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Thoughts on Literary History II

The narrative structure of literary history compels us into particular assumptions, in particular, with the assumption of an originary moment.  Such concerns are to be found throughout traditional Chinese discourses on literature, as well as in their modern, literary historical heirs.  For example, I've just finished teaching the section on Han, Wei, and Western Jin poetry in my literary history seminar, and one striking aspect of how a traditional anthology, such as the Yuefu shiji 樂府詩集, framed the relationship between "early" anonymous poems and "later" versions by literary authors is to construct a history of imitation.  The first anonymous version is termed the "guci" 古辭, or "old lyric," and it is placed at the beginning of a diachronic arrangement of later "takes" on the same topic and title by known historical authors. Thus, the poem "Watering Horses in a Ditch by the Great Wall" 飲馬長城窟行 has an originary "guci" and then a series of authored imitations that goes from the late Han/early Wei through to the Tang dynasty.  Here is the text of the first poem, with a translation:

飲馬長城窟行       Watering Horses by the Great Wall


Green, green, the grasses by the river,

綿 綿 On and on, I long for him on the far road.

The one on the far road cannot be longed for,

宿 But last night, in a dream, I saw him.

In the dream, I saw him standing by my side,

But suddenly I awoke in another land.

In another land, each in a different place,

I toss and turn, and I cannot see him.

The withered mulberry knows Heaven’s wind,

The sea’s waters knows Heaven’s chill.

Those entering the gates all favor their own,

Who is willing to say a word for me?


A guest comes from a distant land,

He gives to me a pair of carp.

I call to the boy to cook up the carp,

Inside there was a letter on foot-long silk.

Long I knelt, reading aloud the letter,

And in the letter — what was it like?

It begins with “Eat more food,”

下 言 長 相 憶 。  And ends with “I’ll remember you always.”

You may observe that I've put "early" and "later" in scare quotes.  This is because for some of the earliest versions, it might be difficult to determine whether or not there is a true originary moment, or if the earliest authors were composing on the poetic theme at the same time that the anonymous balladic material was in circulation. We don't, after all, have a date for the "guci" version.  As Stephen Owen has argued in his thought-provoking study, The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry (2006), we are probably not dealing with "texts" per se, but with a shared corpus of balladic materials, of poetic Stoff that circulated freely within a performance culture.

This presents a problem with a literary history that wants to identify the first version of a particular poem and then construct a genealogy of texts that follow after it.  And the problem here is closely related to a similar desire during the Han dynasty to find sagely figures (such as Confucius) who might serve as authors or sources for canonical scriptures—the jing 經 ("Classics") around which the Confucian ideological tradition was built.  Literary history tends to think in terms of lineages and genealogies, asking first and foremost, what is the earliest version of a text, or when does such-and-such a literary form first arise?  This might be the wrong question to ask.

Jack Chen's picture
Jack Chen is Associate Professor of Chinese Poetry and Thought at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has studied at Yale, University of Michigan, and Harvard.  His research interests focus primarily on medieval Chinese literature, with an emphasis in poetry (though he is finding himself reading a lot of anecdotal literature lately).  His first book, The Poetics of Sovereignty: On Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty was published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2010, and he has published essays on imperial poetry, gossip and historiography, and the representation of reading in medieval China.  is at work on a second book on the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 (Recent Anecdotes and the Talk of the Age) and an edited volume on gossip in traditional China.