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date: 03 June 2020

(p. 342) Literature and Metaliterature

Abstract and Keywords

Traditional Chinese poetics grew out of hermeneutic tendencies associated with the Shijing, as commentators linked the poems to specific personal responses to historical events. This led to the valorization of self-expression and the obligation to “read” the author behind the text. While this remained a basic assumption, how it was interpreted and applied changed over time. In the pre-Tang era, the growth of court culture and the development of self-conscious literary history produced a series of important texts that addressed the interactions of literary texts with the polity; the evolution of genres and their relationship to personality; metaphysical sources for the imagination; and the historical development of literary forms and literary influence. In the Tang, the popularity of technical manuals demonstrates the increasing importance of shi composition. The ninth century saw the rise of theories that emphasized individual self-expression and authenticity in presentation. These views would come to dominate poetics.

Editor’s Introduction (Wiebke Denecke)

Modern scholars of Chinese literature have tended to focus on a small part of “metaliterature”: poetics, or “literary thought.” The feverish search for systematic theories of literature, inspired by Western foundational texts like Aristotle’s Poetics and the Aristotelian dream of taming the exuberant license of literary production through a descriptive system, makes us overlook less ostentatious and obvious modes of “metaliterature,” literature about literature: scenes in texts where an eager audience evaluates a poem; scenes of instruction, where an authoritative master figure is depicted in conversations with his disciples; texts remembering, recreating, quoting earlier texts; texts added to a main text as preface, epilogue, commentary, self-explanation; or texts worshiping earlier texts while promoting their own novel agenda, to name just a few. Searching for grand statements of literary theory has proven particularly unhelpful in the case of China, where systematic treatises on poetics have been rare and apparently not particularly worth pursuing. It has led to undue attention to grand exceptions like the Wenxin Diaolong 文心雕龍 (Literary Mind and the Carving of the Dragon), which was relatively neglected before the modern period, when it was suddenly promoted to being the epitome of “Chinese literary theory.”

This section of the Handbook treats “metaliterature” in its narrow sense, of poetics and literary thought, but then moves to broader questions of “metaliterature” such as (p. 343) concepts of authorship, the creation of tradition, and canon formation, as well as classicisms and revival movements.

What kinds of concerns have fueled the formulation of reflections on poetry and literature in the Chinese tradition? How have these concerns engendered different forms and formats of literary thought through the ages? What kinds of texts and genres have been most productive in precipitating reflections on literature? How did texts get attached to authors in the fluid world of early and medieval Chinese manuscript culture? And how is authorship connected to broader concerns of cultural creation and authority, of compiling, transmitting, and canonizing texts? What drove the creation of a textual canon and textual traditions in the Han? And how did “antiquity” eventually become a reference point for the imagination of medieval authors in deploying their programs for political, moral, and literary reform?

In the European tradition, poetry needed spirited defense after Plato’s attack on it as a purely mimetic, even deceptive, art devoid of metaphysical truth. In China, poetry—and in a broader sense “literature,” or “letters” (wen 文)—was at the heart of notions of “culture” and “civilization” (the same wen). It distinguished a Chinese from a barbarian. As a central piece of cultural (rather than ethnic) identity, it needed no defense but rather explication. Literature’s only potential danger was a decline into the “flowery” and superficial with passing time, but that was not a problem of literature per se, as in the case of Plato, but a question of the character and self-control of the writer in his time. From the Zhou Dynasty on, poetry was linked to music, which in turn was the correlative of ritual and social decorum; it had thus a major role in creating harmony and order in Confucian society.

The first chapter, “Defenses of Literature/Literary Thought/Poetics,” deals with metaliterature in its narrow sense. During the Han Dynasty, the desire to explicate individual poems in Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry) led to the first extended reflections on the nature of poetry and literature. The Mao interpretation of the Shijing ascribed to each poem a specific occasion and historical moment, which gave meaning to the poem and historical identity to the (mostly anonymous) voices of the poets, and provided a moral history of the Zhou Dynasty narrated through poems put in the mouth of its historical protagonists. It understood poetry both as a mirror and means of social change, a vector of historical development (often imagined as decline) and a tool for change towards a better future.

