Alan Kam-leung Chan, Yuet Keung Lo, eds. Interpretation and Literature in Early Medieval China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. vi + 288 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-3217-5.
Reviewed by Richard Serrano
Published on H-Asia (July, 2011)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Although described by the editors as a companion volume to Philosophy and Religion in Early Medieval China, this volume of essays stands on its own. In an era of sloppy editing and intellectual filler, it is a pleasure to read a collection in which each of the essays is well written, well edited, and challenges scholarly consensus while evoking the vast scholarship on Chinese thought and literature that we have inherited in both Chinese and Western languages.
In his contribution, “Court Culture in the Late Eastern Han: The Case of the Hongdu Gate School,” David Knechtges reads astringent criticism of the Hongdu Gate School by three late Han scholar-officials, preserved in the Hou Han shu, while carefully weighing the arguments of recent literary scholars and historians, in order to determine how it deviated from previous practice. The essay ends with a translation of a fu by Cai Yong, one of the three critical scholar-officials, which seems to indicate that at least some of his own work was similar to that which he criticized, and a further rumination on how the practices criticized--indulgence in what were considered the less morally serious arts of “calligraphy, painting, and music” (p. 34) would go on to become the norm by the early fourth century. The second essay, “The Patterns and Changes of Literary Patronage in the Han and Wei” by Jui-Lung Su, building on both the first essay and another article by Knechtges first published in the 1990s, rejects a romanticized and ahistorical understanding of poetry’s role in early Chinese culture while tracing its rise to institutional prominence under the three Caos of Wei, accomplished poets, two of whom were also rulers, in their own right, in the third century.
“Wandering in the Ruins: The Shuijing zhu reconsidered,” Michael Nylan’s contribution, argues for the delineation of “an empire of memory” p. (63) in the Shuijing zhu (River Classic Commentary), written four centuries after the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220. Like the previous two essays, Nylan’s is in some sense a corrective to assumptions underlying earlier scholarship, for she is intent on demonstrating that the Shuijing zhu is far from a merely objective description of early medieval Chinese geography. It represents instead a meditation of sorts on the disappearance of traces of the past and the illegibility of steles erected and inscribed in order to fix a moment in the memories of future generations. Nylan ends her essay by contrasting the Shuijing zhu with two other similar texts describing places and their significance, the fourth-century Huayang guozhin (Gazeteer for the Region South of the Huayang Mountains) and the sixth-century Luoyang qielan ji (A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang), and in so doing debunks the simplistic notion of “an Asian model of pilgrimage” (p. 77).
In his essay, “Evolving Practices of Guan and Liu Xie’s Theory of Literary Interpretation,” Zong-Qi Cai resituates the famous call by Mencius to interpret poetry by meeting the intent of its author within the context of earlier reading practices. Dividing guan, which he translates here as “to observe” or “observation” (p. 103), into three categories (listening, presenting, and citing poetry), Cai demonstrates how Mencius borrows from all three in his insistence on understanding the larger context of a particular poem. He then goes on to show how this concern for context gives way to merely “imagined historicity” in the Mao annotations to the Classic of Poetry. Robert Campany, in “Narrative in the Self-Presentation of Transcendence-Seekers,” reexamines the prevailing scholarly consensus that these adepts should be understood in isolation from the culture at large, since that is how they present themselves. He argues instead for an understanding of them through their social role, revealing that a holy man can be holy only if others accept his self-presentation as such. Campany is careful to read hagiographies compiled over five centuries of the Han as “textual vehicles of collective memory” that do not permit the sort of quest for a historical figure familiar to us from a certain sort of Bible scholarship (p. 137). In the detailed analyses of individual passages we see time and again that figures whom scholarship has long seen as merely reclusive are often presented at parties or other gatherings, since their sanctity requires validation from others.
In his “‘Jade Flower’ and the Motif of Mystic Excursion in Early Religious Daoist Poetry,” Timothy Wai-Keung Chan traces the evolution of the multivalent term “jade flower” through Han, Wei, and Jin texts. This unusually dense and suggestive essay suggests that two of the earliest theorists of Chinese Literature, Lu Ji and Liu Xie, may have “based their theories of literary creation on religious Daoism” (p. 180). In “Representing the Uncommon: Temple-Visit Lyrics from the Liang to Sui Dynasties,” Cynthia L. Chennault explores the origins of short poems about visiting temples, a genre usually associated with the Tang. She demonstrates with abundant citation and careful translation that the promotion of Buddhism by the fifth-century ruler Liang Wudi made temples appropriate sites for the expression of the miraculous and transformative experience. As she points out, these temple-visit lyrics build on a predominantly southern Chinese tradition stretching back at least to Qu Yuan. Daniel Hsieh’s essay, “Fox as Trickster in Early Medieval China,” reminds us of the importance and ambiguity of the figure of the fox in late imperial China and then makes a useful detour through comparative mythology before turning to the earliest representations of this animal in Chinese literature. Hsieh demonstrates that the fox had both negative and positive associations through the end of the Han, but that some time in the Six Dynasties these qualities were melded into the ambiguous character of the fox, so that it is at once positive and negative, pleasing and threatening. Mu-chou Poo, in his “Justice, Morality, and Skepticism in Six Dynasty Ghost Stories,” the final essay of the collection, examines the complexities of ghost stories, a genre generally considered relatively uncomplicated. The essay is primarily descriptive, but the translations give a good sense of the surprising variety of the genre.
Although this volume of essays is targeted at specialists of early medieval Chinese literature and philosophy, many of them refer to both earlier and much later manifestations of Chinese cultural production in order to make their arguments. For this reason, scholars of all periods of Chinese literature and philosophy will find this collection useful and challenging. My copy is already well thumbed, with particularly well-turned phrases underlined and the bibliography ransacked for future reading.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Richard Serrano. Review of Chan, Alan Kam-leung; Lo, Yuet Keung, eds., Interpretation and Literature in Early Medieval China.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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