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Rediscovering Wen Tingyun

A Historical Key to a Poetic Labyrinth

Huaichuan Mou

Publication Year: 2004

In this book, Huaichuan Mou takes a fresh look at the life, times, and work of Wen Tingyun, the great poet of the late Tang dynasty in China, whose reputation has been overshadowed by notoriety and misunderstanding for more than a thousand years. In probing the political intricacies of the major events of Wen’s life and the complex contexts in which these events took place, Mou presents a historical key to Wen’s artistic labyrinth, unraveling many of Wen’s poetic puzzles and rediscovering a historical past that vividly represents his unyielding pursuit of ideal government and true love. This reconstruction of the poet’s life results in a new understanding not only of his literary work but also of late Tang history as well. Translations and close readings of a number of poems and prose essays are included.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Front Matter

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-10

The Tang Dynasty is the golden age of Chinese poetry. The Late Tang is a harvest season of the golden age, an era prolific in great poets. Wen Tingyun (798–868?) was a great master of poetry of the Late Tang and the herald of a newly emerging poetic subgenre of his time, the ci poetry that became prevalent in the Song Dynasty and has captivated generations of Chinese readers up to modern times. The aim of this book is...

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Chapter One. Family Background

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pp. 11-30

During Wen Tingyun’s lifetime, the Tang Empire was steadily on the wane, while the aristocratic clans, a mainstay of its rule, were also in decline. Coming to the fore in the political arena were instead some forces in the ascendant: first, the eunuchs, who had in the main usurped state power and sapped it at its core; next, the military satraps, who maintained a semi-independent position, defying the imperial...

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Chapter Two. Wen’s Birth Year

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pp. 31-47

As we have seen in chapter 1, eunuchs played an extremely important role in shaping the family’s fate from the beginning of Wen’s life. Throughout Wen’s life, eunuchs did remain an obstacle precluding him from attaining any political success. Although Wen often responded with animosity and anxiety to the eunuchs’ acts of sabotage, we can never find the word eunuch in his works. If he needed to mention them, he did...

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Chapter Three. Before the Year of “Having No Doubts”

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pp. 49-67

Very few experiences of Wen Tingyun’s early years appear as clear and plain facts. Basing our arguments upon dozens of Wen’s extant poems and essays, which contain important information, and upon other available sources, we can merely construct, by inference and reasoning, a broad outline of Wen’s experiences before he came to be embroiled in the political events of the time. Simply put, before Wen was forty,...

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Chapter Four. Wen’s Marriage—A Case of Scandal

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pp. 69-90

Since he was Tingyun’s uncle and foster father, and also an official of considerable political influence, Wen Zao had been kind to Tingyun. But he could at most recommend him to other influential ministers for a local subordinate post, and was not able to introduce him directly into officialdom within the central bureaucracy, as Tingyun had hoped. There are no clear records of what resulted from his audience with his...

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Chapter Five. Secret Attendance upon the Heir Apparent

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pp. 91-121

Despite the anachronisms found in the two Tang Histories concerning the Jianghuai Incident, their account of Wen’s return to the capital after the Incident is faithful to what really happened. This can be seen clearly in the following couplet of “Hundred-Rhyme Poem,” as already cited earlier:...

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Chapter Six. Mystifying Poetry

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pp. 123-148

The following poem is, I venture to say, one of the most perplexing poems in the entirety of Chinese classic poetry, and one of the most enchanting. Had Wen written it in a less mystifying and appealing manner, it would not have survived his own time, still less have been handed down for us to study. Moreover, its explanation is indispensable for a complete picture of Wen’s attendance upon the Heir, and for a full view of Wen’s life and poetry. It is a full account of the “Heir Apparent Incident,” a political...

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Chapter Seven. Changing Name and Taking the Examination

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pp. 149-174

After the Heir Apparent’s death,Wen was forced to seek assistance from Prime Minister Pei. Recognizing Wen’s worth during his attendance upon Li Yong, Pei attempted to support him by facilitating his passing of the civil service examination. The result was that, in the autumn of the fourth year of Kaicheng (839),Wen took the Metropolitan Prefecture Examination and was conferred the academic title “Equivalent to Passing,” yet finally...

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Chapter Eight. Highlights during the Dazhong Era

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pp. 175-214

Wen did not return to the capital until the last years of the Huichang era,1 when Emperor Xuanzong (r. 847–860) ascended the throne, with the “support” of the eunuchs. A son of Emperor Xianzong (r. 806–820) and an uncle of both Wenzong and Wuzong, Xuanzong cherished a bitter hatred for his nephew Wuzong, rooted in the oppression and humiliation he had suffered at the latter’s hands. In addition, he harbored the utmost loathing for Li Deyu, the powerful Prime Minister throughout Wuzong’s reign and...

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pp. 215-223

It is by the “mutual evidence” of history and poetry that we have picked our way through the distorted reports in extant sources and reconstructed the substantial information relating to Wen’s life. That is to say, guided by a general understanding of the historical background, we have undertaken a study of Wen’s poetry, and facilitated by concrete details found in this poetry, we have obtained a fuller grasp of the historical background. In this sense, to understand Wen’s life is to fathom his poetry, and vice versa. Born into an aristocratic clan in decline...


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pp. 225-237


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pp. 250-268


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pp. 269-278


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pp. 279-292

E-ISBN-13: 9780791485835
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791459355
Print-ISBN-10: 0791459357

Page Count: 202
Publication Year: 2004