In the early medieval period (200–600 ce), occasions and themes for reflection on poetry and literature expanded considerably, as previously flourishing genres such as Masters Literature waned and a new array of genres, most importantly classical shi 詩 poetry, emerged as the foremost genre of self-expression, communal practice, and courtly distinction. Questions of individual talent and creativity, of the nature and function of genres, of the critical evaluation of individual poets and the creation of lineages, as well as grand statements on the close connection between literature, the state, and immortal fame, became central to reflections on poetry and literature. Though (p. 344) only rarely systematic, these concerns are recognizable as “poetological” issues, and therefore this period is often mined for statements about “Chinese literary theory.”

With the Tang, interests shifted to more technical and anecdotal forms of reflection on literature: new attention to the art of the couplet as the primary unit of poetic skill and appreciation produced a large literature of technical “how-to” manuals instructing aspiring poets how to read and write the perfect couplet. While these manuals came to be despised by Song literati, aphoristic remarks on poetry, poets, and life became in turn a vibrant format for reflecting on the literary world.

In Chinese literary thought, the figure of the poet, as witness and shaper of the historical moment, as “author” of a poetic text that reveals the true contours of the world, had great authority throughout premodern China. The next chapter, “Concepts of Authorship,” introduces the vocabulary and scenarios of authorship and reflects on types of relationships between texts and authors, as well as between texts and readers. While authors today are legal entities endowed with the duty of original creation and the benefit of claims to copyright and royalties, “authorship” in premodern cultures is a broad and blurred semantic field that includes questions about the origins, authority, and transmission of texts. Authorship as an act of creation was a fraught notion in traditional China, since true “creation” (zuo 作) was reserved for sages. Already Confucius embraced instead “transmission” (shu 述) as a weaker form of agency indebted to an imagined higher authority. Authorship came in many shapes: at its most powerful, poet-authors would appear as transcendent geniuses creating verses stirring the cosmos; alternatively, they could be transmitters of oral traditions and feature as commentator-authors; they could be figures of authority, whose voice spoke through texts, even if they did not compose them, as with early philosophical masters like Confucius; multiple authors produced “layered texts” over the span of several generations; or multiple authors, under the sponsorship of a powerful patron, could create a comprehensive, encyclopedic work through collective authorship.

Obviously authors create texts, but in early and medieval China texts quite often created their authors. The attribution of texts to authoritative figures justified the significance of the text in question and helped to control its meaning. The attribution of authorship could be simply apocryphal, but it could also rest on impersonation or imaginative reenactment of the imagined author, as with “Li sao” 離騷 (“Encountering Sorrow”), the miraculous plaint attributed to the tragically unrecognized minister Qu Yuan 屈原 (ca. 4th–3rd century bce). The strong authorial presence in the text, through recurring first-person pronouns, outright called for an author figure and the application of a suitable historical scenario. Qu Yuan became a paradigmatic author figure, serving as a political, moral, biographical, literary, and poetic model. So did the historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 (ca. 145–ca. 86 bce), who elaborated Qu Yuan’s plaint further into a vision of literary creation driven by suffering and failure. Sima Qian also became a model for the empathetic reader, ever sensitive to others’ plights.

(p. 345) Authorship as a form of authority is directly related to the formation of tradition: texts deemed culturally valuable became associated with the names of sages and were eventually canonized. The next chapter, “Tradition Formation: Beginnings to Eastern Han,” traces the processes of textual and institutional canonization in early China. Processes of canonization have recently attracted attention because of the realization that traditions are often “invented” at moments of transformation and crisis that require additional legitimation—through an invented past. In contrast to triumphant hagiographic narratives of canon formation, this approach to tradition emphasizes historical coincidences that had certain texts and institutions eventually win out rather than others.

