The Poetics of Appropriation: The Literary Theory and Practice of Huang Tingjianby David Palumbo-Liu
The poets of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126) were writing after what was then and still is acknowledged to be the Golden Age of Chinese poetry, the Tang dynasty (618-907). This study examines how these Song poets responded to their uncomfortable proximity to such impressive predecessors and reveals how their response shaped their literary art. The author's focus is on the poetic theory and practice of the poet Huang Tingjian (1045-1105). This first full-length study in English of one of the most difficult and complex poets of the classical Chinese tradition aims to provide the background for understanding better why Huang was so greatly admired, especially by the outstanding literati of his age, and why later scholars claim Huang is the characteristic Northern Song poet. The author concludes by considering how Huang's literary project resembles, but ultimately differs from, Western literary theories of influence and intertextuality.
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The Poetics of Appropriation
The Literary Theory and Practice of Huang Tingjian
By David Palumbo-Liu
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1993 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Confronting the Tang
Those critical of Huang Tingjian's use of prior verse attack him for robbing the original poet, ruining the purity of the original verse, and calling this concoction art. To bolster their claim that what Huang saw as an act of poetic revision actually was one of violent piracy, they attribute to Huang the particular motive of pride and cite this passage:
My mind has become drunk on the Classic of Poetry and the Chuci. I feel as though I have obtained something from them, yet I will forever be behind the men of antiquity. As for discoursing on words today, we should let Shaoyou [Qin Guan, 1049-1001, Chao [Buzhi, 1053-1110], Zhang [Lei, 1054-1114], and Wuji [Chen Shidao, 1053-1101] do it. You may ask one or two of these four gentlemen about the subject.
In days past Wang Zhifang [1069-1109] composed two pieces in the style of the Chuci and sent them to me. They seem to be presentable. I once told him that [composition] is analogous to the situation of craftswomen of today — their patterned weaving is the marvel of a whole generation. When they plan to make a piece, it is proper for them to study the mechanism behind weaving [i.e., the loom]. Then and only then are they able to form brocade. You should try out this thought [in taking on your literary endeavor).
Every discussion of this passage I have found uses Huang Tingjian's pronouncement as evidence of his deep discontent over his belatedness. The critics, however, tend to note only the first section, but in an important way the second part suggests Huang's reaction to the condition of belatedness articulated in the first. Huang remarks that he has grasped something from the most ancient anthologies of poetry but admits his inability to close the gap between the ancients and himself. He refers the addressee of this letter to the members of the group of scholars around Su Shi, who he says are better able to explicate words, but this moment of self-confessed inadequacy may be taken as signaling a will to go beyond antiquity. Huang leaves behind the question of recuperating the language of antiquity and turns to another matter.
Huang's analogy, likening literary composition to weaving, may be an allegory for one of the chief components of the late Northern Song project: the effort not to recuperate the past but to correlate present-day action with what latter-day literati understood to be the intent behind the ancient texts. Huang does not praise the weavers of his day for imitating ancient patterns and motifs; rather, he focuses on a more basic, and more essential, matter: the tools of the craft. In like fashion, Huang is interested in exploring the tools of literary art in order to produce literature that will dazzle his age. He is interested less in seeking out the precise etymologies of words in an effort to revive their original meaning than in learning how to join words in particular constructs that engender new meanings.
Huang's remarks shift the focus from restoring the past to composing texts based on a particular understanding of those models: we might even infer that this understanding is the "something" Huang has obtained from the classics. In his poetry Huang transforms the curse of belatedness into an imperative to create something different based on a particular understanding of past art and marks his position as a point of origin for a new poetics. We might correlate this movement away from imitation with the more general situation of late Northern Song poets, specifically their changing relationship to their Tang predecessors.
