, and dramatic modes still seems empirical. Distinctions come to be essentialized “as an opposition of ontological categories or moments in a dialectical process” in the writings of Schelling (1775–1854) and Hegel (1770–1831). Thus Schelling identifies the lyric with “difference,” the epic with “identity,” and drama with the dialectical unity of identity and difference. “For Hegel, the epic corresponds to an object in pure being, the lyric to a subject in a mood, the drama to a synthesis of object and subject in an act of volition” (Averintsev 2001: 17). Emil Staiger (1908–1987), the phenomenological heir of German Idealism, treats epic, lyric, and drama as modes of consciousness, with hidden temporal structures pertaining to, respectively, the present (presentation), the past (remembrance), and the future (tension) (Staiger 1991). Since object, subject, the past, the present, and the future are abstract, ontological categories of supposedly universal validity, “application” to the Chinese context may be forgiven as an exercise in logical categorization, even if it now seems hopelessly unfashionable. Furthermore, reflections along these lines can be fruitful. Instead of yielding only epic or drama manqué, they can raise important questions, e.g.: Does a culture need a foundational narrative? What forms may it take? How is direct utterance opposed to playacting? How is the author’s voice mediated through rhetorical and (p. 237) representational contexts? What should be the frameworks for addressing narrative or performative elements in poetry and prose?

Universalism has ceded ground to the discourse of cultural difference. In the case of epic and drama, for example, their absence in Chinese literature in the period under consideration simply draws attention to the fallacy of regarding epic, lyric, and drama as necessary components of a logical system rather than as historically related genres from ancient Greece. Genre theory is balanced—or perhaps stranded—between history and theory, and the mapping of historical instantiations is an obvious way to articulate theoretical genres. In the 1920s and 1930s, writers and scholars legitimized the new vernacular literature and reinterpreted tradition through the literary histories of several genres that sometimes sounded familiar but were in fact reinventions; examples include Zhongguo shi shi 中國詩史 (History of Chinese Poetry, 1931) by Lu Kanru 陸侃如 (1903–1978) and Feng Yuanjun 馮沅君 (1900–1974), Zhongguo xiaoshuo shi lue 中國小說史略 (Brief History of Chinese Fiction, 1923) by Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881–1936), Baihua wenxue shi 白話文學史 (A History of Vernacular Literature, 1928) by Hu Shi 胡適 (1891–1962), and Zhongguo suwenxue shi 中國俗文學史 (A History of Chinese Popular Literature, 1938) by Zheng Zhenduo 鄭振鐸 (1898–1958).

The quotation marks we put around “Chinese poetry” are meant to highlight the maneuvers and reconceptualization implied by that category. “There is no one word that incorporates all of the genres we tend to associate with the ‘poetic’ ” in the Chinese tradition, hence an overview of the verse forms that come under the rubric, each with its own aesthetic vocabulary and evaluative criteria, is necessary (Chapter 16). When Lu Kanru and Feng Yuanjun wrote Zhongguo shi shi in the late 1920s, they were self-consciously redefining shi 詩, a word that traditionally refers only to the more elevated verse forms (old-style poetry, regulated verse, quatrains, etc.). Although shi originally designated the poems that came to be collected in Shijing, the latter’s status as “Classic” meant that it was usually discussed separately from the belletristic tradition (with the exception of some late imperial shihua 詩話 [Remarks on Poetry]). Chuci with its distinct metrical qualities also stood apart. Lu and Feng broaden the definition of shi to include Shijing, Chuci, and verse forms such as yuefu 樂府 (Music Bureau poems), song lyrics (ci 詞), and vernacular songs (qu 曲) by appealing to Bai Juyi’s 白居易 (772–846) famous definition of poetry as “being rooted in emotions, sprouting shoots as words, flowering as sounds, and bearing fruit as meaning” 根情,苗言,華聲,實義, as well as Alexander Bogdanov’s (1873–1928) notion that poetry is the language of living images (Lu and Feng 1996: 1:6). It is perhaps no accident that Bai Juyi’s formulation appeared in his letter to Yuan Zhen 元稹 (779–831) justifying the aesthetics of his colloquial “new Music Bureau poems” (xin yuefu 新樂府) or that Bogdanov theorized about proletarian poetry. If emotion is the wellspring of poetry and imagery the principal mode of literary expression and communication, and if the goal is to communicate effectively with a broad audience, then the traditional hierarchy of poetic forms can no longer hold sway.

(p. 238) This redefinition of poetry valorizes “naturalness” (ziran 自然), excludes the formal and the grand (e.g., rhapsodies), and facilitates a “history” based on a succession of poetic forms that flourish and decline. Vaguely echoing Hegelian dialectics, Lu and Feng divide their history into “poetry’s history of freedom” 詩的自由史 (beginnings to the end of Han), “poetry’s history of bondage” 詩的束縛史 (Six Dynasties and Tang), and “poetry’s history of transformation” 詩的變化史 (Southern Tang, Song, and Yuan). The idea that each era has its own representative literary form, most famously articulated by Wang Guowei in Renjian Cihua 人間詞話 (Remarks on Lyrics in the Human Realm, 1910) but also already evident in Zang Maoxun’s 臧懋循 (1550–1620) preface to his anthology of Yuan plays (1625), justifies the exclusion of a great swath of the extant corpus (Ming and Qing poetic genres) and implicitly affirms vernacular New Poetry (xinshi 新詩) as the representative genre of modern times. Zhongguo shi shi may seem anachronistic, but some of its ideas, including the focus on poetic imagery; organic, biological metaphors for genres; and an emphasis on “lyrical self-expression, political awareness, and spontaneity” (Chapter 16), still infuse broad conceptions of “Chinese poetry.”

