Sound and Sight: Poetry and Courtier Culture in the Yongming Era (483-493)

Sound and Sight: Poetry and Courtier Culture in the Yongming Era (483-493)

by Meow Goh


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804768597
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 08/24/2010
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Meow Hui Goh, Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, specializes in medieval Chinese poetry, poetics, and literary culture.

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Sound and Sight

By Meow Hui Goh


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6859-7

Chapter One

Individual Talent and the "Worthy One"


Referring to Shen Yue (441-513), Wang Rong (467-493), and Xie Tiao (464-499) as the Yongming poets-an extension of the so-called Yongming style (Yongming ti), a new prosodic form attributed to them-is a practice developed by modern scholarship. The lives of these three courtier-poets were certainly not confined to the Yongming reign period. While Wang Rong's death did coincide with the end of Yongming, both Xie Tiao and Shen Yue survived it; particularly in the case of Shen Yue-he was already in his forties when the Yongming reign period began, and he lived for another two decades after its end. Shen Yue's long life, which lasted seventy-two years and spanned three dynasties (Song, Qi, and Liang) at a time "when the average age of his contemporary courtiers at death was less than forty," was indeed extraordinary. More importantly, the significance of these courtier-poets and their works far transcends a single reign period or a single dynasty. When Richard B. Mather rendered "Yongming" literally as "eternal brilliance" in the title to his two-volume translation of their poems, he was already hinting at their far-reaching impact.

But what was so "brilliant" about them? In the common account of Chinese literary history, they are recognized mainly, if not solely, for their creation of the Yongming style. An outstanding achievement without doubt, for the Yongming style marks not only the beginning of Chinese tonal prosody, but also a rare moment in Chinese literary history when a "creation" or even an "invention" can be substantively identified; but the Yongming style continues to evoke a sense of unease in literary critics. The Liang shu (Liang History) comments: "By the point [Wang Rong, Xie Tiao, and Shen Yue created the new prosodic form], [the literary trend] turned to adhering to 'sounds and rhymes,' causing a widespread preference for ornateness and superfluousness, so much so that it surpassed that which came before them." Compounding the impression that the Yongming style was "ornate and superfluous" was its association with the Palace style (Gongti), which, flourishing about half a century later, has come to be viewed as a kind of pleasure poem meant for sensuous depiction of court ladies. The genius poet Li Bai (701-762), for example, said on one occasion, "Since the Liang and the Chen, [poetry] has become licentious and vulgar in the extreme. And Shen Xiuwen [Shen Yue] had promoted 'sound regulation' on top of that. If the ancient way (gudao) were to be revived, who but I would be the one [leading the way]?" By the Tang dynasty (618-907), it was apparently necessary to reject the "ills" of Southern Dynasties poetry-whether "licentiousness," "vulgarity," or "sound regulation"-if one were to claim the moral high ground of the "ancient way."

The question facing us is not what the Yongming style was, but what it was about. While this question will be answered more fully in Chapter Two, here it suffices to say that it was about the perception of sound. If not for their probing of the questions How does one differentiate sounds? How does one refine one's hearing? the Yongming poets would not have created a new poetic form so distinctively marked by sound patterning. In that sense, their association with the later Palace style can be seen in a completely new light. As revealed in a recent study by Xiaofei Tian, the Palace style, misunderstood for a long time as being about "women and romantic passions," was in fact intensely visual and concerned a new way of seeing. In light of her argument and my own, we can say that the Yongming style and the Palace style collectively reflect a broader concern for human sensory perception during the Qi and Liang periods. In fact, the association between the two styles was not that one concerned sound and the other sight; rather, they were both concerned with sound and sight. Not only were the Yongming poets attempting to hear with precision and clarity, but to see with equal facility as well. Their coming signaled a new awareness among Chinese cultural elites about one's ability to hear and see. And it was not only in the Palace style, which is also known for its prosodic form, that their influence was evident: for the entire period leading up to the formation of the so-called Regulated poetry (Lüshi), which became very popular in the Tang and continued to be composed in large numbers even as recently as the early twentieth century, the poetic issue of sound and sight remained a crucial one, as Chinese poets continued to probe the freshness of poetic imagery and prosodic patterning.

Before entering their world of sound and sight, I want to situate it within the courtier culture of their day, particularly concerning a new and eclectic idea of personal worth. Through this idea, we will see why poetic "sound and sight" had unique relevance to the Yongming poets.

Individual Talent

The contemporaneous critic Zhong Rong (468-518), commenting on the popularity of their prosodic invention, described Shen, Wang, and Xie as "three worthies, all sons and grandsons of respected dukes (guigong zisun), who attained literary distinction as youth." That the three should come to be viewed as belonging to a single elite group is itself indicative of a shifting socio-political structure wherein "literary distinction" was gaining importance.