Arguably, more than any previous age in China, the Northern Song was involved in assessing its relationship to its past. In Song poetry one can sense the presence of a tremendous range of prior texts, but the main focus of late Northern Song poets was the Tang dynasty. Northern Song poets have inevitably been compared, both by later critics and by themselves, to the poets all agree were the finest of any age. The Tang greats drew on a lyric tradition over a millennium old and achieved poetry that perfected centuries-old techniques while losing none of (and indeed, adding much to) the lyrical quality of that verse.
In many ways it was the ill-fortune of Northern Song poets to follow the Tang — any effort by any Song poet was necessarily weighed against the most mature works of the greatest Tang masters. The modern critic Qian Zhongshu cites the opinion of many critics that Song poetry is, in a word, worthless. This opinion is reflected in the minimal inclusion of Song shi (lyric) verse in anthologies of classical Chinese poetry. Indeed, Qian cites one modern anthology that moves from the Tang directly to the Ming, bypassing entirely the Five Dynasties, Song, and Yuan periods. Another modern critic, Hu Yunyi, goes so far as to claim that shi poetry was completely exhausted by the time of the Northern Song. To compound this crippling situation, the political, aesthetic, and literary realms were all, according to Hu, hostile to the development of chi.
It was not until the Qing dynasty that interest in Song poetry was revived by such men as Qian Qianyi (1582-1664) and Huang Zongxi (1610-9;) and that Song poetry was again considered seriously. But even then the relative value of Song poetry was hotly debated; the established view was still deeply entrenched in literary opinion. The main issues are outlined in the preface to an important anthology of Song verse compiled in the Qing dynasty, the Song shi chao:
From the time of the Jia[qing; 1522-67] and the Long[qing; 1567-73] reigns, critics of poetry have revered the Tang while dismissing the Song, seeing the poetry collections of Song poets as fit for only "covering the sauce jar" or for "papering a wall."
... Those who today dismiss Song poetry have yet to truly see a Song poem [since what has been handed down is biased]. Even though they may have seen a Song poem, they are incapable of assessing its origin and ramifications, and this is no different from not seeing it at all.
The flaw actually resides not so much in dismissing the Song as it does in revering the Tang. Probably what is revered is what those of the Jiaqing reign period and later regarded as "Tang" and not what the men of the Tang and Song eras conceived of as the Tang. Therefore, it follows that if what critics construe as the "Tang" is not the Tang as it was regarded at that time, then neither is their notion of what is "Song" accurate, and thus their assumption that it is decadent is quite understandable.
The Song was close in time to the Tang, and the Song poets' made great efforts to learn from the Tang and became particularly refined and devoted. To skip over the men of old [i.e., the Song] and go past them, claiming that they were simply coarse plagiarists, is like expelling one's father's tablet [from the family shrine] and treating one's grandfathers' tablets as if they were one's fathers'.
This preface contains a number of insights into the way Song poetry has been regarded since its time and gives a sense of the pervasiveness of the Tang versus Song critique. The authors note the perpetuation of what they claim is an incomplete and distorted image of Song poetry. Too much of what is received as Song poetry is, to their minds, framed in a manner ignorant of its spirit. To misunderstand Song poetry as mere plagiarism is to ignore an essential element in the literary development of the lyric tradition and to make literary history discontinuous. It also completely mistakes the revisionary project of the Song.
Hu Yunyi speaks of the Northern Song poets' deep self-consciousness of their position vis-Ã -vis the Tang, a self-consciousness that led them to probe deeply into the nature of Tang literary art. Behind this effort one can sense a will both to learn from that art and to discover what might be left to do:
Although in terms of creativity the Song lacks the greatness of the Tang, in terms of the investigation of poetry the Song progressed much more profoundly and penetratingly than the Tang. They performed extremely astute criticisms of each Tang poet and analyzed in great detail each Tang poem. They were able to view each poet's unique character and each poem's strong point. Most of all, for each great Tang poet — Li Bo, Du Fu, Bo Juyi, Li He, Wang Wei, Han Yu, Li Shangyin — no matter if in terms of diction, verse refinement, parallelism, or prosody, they were unwilling to relax the rigor of their examination; rather, they increased the scrutiny of their study.