Lu and Feng end their book with songs from the Yuan dynasty, implying (through omission and distortion) a trajectory of “vernacularization.” This was also the avowed goal of the literary histories by Hu Shi and Zheng Zhenduo, who both posited an opposition between elite and popular literature. In this vision, elite literature is periodically revitalized by the orality, creativity, and transparency of popular literature. This binary division depends, however, on the exclusive identification of “the popular” with the vernacular, with oral transmission, and with performance and entertainment, problematic propositions in all cases. The retrieval of popular literature for our period may be impossible, because such works “could only survive to the extent they were incorporated into elite culture and adapted to its needs” in the age of manuscript culture (Chapter 17).

What is to be gained by the formulation of “elite versus popular literature”? For Hu Shi, whose history of vernacular literature started off as lecture notes in 1921, the idea is instrumental for his advocacy of the “literary revolution.” In some ways, his strategy is not very different from those of political reformers who tried to “change the system by appealing to antiquity” (tuo gu gai zhi 托古改制). Hu Shi rebranded sections of classical literature from early Han to mid-Tang (the chronological span of his book) as “vernacular” based on his somewhat subjective judgment of their language as “clear and comprehensible” (mingbai 明白) or “pure and unadorned” (qingbai 清白). In doing so, he forged semantic connections between the vernacular language (baihua 白話) and the qualities of “clarity” and “purity.” The modern vernacular thus gained a classical pedigree beyond its obvious filiation to late imperial vernacular fiction. In the process, Hu also drew attention to hitherto neglected works, such as translations of Buddhist stories or “vernacular” poets like Wang Fanzhi 王梵志 (seventh century) and Hanshan 寒山 (Cold Mountain, ca. seventh–eighth century). Zheng Zhenduo, (p. 239) a more serious collector and researcher of folk literature, went further in reclaiming major works of classical literature (including Shijing and “Nine Songs” in Chuci) as “popular.” He also expanded the terrain of Tang literature by studying the newly discovered Dunhuang “transformation texts” (bianwen 變文) and “vernacular rhapsodies” (su fu 俗賦). Perhaps for scholars like Hu and Zheng, such a vision of “recuperating” popular literature from the tradition also reflected their ardent hope that the new vernacular literature could overcome the divide between the “elite” and the “popular” and fulfill its mission of moral and social transformation.

The quest for the “popular” in classical literature directs attention to narrative genres (e.g., narrative poems, Buddhist stories, “transformation texts”) because of their supposed ties with folklore and storytelling. The term “narrative genres” applies to a range of disparate materials with a dizzying array of labels for the period covered in this volume (Chapter 18). The idea of narrative plays a necessary part in the “narrative-dramatic-lyrical” spectrum, a tripartite division of literary modes that, thanks to Aristotle and Hegel, continues to hold sway. It also serves to circumvent the shifting and amorphous history-fiction divide in the Chinese tradition. Modern histories of traditional Chinese fiction regularly seek its beginnings in early historical writings. Nor is the Chinese case unique; Walpole (1717–1797) quipped that history was “a species of romance that is believed,” while romance was “a species of history that is not believed” (cited in Gossman 1990: 3). By focusing on history and fiction or their disputed respective Chinese equivalents, shi 史 and xiaoshuo 小說, as “two contrasting focal points that have shaped the perception and interpretation of Chinese narrative over time,” we can see how different categorization schemes and descriptive accounts registered commonalities and differences (Chapter 18).

The teleological framework of Lu Xun’s immensely influential history of Chinese fiction (xiaoshuo) implies a trajectory of increasing length and complexity as well as heightened self-consciousness. The demarcation of “fictional self-consciousness” is, however, irrelevant for the traditional classification of xiaoshuo (and related genres) under “Masters” or “Histories,” categories that emphasize its function to instruct or entertain and its usefulness as historical information. (For this period, there was discussion of artistry and self-conscious craft, but not of “fictionality.”) By contrast, fictional self-consciousness is a necessary signpost in the “evolutionary path” pointing to the masterpieces of Ming-Qing fiction (sometimes translated as “novels”) and (beyond the chronological frame of Lu Xun’s book) their modern heirs, the short stories and novels produced by Lu Xun and his contemporaries. From its humble beginnings as the least important of the subcategory in “Various Masters” in the “Monograph on Arts and Writings” (“Yiwen zhi” 藝文志) in Han shu 漢書 (History of the Former Han), xiaoshuo would rise to become the harbinger of modernity because of its putative, though tenuous, association with the modern novel (also called xiaoshuo) and short story (duanpian xiaoshuo 短篇小說).

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