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The Transport of Reading: Text and Understanding in the World of Tao Qian (365-427) (review)
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The Transport of Reading: Text and Understanding in the World of Tao Qian (365-427) BY Robert Ashmore. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010. Pp. xii + 345. $39.95.

At the beginning of his new study of Tao Qian 陶潛, Robert Ashmore gives a compelling example of how a reader's positive response to a poem may be modified or even undermined by further scholarly [End Page 170] inquiry. He cites a couplet from Tao's "Shi yun" 時運 (Season's shift), translating it as follows: "There's a wind from the south, / 'winging' those new sprouts" 有風自南/翼彼新苗. He describes the epiphany he experienced upon first reading the couplet as a student: the word for "wing" (yi 翼), he originally assumed, was here used as a verb to describe the action of the wind; it creates a lovely vision of a breeze blowing over a field of crops (a prime example of the delight one can feel in poetic language). However, Ashmore then proceeds to quote a use of yi from the Shijing that likely served as Tao's source; there, the word is used to describe birds sheltering the young folk hero Hou Ji with their wings. For Ashmore, the naïve reading can be tolerated only if it is seen in double-vision with the more erudite, allusive reading; the discussion is an exemplary instance of the necessity of doing one's homework when reading early texts (pp. 25-30).

This discussion is perhaps also exemplary of an increasingly evident problem confronting scholars of Chinese literature: is it possible to recover the intentionality of an author (a primary goal of traditional Chinese poetics) when the world view and educational background of that author cannot be thoroughly reconstituted? Scholars have moreover become increasingly aware of how problematic this task is in a world of manuscript culture, where alterations and variant readings that seem to please later tastes inevitably affect the transmission of texts. Both of these issues haunt two other recent studies of Tao Qian, Xiaofei Tian's Tao Yuanming and Manuscript Culture: The Record of a Dusty Table1 and Wendy Swartz's Reading Tao Yuanming: Shifting Paradigms of Historical Reception (427-1900).2 Tian examines how textual variants have tended to justify later readers' visions of who they think Tao Qian ought to be (and in the end she creates her own Tao Qian using the variants that she herself finds most attractive); Swartz focuses on the history of Tao Qian's reception, tracing his impact on later poets and critics. Both works suggest that it is now impossible to engage Tao Qian directly; some mediating force always separates us from him.

Ashmore is more confident than Tian and Swartz that we can get closer to the poet, if we apply the necessary historical and philological rigor. His test case is Tao Qian's allusive use of the Analects. He argues [End Page 171] that if we can reconstitute how the people of Tao's time read the Analects, we can hypothesize how Tao would have used the text—and thus approach the poet's intention: "On looking carefully at the wide variety of relationships covered under this blanket term [allusion], we discover that the Analects serves in Tao's poetry not merely as a source of poetic diction but rather as a full-fledged interlocutor text, against which, through a centrifugal relation of considerable tension, the text of the poem articulates its meaning" (p. 23). The end result of this process is a closely argued and highly erudite exploration of a limited series of issues surrounding a number of Tao's poems. It is also a test case for using a fairly narrow form of intellectual history to elucidate the reading of poetry.

Ashmore opens his discussion in his first chapter, "Transports of Reading." Here he introduces some of the more important assumptions that underpin his argument. First, in creating a shi poetry that could be classified as serious literature, early medieval poets self-consciously linked their work to the Shijing (Ashmore's example is Wang Can's 王粲 famous poem "Qi ai shi" 七哀詩 [Seven sorrows] describing the effects of war on the people of Chang'an...