Song poets were particularly awed by what they considered to be the all-encompassing virtuosity of the great Tang poets. Their ability to assimilate and perfect the varied styles and modalities of the ancients placed them in a seemingly unsurpassable position. Two great Tang masters are described by Song writers thus:
Delving into the subtleties of the Liezi and the Zhuangzi, holding close the discriminations of Su [Qin; ? — 317 B.C.] and Zhang [Yi; ? — 309 B.C.], seizing on the factuality of Ban [Gu; 32 — 92] and Ma [Sima Qian; 145 — 90 B.C.], hunting out the blossoms of Qu [Yuan; 4th c. B.C.] and Song [Yu; 3rd c. B.C.], rooted in the Classic of Poetry and the Classic of Documents, and measuring all by means of Confucius, what Han Yu composed was precisely the accomplished form of all these men's wen [literature, cultural discourse].
Han Yu's wen is like Du Fu's poetry, which amassed the strengths of the many literati and matched them according to his own time. In previous times Su Wu's [2nd c. B.C.] and Li Ling's [? — 74 B.C.] verse was strong in terms of lofty marvelousness; Cao Zhi's [192 — 232] and Liu Gonghan's [Liu Zhen; ? — 217] poetry was strong in untrammeled abandon; Tao Qian's [365 — 427] and Ruan Ji's [210 — 63] verse was strong in tranquillity and blandness; Xie Lingyun's [385 — 433] and Bao Zhao's [414? — 661 verse was strong in lofty purity; Xu Ling's [507 — 82] and Yu Xin's [512 — 80] verse was strong in refinement and elegance.
Therefore, Du Fu's verse exhausted the style of lofty marvelousness, took to the extreme the vital energy of untrammeled abandon, enclosed the vigor of tranquillity and blandness. He wove together the manner of lofty purity and fully set forth the stance of refinement and elegance. The works of all these literati [of antiquity] could not reach [the excellence of] his verse. Still, without bringing together the strong points of these great writers of antiquity, even Du Fu could not arrive at this.
In the light of such an understanding of their predecessors, late Northern Song poets found themselves emulating the awesome assimilative powers of writers such as Han Yu and Du Fu and attempting to synthesize the valued aspects of prior texts. What Northern Song poets admired in the Tang greats was the ability to do to their predecessors what they themselves wished to do to their own Tang predecessors.
Many scholars have offered schematic analyses of the filiations of Northern Song poets to their Tang predecessors. Although self pronounced "schools" (pai) of poetry did not appear until much later, such as the Jiangxi pai that took Huang Tingjian as its ancestor (with the exception of the loose and short-lived Xikun group of poets), literary critics have traced the influence of one or more Tang poets on groups of Song poets. With some variance, most critics of Song poetry agree to the following groupings for the early and mid-Northern Song periods:
1. The Late Tang Style. This style is exemplified by the works of Jia Dao (779 — 849), specifically, his restrained and intimate landscape poetry and carefully balanced, crafted couplets. Chief among the imitators of this style in the Song dynasty was Lin Bu (967-1028).
2. The Bo Juyi Style. Poets such as Wang Yucheng (954-1001) were attracted to both the plain, prosaic diction of Bo Juyi and his group and Bo's concern with social issues, as, for example, in his "New Music Bureau" series.
3. The Xikun Style. This style takes its name from an anthology compiled by Yang Yi (974-1020), Li Zonge (965-1013), Liu Yun (971 — 1031), and Ding Wei (962-1033), the Xikun chouchang ji. These poets were admirers of Li Shangyin, and this anthology is characterized by rich, allusive, and idiosyncratically imagistic poems.
In the mid — Northern Song two other groups emerged:
4. The Changli Style. This group, led by Ouyang Xiu (1007-72), Mei Yaochen (1002-60), and Su Shunqin (1008-48), held as their model Han Yu. They reacted against what they considered the vacuous floridity of the Xikun group and championed instead the moral seriousness and sharp imagery of Han Yu and Meng Jiao (751 — 814). In particular, these poets attacked Buddhist and Taoist influence in literature and associated the ornate embellishments of much of Five Dynasties and early Song poetry with this influence.
