Stylistic Studies on Chinese Poetry from the Pre-Qin, the Han, the Wei to the Six Dynasties

Book Reviews

Ge Xiaoyin 葛曉音

Beijing: Peking University Press, 2012

Reviewed by Mengwen Zhu (The University of Hong Kong; 2014-15 HYI Visiting Fellow)

This book is a collection of twenty-one papers (excluding the three in the appendix which serve as supplements to the main part) authored by Dr. Ge Xiaoyin. Interconnected by a mutual concern on the “style” (ti 體) of classical Chinese poetry, the topics of these papers range from early poems in the Book of Poetry (Shi Jing 詩經) and the lyrics of the Chu (Chu ci 楚辭) to pre-Tang poems during the Six Dynasties (222-589).

Centering on the “stylistic studies”, this book is both traditional and innovative. As the author stated in the introduction, classical Chinese scholarship has a long tradition of “distinguishing the styles” (bian ti 辨體).[1] In this sense, the various studies in this book on tetra-syllabic, penta-syllabic and hepta-syllabic styles of the pre-Tang poetry speak for a heritage of classical wisdom. On the other hand, modern scholarship on classical Chinese literature has been largely focusing on the historical narrative of literature and on peripheral issues such as philosophical thought, literary theories and intellectual culture, while studies on actual literary works appear, by contrast, to be poor in both quantity and quality. Since the 1980s, despite some works with insights into style, there have been more traditional studies than real breakthroughs. In the past two decades, under the influence of the western scholarship, Chinese literary studies have shown an increasing interest in literary texts. As part of this new trend, the study of poetic styles has also increased in number. However, except for a few, [2] most stylistic studies fall into two categories: one tries to fit classical Chinese poetry into the Western theories, and the other, still confined within conventional poetic criticism, merely repeats the work of pre-modern literary critics. In this respect, what is truly valuable about this book is that Dr. Ge manages to get out of the conventional approach towards Chinese poetic versification by applying modern phonologic knowledge to the study of the classical Chinese poetic rhythms and syntax. In doing so, she manages to view the formation of classical poems at their most basic level. Moreover, is that building on metrical and syntactic studies, the concern showed in this book goes beyond the realm of versification. It tackles the process of poetic evolution and the aesthetic aspects of classical Chinese poetry.

This book consists of three parts: Part One “The Rhythmic Structures and Expressive Principles of the Shi 詩 and the Sao 騷” surrounds mainly the tetra-syllabic style in the Book of Poetry and, derived partly from that, the multi-syllabic style in the lyrics of the Chu. Aside from the issue of stylistic formation which remains a basic concern in all seven papers, special attention is given to the “expressive principles” of “analogy” (bi 比) and “affective image”[3] (xing 興). The examination of their relations with and the ways they function in particular poetic styles leads to deeper insight into the very beginning of Chinese poetry. The five papers in the second part deal with the formation of the hepta-syllabic style. Through a detailed look into pre-Tang hepta-syllabic poems at different stages, the papers raise some new points in viewing its, compared to the penta-syllabic style, relatively slower process into maturity. Consisting of eight papers, Part Three addresses the issue of penta-syllabic style, one that is arguably the most significant poetic style before the Tang 唐 (618-907). Following a general discussion on the stylistic origin of the early penta-syllabic poems, this part is loosely arranged in a chronological manner. From the “classic air” (gu yi 古意) of the Han 漢 (202 B.C.E-220) -Wei 魏 (220-266) poetry to the “paralleled structure” (pai ti 俳體) in the Jin 晉 (265-420), from the Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365-427) style at the turn of the Jin and the Song 宋 (420-479) through Bao Zhao’s 鮑照 (415-470) imitation of yuefu 樂府, to Jiang Yan’s 江淹 (444-505) “miscellaneous imitating poems” (za ni shi 雜擬詩) and the transformation of the Yongming style in the Qi 齊 (479-502), these papers effectively reveal the artistic development of pre-Tang penta-syllabic poetry.

Although being in the form of a paper collection, this book shows a consistency that is even found wanting in chaptered monographs. This thoughtful selection of papers highlights a mutual concern for “poetic style”, and within each part, papers are carefully organized and their interconnection artfully suggested which makes it easier to follow the authors’ points. In terms of specific arguments, this book also shows an impressive originality. For example, through a close examination of the rhythmic syntax of each and every piece in the Book of Poetry, it discovers certain syntactic patterns and accordingly argues that, in addition to the repetition of the stanza which is normally believed to be the reason for the rhythms, a deliberate arrangement of similarly patterned syntax is a more fundamental and more important way of ensuring the poetic rhythms in these early poems. Adopting the same method, a syntactic analysis is also made to the lyrics of the Chu. Contrary to the commonly believed distinction between the Book of Poetry and the lyrics of the Chu, this book compares the syntactic characteristics between the two and highlights the unity and continuity in the dual-source of Chinese poetry. In addition, its discussion of the stylistic differences between the early hepta-syllabic and penta-syllabic poetry which result in their separate paths to artistic maturity in Part Two and its examination of the “classic air” of the Han-Wei penta-syllabic poetry in Part Three both suggest particular insights of this book.

Since this book is based on detailed metrical and syntactic research and focuses on Chinese pre-Tang poetry, it may not be an easy read. Its frequent use of phonologic terms and symbols, especially self-defined ones, can sometimes be confusing, and its in-depth discussion of the ancient and early medieval Chinese poetry can be a real challenge for uninitiated readers. Even for readers with knowledge of Chinese literature, the fact that this book is a paper collection rather than general introductory work requires a deeper familiarity with relevant issues to achieve a better understanding. Nevertheless, with its groundbreaking approach to the poetic texts, this work by Ge Xiaoyin has indeed presented a new scope for studies of classical Chinese poetry.

[1] “Style” is only a loose rendition of the Chinese term “ti” (體). In classical Chinese, the meaning of “ti” sometimes varies from texts to texts. In a literary context, especially early texts, “ti” often refers to “genre”. In fact, the early scholarship of “bian ti” such as Cao Pi’s “Discourse on Literature” (dianlun lunwen 典論論文) refers to “distinguishing the genres”.

[2] As the author pointed out in page 6, so far only a handful of scholars have tried to conduct their stylistic research from a more profound level, including Chinese scholar Lin Geng 林庚 (1910-2006) and Japanese scholar Tomohisa Matsuura 松浦友久 (1935-2002). Reading through this book, it becomes obvious that the author was also influenced and inspired by their works.

[3] Here my translation of the term “xing” 興 into “affective image” is based on Stephen Owen’s rendition. See Stephen Owen, Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 46.