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Poetics, an instrument to revive homegrown literature

By Wu Guangzheng | 2015-01-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Postage stamps “Writers of Ancient China III” depict Jia Yi, Sima Xiangru, Yang Xiong and Ban Gu, four notable ancient Chinese writers.


In the 20th century, the study of ancient Chinese literature became increasingly influenced by Western culture. It is the concept of literature, literary history and the academic narrative modes that enriches the panorama of Chinese literature. However, these ideas have overshadowed the tradition of Chinese literature to some extent and even resulted in quite a few false academic conclusions.

Affected by various schools of cultural thought, especially ideology, the study of ancient Chinese literature in the 20th century had a distinct landscape. It was not an era in which many classics were produced, but it was a time when the classics were widely read. Starting in the 1980s, scholars in this field began to reflect on research with an eye toward reviving and reinterpreting classics. And plenty of research achievements have been made in the 21st century.

By looking over the research on ancient Chinese literature produced this year, it can be found that there is a consensus among scholars in the field that there needs to be a return to Chinese tradition and efforts must be made to rebuild national poetics.

In search of literary tradition
In this year, some essays were published in Literary Legacy and other key journals. By rethinking the Western mode, they aim to identify the “literary tradition” of the “traditional literature.” Zhao Minli pointed out that the previous studies tended to modernize ancient Chinese literature, standardizing it by means of modern literary concepts, but such approaches failed to present the whole picture of how ancient Chinese literature evolved.

Lacking a precise grasp of the traits of Chinese literature, the West, partly influenced by its political ideology, has biased explanations for many phenomena that have arisen in the history of Chinese literature. As they work to remedy the situation, the biggest issue that contemporary academics face is the way to treat the influence of Western scholarship on China, Zhang Bowei said. Zhang said the greatest challenge is to put forward novel theories, methodologies and modes of knowledge production that differ from Western counterparts and are exclusive to China, Asia, and the East.

Thus, Zhang recommended the creation of a “Chinese cultural circle as a method.” In the essay Discussion on the “Cambridge History of Chinese Literature” by Chen Wenxin, the Western approach to compiling the history of Chinese literature is reconsidered, reminding the scholars to focus more on the function of genuine Chinese literary history and its national tradition.

Recently, a number of young and middle-aged scholars have been engaged in writing books on the history of Chinese religious literature. The essays authored by me and Li Shunchen defined Taoist literature and Buddhist literature from the perspective of religious practice in an attempt to establish religious poetics with a distinctive national standard.

Luo Gang noted that the theory of artistic conception was given a cold shoulder in the world of poetry in the late Qing dynasty. He maintains that this theory is a contrived tradition that was established based on German aesthetics. The fact that Poetic Critique in the Human World is considered one of the most authoritative works on traditional Chinese culture and the theory of artistic conception is regarded as the core of ancient Chinese poetics or the highest aesthetic ideal creates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Chinese literary tradition.

Considering the opinions of the aforementioned scholars, it can be seen that a revival of the Chinese tradition and rethinking about the Western one has become an essential topic for the contemporary study of ancient Chinese literature.

Political culture
The analysis of literary works and phenomena from views of social culture and institutions was another aspect of ancient Chinese literature studies in the year 2014. The link between political culture and the literary output of an era helps scholars to gain insight into the study.

For example, Zhuge Yibin discovered in his research that the Emperor Gaozong of the Song Dynasty, an advocate of the elegant and noble style of poetry, wrote A Poem on Fisherman, and made it a part of the content of the Child Exam, a sub-exam of the imperial civil examination in ancient China. This poem, to some extent, was considered to have a similar status as the Confucian classics.

Moreover, the social culture of ancient China was greatly influenced by the imperial civil examination, which affected the literature in that era. As Lu Xiaojun pointed out, though the ability to take the imperial exam was the right of a privileged few, the exam score of a candidate was correlated with his likelihood of being admitted. This finding prompts us to rethink the common expression in those literary works about the imperial civil examination that “wealth and rank can be gained empty-handedly,” which was undoubtedly a misinterpretation.

The political regime and political destiny of intellectuals also influenced their literature. By exploring the interrelation between the local administrative system and the scenic poetry in the Southern dynasties (420–589 after the Jin and before the Sui Dynasty), Wang Xiangfei found that most of the intellectuals who are interested in writing poems about the scenery of Wuyue region (the South of the Yangtze River, mainly today’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces of China) came from the Eastern Zhejiang Province, but those who are interested in writing poems about the landscape of Jingchu region (today’s Hubei Province) were the intellectuals and officials in the region. And the poems by the former group conveyed how they understood the philosophies of Lao Tze and Chuang Tse, while the poems of the latter group captured their life experiences, especially being far away from their hometown for years.

Stylistic features
Style is also another sphere of research that has contributed to the revival of the Chinese literary tradition. Some essays probe into the mutual relations between social rituals and literary stylistics. For instance, Dong Fenfen proposed that the applied literary forms in the Warring States Period varied according to different rituals of the times. Etiquette may restrict the stylistic features of works in terms of structure, content, expression, wording and diction.

Li Changji even proposed the concept of stylistic cultural science. Through the analysis of the poetry in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), he advocated a new perspective of research—stylistic cultural science—which, by examining the stylistic ecology, functional stylistics and stylistic behavioristics, develops the static and singular stylistic form into a dimensional and dynamic one, thus revealing the cultural significance of a particular stylistic form during its evolution. Such academic initiative enables scholars to better grasp the essence of literary works and stylistic theories.

Literature in Yuan Dynasty
The study of Yuan Dynasty literature can be regarded as the most salient in ancient Chinese literary history because it breaks the boundary of preconceived notions. Misguided by the concept of the evolutionary history of literature, many held the longstanding misconception that only verse was popular in the Yuan Dynasty. Some key words like national oppression and hierarchical oppression were typically used to describe Yuan literature.

The dynasty seemed to have been the darkest time in the nation’s literary history. But thanks to the efforts of Chen Yuan, Yao Congwu and other scholars, particularly Xiao Qiqing, historical and cultural studies of the Yuan Dynasty have changed how people think about the era. However, the findings of these studies have long been neglected in academia, prompting Li Xiusheng to call for more attention to the historical study of the Yuan Dynasty. The rigorous work of Li Xiusheng, Yang Lian and other senior scholars led to the publication of A Collection of Yuan Articles and A Collection of Yuan Poems, which marked a major breakthrough for the study of Yuan literature in the 21st century.

The achievements made in the study of Yuan literature in 2014 can be found in both essays and works. The publishing of Zha Hongde’s A General Discussion on Poetics in the Yuan Dynasty has deepened people’s understanding of Yuan literature. The book offers accounts of intellectuals’ living conditions, the concepts for poetry creation in the Yuan Dynasty and makes a rebuttal against many false critiques of Yuan literature. In this way, it contributes a lot to the revival of the Chinese literary tradition and the construction of distinctive Chinese poetics.

Wu Guangzheng is from the College of Chinese Language and Literature at Wuhan University.