5. The Lixue School. More of an inclination than a school, poets such as Shao Yong (101 1-77) used poetry as a vehicle for particular investigations into Neo-Confucian concerns.
As attractively neat as these categories are to the literary historian, and as much as Song poets themselves distinguished between the styles of some groups, as Hu Yunyi notes, such groupings are vague and provisional. Even the members of a relatively defined group such as the Xikun poets wrote poems that are decidedly not like Li Shangyin's, poems with a marked affinity for other Tang models such as Bo Juyi.
The usefulness of such categories becomes most obviously strained when one tries to address the poetics of the Yuanyou era (1086-94). According to Liang Kun's logic, the Jiangxi pai (in which Liang anachronistically includes Huang Tingjian) is filiated with every Tang model (Bo Juyi, Jia Dao, Li Shangyin, Han Yu, and Du Fu), as well as with the Jin poet Tao Qian. This breakdown of categories amply illustrates the largely syncretic nature of the poetry of the late eleventh century, that of Su Shi and Huang Tingjian being most representative of the period.
Fang Hui notes how Yuanyou poets departed from simply imitating one or another style:
The poems of the Yuanyou era were not made according to the Yang [Yi] and Liu [Yun] [Xi]kun style, nor were they made according to the late Tang style of the Nine Monks, nor even to the Bo Juyi style. Each [Yuanyou poet] used the power of his own talent to rise heroically in poetry. The extraordinariness of [Huang] Shangu was that he had the "transformed nature" of the Xikun style [i.e., had adapted the technical innovations of Xikun poetry], and yet he did not slavishly imitate its method of organizing a poem.
Another critic claims that "Huang Tingjian employed the craft of the Xikun style and transformed the 'naturally forming' [i.e., its seeming spontaneity] character of Du Fu." In both these observations we find the same claim — Huang Tingjian and other Yuanyou poets modified and synthesized elements from several prior "schools" of poetry; they did not rigidly follow any one school. By and large Yuanyou poets were eclectic, seeing past poetry as presenting various sets of possibilities. A "style" could be modified, reinterpreted, or blended with another. Huang borrowed not only from what he saw as the technical advances evident in these styles but also directly from prior poetry.
The ecumenical character of late Northern Song poetry is part of the general intellectual nature of the times, which may be seen in a number of pronouncements by literati. For example, this comment by Wang Anshi (1021-86):
If anybody reads the classics alone, it is unlikely that he can really comprehend them. That is the reason why I have read, in addition to the classics, the writings of the philosophers, the manuals of medical doctors, herbalists, story-tellers, not overlooking anything in my quest for knowledge. ... Having done these things, I am now in the position to comprehend the major import of the classics.
Peter Bol notes Su Shi's interest in synthesizing elements from a wide range of sources. He speaks of Su Shi's "conviction that any style is achieved through integrating a diversity of interests. We might say that he thinks that integration is the style of all styles. Thus the guiding principle and purpose of style can be the idea of integrating diverse borrowings."
The complexity of the notion of style in this period is also evident in the ways literati traced the influence of prior models. Speaking of Northern Song painting, Alexander Soper notes, "Ch'ao Pu-chih [Chao Buzhi] listed no less than twelve different authorities, ranging in time from Wu Tao-tzu [Wu Daoxuan, ?-792] and Chou Fang [Zhou Fang, ca. 730- ca. 800] to Ts'ui Po [Cui Bo, ca. 1050-80], from whom he borrowed the various parts of his repertory." Not only did literati envisage themselves as synthesizers of models in particular realms of activity, they also saw affinities in style between the arts — the biography of the painter Li Gonglin (1049-1106) says that Li absorbed the "style" of the poet Du Fu.
Excerpted from The Poetics of Appropriation by David Palumbo-Liu. Copyright © 1993 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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