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The Vitality of the Lyric Voice: Shih Poetry from the Late Han to the T'ang

The Vitality of the Lyric Voice: Shih Poetry from the Late Han to the T'ang

by Shuen-fu Lin (Editor), Stephen Owen (Editor)

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This volume presents twelve essays on the evolution of shih poetry from the second to the tenth century, the period that began with the sudden flowering of shih poetry in live-character meter and culminated in the T'ang, the golden age of classical Chinese poetry.

Originally published in 1987.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand


This volume presents twelve essays on the evolution of shih poetry from the second to the tenth century, the period that began with the sudden flowering of shih poetry in live-character meter and culminated in the T'ang, the golden age of classical Chinese poetry.

Originally published in 1987.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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The Vitality of the Lyric Voice

Shih Poetry from the Late Han to the T'ang

By Shuen-fu Lin, Stephen Owen


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03134-7


Theoretical Background

Tu Wei-ming

Profound Learning, Personal Knowledge, and Poetic Vision

Kuo Hsiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 312), commenting on the idea of the "music of Heaven" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the Chuang Tzu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], observes in a distinctively Wei-Chin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (220–420) style of thought:

The music of Heaven is not an entity existing outside of things. The different apertures, the pipes and flutes and the like, in combination with all living beings, together constitute Heaven. Since non-being is non-being, it cannot produce other beings. Before being itself is produced, it cannot produce other beings. Then by whom are things produced? They spontaneously produce themselves, that is all. By this is not meant that there is an "I" to produce. The "I" cannot produce things and things cannot produce the "I." The "I" is self-existent. Because it is so by itself, we call it natural.

This style of thought purports to understand things as they are in themselves, not merely as they appear to our ordinary sense perceptions. It takes as its point of departure the immediate apperception of concrete things sui generis, without the intervention of any external perspective in either being or non-being. A thing, no matter how it has come into existence, is intrinsically self-sufficient. It is there to be and to express. It is independent, autonomous, and spontaneous, definitely not produced by a willful design. To say that it is produced is to undermine the self-sufficiency and to reduce it to a mere creature. A thing does not and cannot acknowledge an external source of origin; its participation in nature is a form of self-contentment. It must manifest itself as an "I," pure and simple. As all things become self-sufficient "I's," equality pervades the universe. For Kuo Hsiang, this is the meaning of Chuang Tzu's "equality of things" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

Kuo Hsiang's interpretation of the philosophy of Chuang Tzu in terms of the self-sufficiency of all beings appears to be incompatible with Wang Pi's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (226–249) interpretation of the philosophy of Lao Tzu, which presents non-being as the ultimate reality underlying all things. As Wing-tsit Chan notes, "while Wang Pi emphasizes non-being, Kuo emphasizes being, and while Wang Pi emphasizes the one, Kuo emphasizes the many. To Wang Pi, principle transcends things, but to Kuo, it is immanent in them." However, this apparent contrast between non-being and being, one and many, and transcendence and immanence must not lead us to the mistaken conclusion that Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang actually subscribe to two incompatible metaphysical projects. Indeed, as Wing-tsit Chan further notes, "Kuo Hsiang and Wang Pi are similar in that both consider that the sage rises above all distinctions and contradictions. He remains in the midst of human affairs although he accomplishes things by taking no unnatural action." To philosophize in the spirit of the sage seems to be a shared orientation of the two distinctive modes of thought in the Wei-Chin period. And it is in this sense that Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang can very well be said to belong to the same intellectual discourse.

Historically the emergence of the Wei-Chin style of thought, as represented by the commentary works of Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang, signifies a new epistemic era commonly known as the age of "profound learning" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Since the character hsüan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], rendered here as "profound," is laden with fruitful ambiguities, there is pervasive reluctance among scholars of Chinese thought to fix its meaning in a narrow context. Against the background of the first chapter of the Lao Tzu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the commonly accepted sequence of the text, hsüan evokes sensations of an ineffable but mysteriously potent reality forever beyond the grasp of ordinary human perceptions. To comprehend the philosophical import of "profound learning," in terms of its internal structure, a radical restructuring of our conceptual apparatus is necessary. The temptation to adopt or to invent an ahistorical approach or to resort to a method of illogicality is strong; indeed, the fear that any interpretive strategy is inadequate and that any articulated position is by definition misguided is overwhelming. "Profound learning" itself can be understood as an historical phenomenon with a discernible pattern. An inquiry into the basic assumptions of such a pattern may shed some light on its internal structure, a structure which presumably cannot be comprehended by a single path alone.