By some measures, it was a stretch for Zhong Rong to characterize Shen Yue as "a son and grandson of respected dukes." A descendant of the Shens of Wuxing (in modern Zhejiang), a southern gentry family with a military background and members who were not even literate, Shen Yue was the first in his family to rise to prominence. By contrast, Wang Rong was a descendant of the Wangs from Langye (in modern Shandong), whose decorated family history includes aiding the move of the Western Jin (265-316) to the south and helping to establish the Eastern Jin (317-420); and Xie Tiao came from the reputed Xies of Chenliu (in modern Henan), following a long line of influential courtiers and renowned writers. Just over a century earlier, when the Simas of the Eastern Jin were relying heavily on pre established family prestige and social status for their rule, members of reputable northern émigré families-like Wang Rong and Xie Tiao's ancestors from five or six generations before-were the most favored in court and dominated the most powerful positions. Members of southern gentry families, on the other hand, were considered inferior to the northerners and were sidelined from official appointments. When Liu Yu (later, Song Wudi; r. 420-422), a southerner who made his way up from a position as a low-ranking military officer, ended the rule of the Sima family and founded the Song dynasty, the northern émigré families lost their absolute sociopolitical control. The new court environment became such that native southerners, northern émigré clansmen, and military strongmen co-existed, alternately collaborating and competing. That Shen Yue should rise to be one of the highest-ranking courtiers, influencing court politics and revered as "the godfather of literature of the present age" (dangshi cizong), certainly tells a unique story for his time. That Wang Rong's grandfather Wang Sengda (423-458), a defiant "son from a prestigious family" (gui gongzi), was put to death after having openly disrespected the Liu imperial family, and that Xie Tiao himself was married to the daughter of Wang Jingze (435-498), an illiterate general, are equally revealing of the shifting socio-political structure inside the Southern Dynasties courts.

Several studies have provided detailed accounts of the recruitment system as it pertained to the changes in the socio-political structure from the Eastern Jin through the Southern Dynasties. Here, I want to highlight an argument for "individual talent" (rencai) made by Shen Yue amid these changes. His perspective was retrospective in that he always found support for his argument in an idealized Confucianistic past. For example, in the preface to a section called "The Favored and the Fortunate" ("En xing") in his Song shu (Song History), he writes:

"The true man and the mean man" (junzi xiaoren)-this is a comprehensive way of differentiating people. Follow the Way and one is a true man; deviate from it, and one is a mean man. Being a butcher or an angler is to have an inferior vocation; being a wall-builder is to do lowly labor; and yet Taigong rose to become the founding Master of the Zhou and Fu Yue left the legacy of a Shang minister. Those were times when it did not matter if within one's family there was a succession of dukes and marquises or an inheritance of bronze vessels for feasting; the ones who were brilliant were promoted and those who were not were demoted, as only talented men were given appointments. By the time of the two Hans, such a path to appointment was not altered, as evinced by the fact that Hu Guang [zi Boshi; 91-172], whose family were farmers for many generations, ascended to the position of Counselor Duke; and that Huang Xian [zi Shudu], the son of an ox-curer, was venerated in the capital city.

In Shen Yue's view, "the way of Zhou and Han" (Zhou Han zhi dao) was one in which "those who were talented ruled over those who were obtuse" (yi zhi yi yu). As we will see in Chapter Five, he would romanticize such a time in the past again. The narrowing and stagnation of the recruitment system since the Wei-Jin period, according to him, were caused by the practice of appointing officials based solely on family status:

Amid the failing and chaos at the end of the Han, Emperor Wu of Wei [Cao Cao; 155-220] was seeking to establish [the Wei] and there were many urgent affairs in his army. Instituting the "Nine Ranks System" at the time, he used it to measure the superiority and inferiority of talents, and not the high or low statuses of clans and families. The system was then preserved and continued, eventually becoming the standard. From the Wei to the Jin, since the "Nine Ranks System" could not be substituted, the arbiters in the prefectures and commanderies ranked their people according to their talent; and yet, with so many talented people in the world, promotions and replacements were rare. This was because [official appointments] had come to be based solely on the succession among members of established families, who were using the appointments to compete among themselves. The vulgar men in the prefectures and commanderies, weighing their own timely benefits, simply went with the tide of the day as they decided how many grades and ranks to bestow. As Liu Yi [d. 285] said of the situation, "among the lower ranks there were none from the prestigious families, and among the higher ranks there were no lowly clansmen." As time went by, the practice became more rigid, to the point that those who wore official robes and caps made up only two ranks; and eventually there were the so-called inferior masses.

