Search International Institute website.

An Interpretation of Wu (external things) in the Chinese Classical Literary Tradition

A talk by CHENG YU-YU (Professor of Chinese Literature, National Taiwan University

Thursday, October 08, 2009
4:00 PM - 5:30 PM
11377 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

In the construction of a “literary tradition,” in the background, a large system of significance is implied, that is, a method for assigning significance in different periods, a correlative mode that must pass through a process of repeated use and familiarity, and only then is a link able to be forged between actuality and significance. In other words, the Chinese literary “tradition” on a fundamental level lies in a mode of potential ever-changing significance that produces a sort of malleable or suggestive “history of literary subscription.”

Literature on the so-called “lyric tradition” takes the Wei Jin “lamenting the departed and reacting to external things” as its basis. This has become the dominant interpretive view for the whole of Chinese literature, but clearly it is difficult to deploy this construction to cover texts that already existed in the pre-Qin and Han periods. Therefore in examining this “tradition” it is perhaps in these earlier periods that the very first formative steps were taken in establishing the whole of the Chinese literary tradition.

In tracing the origins and use of the term ganwu (reacting to external things) we find that it is not original to the people of the Wei Jin period, but rather it is the most fundamental method of substitution in the poetic dialectic mode termed ganwu zaoduan 感物造端 (reacting to external things, one broaches a topic ). After Ban Gu deployed this term to criticize the genres of ci and fu, and Wang Yi focussed on the interchangeability of language and the exchangeability of imagery in the analysis of the Chuci and sao style, Zheng Xuan then made his far-reaching jianzhu 箋注to the Shijing, which hebased on an even more intense focus on the exchangeability of imagery laying the foundation for the subsequent “qing-wu” 情-物theory of correspondences. More importantly, we also find that in the discourse surrounding fu 賦or song誦, poetry was originally paired with music or rhythmic recitation. And while recitation is based on the delivered content that is extemporized by musicians in order to produce greater clarity, at the same time song often appeared in the context of the emperor overseeing administrative matters in the form of remonstrations filled with allusions to state and clan history. In other words, we should not subsume song within the development of the tradition of substitution and bixing and overlook the continued role that song played, as well as the fact that this process of unfolding convergence is in no way the same as the bixing counterparts and by passing through a converging axis point this discourse responded to an even larger cosmological world.

If we do not so strictly construct a periodization that runs through time along an orderly vertical axis, but rather if we are willing to admit the existence of parallel horizontal or nonlinear lines of association, while at the same time recognizing that in this “pre-literary” period the importance of emphasizing the function of composition over the division into forms of writing and that in the actual content repeating over and over again to the point of excess, then clearly we will recognize that individual style is wrapped in a sense of the collective. In general, the practice of focusing on the genre, theme, or personal style of a given work to create different categories is not productive. It then follows that within the political space, communal behavior, and cultural interpretations of the time what stands out as the most familiar and effective model for organizing events and orienting the world is to speak of “substitution” and “convergence.” And so by means of these two processes perhaps we can more exactly gain a feel for what a writer in the ancient world (whether a doctor, messenger, or blind musician; a traveling persuader or literatus) had invested in the “correspondences of situations and objects” and the revelation of the “convergence of material reality.” Indeed, it is this very sort of intertwined mesh of linkages that explains how writing and the writer pass through different modes (such as substitution and convergence) in order to embrace the world of wu 物. The network of relationships surrounding the world of wu (whether articulated as convergent or divergent), undoubtedly must be considered as the most important mode of expression in the ancient world. And if we are now to look back to the ancient world and attempt to describe the original territory of the so-called “lyric tradition” or “literary tradition,” it is clear that the accumulative imagery or groups of images derived from the modes of “substitution” and “convergence” as well as the ever-sought-for perceptual experience and worldly associations are in fact the most important step in China’s “history of literary subscription.”

* * *

Cheng Yu-yu is Professor of Chinese Literature at National Taiwan University. Her research interests include Chinese literary criticism, the aesthetics of the Six Dynasties, and fu style poety. Her recent publications (in Chinese) include: The Poet in Text and Landscape: Mutual Definition of Self and Landscape (Chinese Taipei, 2005); “From the Sck to the Self: The Self-Consciousness of the Body and the Lyrical Self in Chinese Literature,” Studies on Chi and Skill in Confucianism, ed. Ru-bin Yang and Ping-tzu Chu (Taipei, 2005); and “Body, Seasons, and Lyrics: The Relationship between Han and Wei Dynasty Literature, the Songs of Chu, and Yue-ling,” Chinese Studies  22 (2004).

Search International Institute website.