T'ang Yung-t'ung [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in a seminal essay on "profound learning," conceptualizes the emergence of the Wei-Chin style of thought as a shift of overall philosophical focus from cosmology to ontology. In his view, a defining characteristic of "profound learning" is the ontological mode of questioning. While the Han [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (206–220 B.C.) scholars, notably Tung Chung-shu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 179 to ca. 104 B.C.), were primarily interested in cosmological issues, the Wei-Chin thinkers turned their minds to theories of being. T'ang's creative application of the two primary categories of learning in western metaphysics, cosmology and ontology, to the transition of Chinese thought from Han to Wei-Chin, is heuristically illuminating. To be sure, this dichotomy can be questioned as too neat to accommodate the complexity of the historical situation. We suspect that there must have been Han scholars who raised fundamental questions about ultimate reality. Take Yang Hsiung [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (53 B.C. to A.D. 18), for example. He observes that "the Supreme Profundity deeply permeates all species of things but its physical form cannot be seen." His major philosophical work, entitled the Classic of the Supreme Profundity [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], leads one to wonder if his attempt to probe the "great mystery" did not impel him to address issues that Wang Pi's ontology later addressed. However, as T'ang Yung-t'ung persuasively argues, the underlying structure of Yang Hsiung's metaphysics is the "mutual responsiveness of Heaven and man," whereas the ontic weight in Wang Pi's thought is the idea of "original substance" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Thus, the same character hsüan assumes two different shapes of meaning because of the divergence in metaphysical context.

The metaphysical context of Yang Hsiung's "supreme profundity" is imbued with cosmological concerns: the way of Heaven, the passive and active natural forces, the cosmic transformation and human destiny. In this sense, Yang Hsiung fully participated in Tung Chung-shu's linguistic universe. The preoccupation of Tung with the meaning of the five phases, the correspondence of man and the numerical categories of Heaven, the historical cycles, and the transcendent justification for politics and morality continued to figure prominently in Yang's world view. Wang Pi, by contrast, was involved in a significantly different metaphysical context. The issues discussed, the methods employed, and even the questions raised all seem to have undergone a major transformation. If a salient feature of the Han metaphysicians was system building, the Wei-Chin metaphysicians replaced the spirit of construction with the spirit of "digging." For the Wei-Chin thinkers, no blueprint for the construction of a philosophical edifice was available, nor even thought necessary or desirable. It seems that the prevailing ethos was to probe the underlying structure and principle of things instead of casting one's gaze outward in search of the grandiose design of the universe.

This archeological digging necessitates a deepened self-awareness or, more appropriate perhaps, an ever deepening self-awareness. To philosophize in the spirit of the sage entails the authentic possibility of analyzing things in a perspective fundamentally different from that which our ordinary human capacity, under the constraints of sensory perceptions, can appreciate. Yet, the sagely perspective in this connection is not merely a technique of seeing but a mode of knowing which also invokes hearing, sensing, tasting, and, indeed, embodying. This, I believe, is implicit in Wang Pi's insistence that "there is a great constancy in Tao and there is a generality in principle" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. For the only way to know Tao as the "ultimate of greatness" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is to experience it from within:

Non-being is inherent in the one. But when we look for it in the multiplicity of things, it is like Tao which can be looked for but not seen, listened to but not heard, reached for but not touched. If we know it, we do not need to go out of doors. If we do not know it, the further we go, the more beclouded we become.

If we know the general principle of things, we can know through thinking even if we do not travel. If we know the basis of things, even if we do not see them, we can point to the principle of right and wrong.

The above statement, simple as it appears to be, is laden with far-reaching implications. However, it is important to note that the overall tone, despite the obviously paradoxical move from the first to the second part of the statement, is direct, confident, and assertive. There is no semantic nuance. Nor is there any sign of skepticism or negativism. The mental attitude is one of hope and optimism, even though the caution against the delusion of an intellectual grasp of the one "in the multiplicity of things" makes us wonder whether or not the whole epistemological enterprise implies subtle maneuvers and wary tactics.

We must hasten to mention that Wang Pi's rejection of "the multiplicity of things" as the primary field of inquiry in his philosophical project is not at all in conflict with Kuo Hsiang's idea of the spontaneous self-sufficiency of all beings. Kuo Hsiang certainly does not subscribe to the view that the multiplicity of things as they appear to be is where the great principle of equality manifests itself. It is true that the sagely abode is in the myriad things, "but it does not mean that he does not wander freely." The reason that a sage can wander freely in the midst of the myriad things is precisely because he is, in the ultimate sense, no longer of it: "The mind of the sage penetrates to the utmost the perfect union of yin and yang and understands most clearly the wonderful principles of the myriad things. Therefore he can identify himself with changes and harmonize with transformations, and finds everything all right wherever he may go. He embraces all things and thus nothing is not in its natural state."