To be sure, even though his argument was "progressive," Shen Yue never directly opposed "having those from prestigious families rule over those from humble ones" (yi gui yi jian). Taking into account other statements that he made, his position was a nuanced one: on the one hand, he saw the practical need of maintaining the division between the two broad social classes, the commoners (shu) and the gentry (shi); on the other hand, he repeatedly argued for more open and talent-driven appointment opportunities for members of the gentry class. As far as the later argument is concerned, his key idea was that "individual talent" was more important than family prestige. By the time Liang Wudi (Xiao Yan; r. 502-548) was in power, several measures aimed at making the recruitment system more inclusive and more talent-driven were implemented, and the idea of "individual talent" expressed in Shen Yue's preface from two decades before was further institutionalized. The question arises: How was individual talent to be measured?

There are many telltale signs to indicate that during the Southern Dynasties the measure for talent had shifted significantly to literary distinction. Yao Cha (533-606), who served as Imperial Secretary for the Ministry of Personnel (Libu Shangshu) during the Chen dynasty, was the first to observe the shift: "If one were to look at the recruitment of talented people during the two Hans, one would see they gave priority to the study of the classics. In recent eras, the enlistment of people has been based primarily on literary and historical studies (wen shi)." Yao Cha made this comment when he was explaining why both Jiang Yan (444-505) and Ren Fang (460-508) were able to secure prominent appointments and enjoy widespread fame even without family prestige and connections. Both, he noted, could compose "grand and embellished language that agreed with [the literary taste of] the time." Yao Cha's observation was certainly supported by other signs: even during the earlier years of the Southern Dynasties, when the National University (Guozi xue) had not yet been completely rebuilt, an academy for wenxue ("literary learning") was established; and, as noted by Luo Xinben and others, the period's examination system placed more emphasis on a candidate's literary skill. Beyond the recruitment and appointment processes, there was also intense interest among the cultural elites in composing prose and poetry, compiling anthologies, evaluating literary histories, and critiquing literary works and writers, culminating in the rich production of literary texts that surpassed earlier times.

The more specific argument for the period, in other words, was individual talent based on literary distinction. The three Yongming poets, "who attained literary distinction as youth," fully embodied this concept of individual talent. "Literary distinction," a rather broad and vague term, no doubt could encompass every aspect of the literary activities stated in the preceding paragraph. To understand what it meant to the Yongming poets, we have to bear in mind that what they specifically represent is literary distinction achieved by a courtier. Facing the courtiers were first and foremost their imperial patrons, that is, the princes and the emperors. Their respective biographies make it clear that they stood out before these patrons because of their literary distinction:

At the beginning of the Qi, Shen Yue was Private Secretary for Invading the Enemy (Zhenglu jishi), as well as magistrate of Xiangyang Prefecture [in modern Hubei; Xiangyang ling]. The prince whom he served was Crown Prince Wenhui [Xiao Changmao; 458-493]. When the Crown Prince moved into the Eastern Palace [in the capital city], he made Shen Yue Commandant of the Infantry (Bubing xiaowei) and put him in charge of documents and records, the Department of Longevity (Yongshou sheng), and the collation of books in the palace library. At the time, there were many scholars in the Eastern Palace, but Shen Yue was particularly favored by the Crown Prince. Every time he went to see the prince, he did not leave until the night was casting long shadows. Wang Rong was swift and eloquent with literary language, and he was especially good at composing in haste. When he composed a work, he only had to hold up his brush and it would come through. [Xiao] Ziliang [the Prince of Jingling; d. 494] was particularly fond of him and their relationship was exceptional. When [Xiao] Zilong [Prince Sui; 474-494] was in Jingzhou [in modern Hubei], he was fond of literary composition and had held several literary gatherings. Because of his literary talent, Xie Tiao was especially admired and loved by the prince. They would spend their time together, not leaving each other day or night.

The three prince-patrons were, respectively, the first, second, and eighth sons of Emperor Wu of Qi. They were, particularly the Prince of Jingling, the most enthusiastic and successful patrons of literary talents during the Qi dynasty. In fact, the number of retainers and the range and extent of works and activities that the Prince of Jingling was able to amass were unsurpassed by any other imperial patron throughout the Southern Dynasties. His literary salon was where the three Yongming poets and many of their fellow courtiers gathered:

The Prince of Jingling set up the Western Villa (Xidi) to recruit literary talents. The emperor [i.e., Xiao Yan, later Liang Wudi], along with Shen Yue, Xie Tiao, Wang Rong, Xiao Chen [478-529], Fan Yun [461-503], Ren Fang, Lu Chui [470-526] and others all socialized with one another there; they were called the Eight Friends (Bayou).


Excerpted from Sound and Sight by Meow Hui Goh Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Prologue Shengse: Sound and Sight....................1
CHAPTER 1 Individual Talent and the "Worthy One"....................7
CHAPTER 2 Knowing Sound....................21
CHAPTER 3 Seeing a Thing....................40
CHAPTER 4 In the Garden....................57
CHAPTER 5 Leaving the Capital City....................80
CHAPTER 6 In and Out of the Landscape....................100
Selected Bibliography....................155
Character List....................171

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