The chapter proposes that tradition formation in China started with a particular flavor of nostalgia, with Confucius’s (551–479 bce) yearning for the golden age of the early Zhou kings. The second great moment of tradition formation, roughly half a millennium later during the early empire, was inspired by a new imperial ideology of “All Under Heaven,” when Confucius was canonized in turn and installed next to his early Zhou heroes in the portrait gallery of tradition. During the Han Dynasty, an imperial academy was founded and chairs established for academicians teaching the five textual traditions of the Shangshu 尚書 (Classic of Documents), Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry), Yijing 易經 (Classic of Changes), Liji 禮記 (Records of Rituals), and Chunqiu 春秋 (Spring and Autumn Annals). The political institutionalization of a canon of Confucian Classics went hand in hand with a new culture of scholarship that resulted in the production of commentaries and exegetical works. Yet another influential venue for the formation of tradition during the Han was the production of a catalogue of the imperial library, included in the Han shu 漢書 (History of the Former Han), which created basic classifications such as the “Six Arts” (Liu yi 六藝, later “Classics”) or “Masters Literature” that were to shape people’s mental map of textual knowledge and their perception of the world throughout premodern China. In closing, the chapter reminds us of the importance of dissent and invention in the process of canon formation, despite the traditional rhetoric praising “transmission” over “creation.”

With the medieval period, the canon of the “Classics” became closed (even if their number increased from five to thirteen between the Han and the Song Dynasties, mostly through canonizing commentaries and adding Masters Texts like the Analects and Mencius). The final chapter of this section, “Classicisms in Chinese Literary Culture: Six Dynasties through Tang,” takes us from the ancient world of the classical to medieval forms of classicism. Writers of the Six Dynasties and Tang engaged ancient texts from multiple perspectives: as poets turning to earlier modes, as literary innovators formulating their program through calls for a “revival of antiquity” (fu gu 復古), as critical and sometimes eccentric scholars, or as voices for political and moral reform.

(p. 346) During the Six Dynasties, elite poets began to promote the “imitation” (ni 擬) of ancient anonymous yuefu poems, harking back to a world of simple life and authentic people. Some poets, such as the hermit-poet Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365–427), turned away from courtly sophistication, evoking instead scenes and dreams of pristine simplicity, sometimes in the old tetrasyllabic meter. In the fifth century, writers like Liu Xie 劉勰 (ca. 460s–520s), and more forcefully his contemporary Pei Ziye 裴子野 (469–530), begin to castigate the excess of literary flourish at the expense of the moral substance of the literary message. But Liu Xie clothes his complaint in such sophisticated and patterned language that there is a clear cognitive dissonance between medium and message.

Only with Chen Zi’ang 陳子昂 (661–702) in the early Tang do we get more strident critiques of the courtly regulated poetic style and programmatic calls for a “revival of antiquity.” They gain full weight during the mid-Tang, when the term becomes a broad umbrella for a colorful spectrum of programs of literary, political, and moral reform. Despite their retrospective gaze, these programs are usually commitments to proactive cultural renewal. Their proponents often promote literary reform by drawing inspiration from older styles or use texts from antiquity as a means to critique contemporary writers on moral grounds.

Throughout the Tang, calls for a “revival of antiquity” came in many flavors: Han Yu’s 韓愈 (768–824) eccentric archeology of antiquity, which helped him dig up strange words and worlds; his taste for allegorical fables; his staunch voice of Confucian moral purpose; and his anti-Buddhist stance, provocative to the point of verging on lèse-majesté made him into one of the most complex fu gu authors. His friend Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773–819) had a stronger scholarly vein, while yet another member of his circle, Meng Jiao 孟郊 (751–814), translated his frustrations and failures into an unusually persistent harsh and bleak poetic style that makes him into an authentic figure of the “poet in adversity.” But there were also less idiosyncratic and gentler reform programs of “revival of antiquity,” such as Bai Juyi’s 白居易 (772–846).

By surveying early and medieval China through the broader scope of “metaliterature” rather than through a narrow focus on poetics and “literary thought,” this section should illustrate more generally how literature is produced under its own spell—namely, how literature keeps reproducing and producing itself in metaliterary spirals that we see in reflections on literature, scenarios of authority and authorship, the formation of canons and traditions, and classicisms.