We encounter here the same direct, confident, and assertive tone. There is no trace of the "cloud of unknowing," no indication of doubt and, above all, no rhetorical device to suggest that reality is so elusive that human intelligence can never reach it. Of course it is one thing to say that the all-embracing capacity of the sagely mind "appreciates the nature of all things, partakes in the creative and transforming process of the universe, and fulfills the fame of Yao and Shun," but it is quite another to say that our limited human intelligence can also perform this godlike function. After all, it is only the sage "who identifies himself with the profoundly mysterious state and understands its wonder to the utmost." Did Kuo Hsiang or Wang Pi mean to suggest that they were really sages simply by the fact that they attempted to philosophize in the spirit of the sage? Obviously they did not stipulate sagehood as a precondition for understanding what they were talking about. Nor, for that matter, did they imply that they themselves had somehow become sages. The attempt to philosophize in the spirit of the sage, far from being an a priori claim to a privileged position, is predicated on the assumption that it is an authentic human possibility to do so.

Surely, "with a tired body and a frightened mind," we often fail to appreciate things in perspective, for we try hard to avoid the sagely way and to take as evidently true the limited and fragmented vision of ordinary people. We simply cannot bring ourselves to the task of "harmonizing all the changes throughout ten thousand years"; we believe that it is impossible to accomplish and foolish to try to undertake such a task. The sage, on the contrary, "proceeds with utter simplicity and becomes one with transformation and always roams in the realm of unity." The underlying reason that the sage is capable of such magnificent "creativity" is the natural order of things itself:

[A]lthough the irregularities and confusions over millions of years result in a great variety and infinite multiplicity, as [the] "Tao operates and given results follow," the results of the past and present are one. And as "things receive names and are what they are," the myriad things are one in being what they are. Since there is nothing which is not what it is, and since there is no time in which results are not brought about [this mysterious function of the Tao], it may be called purity.

To philosophize in the spirit of the sage is, therefore, nothing other than to understand the naturalness, spontaneity, and simplicity of the Tao in itself. Needless to say, this mode of understanding is universally open to the human community and is what we mean by ontological thinking. The difference between Wang Pi and Kuo Hsiang is thus two distinctive styles of ontological thinking. In fact, the points of convergence between them loom large when they are contrasted with the Han styles of cosmological thinking.

Admittedly the generalization about Wei-Chin ontology, based upon the family resemblance between Wang and Kuo, is a matter of emphasis. It is not meant to serve as an exclusive explanatory model. Nevertheless, T'ang Yung-t'ung's interpretation of the ontological character of "profound learning" is vitally important for directing our attention to the main thrust of the Wei-Chin spiritual orientation. It is also useful as a guide for setting up our agenda for further exploration.

The ontological turn enabled the Wei-Chin thinkers to raise fundamental questions about reality. As a result, issues of substance and function [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], form and spirit [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], root and branch [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], one and many [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and being and non-being [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] took on particular significance. The philosophical project, simply put, was to comprehend the substance, the spirit, the root, and the one without losing sight of its manifold functions, forms, and branches. Since ultimate reality, or the Tao, is only approachable through a process of detachment, any artificial attempt to assert what the Tao seems to be is inevitably self-defeating. The only way out, then, is to adopt a sort of implicit via negativa; such a move, in its most radical development, logically leads to envisioning the Tao as non-being. Ultimate reality so conceived is identical to "nothingness," not the nothingness that negates all things but that which symbolizes the inexhaustible potency and generativity of the Tao.

Wang Pi's famous notion of "embodying nothingness" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in the light of this ontological turn, should not be construed as an appeal to mysticism, for it directly addresses the issue of the best possible way of knowing the Tao. Thus, from Wang Pi's philosophical perspective, the ineffable Tao is knowable through experience. Implicit in this approach is a hierarchy of perception which, for both theoretical and practical reasons, can be generally differentiated into four levels of sophistication and subtlety. First, there are ordinary people who perceive the multiplicity of things as they appear without any inclination to see the unity beneath them; secondly, there are those, like Chuang Tzu, who having perceived the Tao resort to elaborate linguistic strategies, including "wild words" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to shock the world so that ordinary people can sense the flavor of the Tao; thirdly, there are masters of the Tao, like Lao Tzu, who know well that the Tao is ineffable and yet choose words to express the inexpressible; and, finally, there are the sages, like Confucius, whose "silent appreciation" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the Tao is so intimate that they become totally internal to the Tao, i.e., they embody the nothingness of the Tao. Confucius' silent appreciation, Lao Tzu's suggestive articulation, Chuang Tzu's elaborate depiction, and the unawareness of ordinary people constitute a wide spectrum of possibility in our relationships to the Tao.


Excerpted from The Vitality of the Lyric Voice by Shuen-fu Lin, Stephen Owen. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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