- A Wild Deer amid Soaring Phoenixes: The Opposition Poetics of Wang Ji
Wang Ji (585-644) is certainly one of the most interesting Chinese poets to be hitherto unrepresented by a monograph. Ding Xiang Warner has now provided us with the first book-length study of this intriguing figure.
Wang Ji has been seen as belonging to a stream of "hermit" or "recluse" poets, represented by such iconic figures as Ruan Ji (210-263), and Tao Qian (365-427) before him—both of whom are fulsomely discussed in this book—and perhaps Wang Fanzhi (590-660) of his own day and the semi-legendary Han Shan of, say, the early ninth century, although these two are, strangely, not brought into the discussion. All of them share in common the familiar theme of withdrawal from the troubled world and, in the cases at least of Tao, Wang, and Han Shan, often express this theme in remarkably—even stunningly—simple and straightforward diction that makes for a refreshing contrast to the more flowery, sometimes bookishly pedantic, diction that can characterize other poets of the same periods.
It should be said at the outset that Warner is a fine sinologist, who has done a real service in presenting everything that is known today about this enigmatic figure Wang Ji, including what little we know of his life, and about the appropriate [End Page 189] background and atmosphere of literati culture in the Sui and Tang dynasties. She also surveys definitively the existing scholarship on Wang, both Chinese and Japanese, and with attention to traditional criticism in shihua and other texts as well as to modern writers. The notes (forty-three pages of them for a text of 152 pages) and bibliography are meticulous and thorough, and in addition to the Index of Titles in English there is even an Index of Titles in Chinese, a feature unique in my experience but extremely useful for scholars who want to look up a particular poem by Wang. The general production, as one expects from University of Hawai'i Press, is first-rate in every respect.
When Warner writes as a traditional literary critic, she is excellent. For example, in discussing one of Wang's most characteristic poems, "Early Spring" , she quite helpfully points out that this is one of the "poems that are most noted for their disregard of traditional conventions, their free-spirited manner, and their refreshing treatment of even the most time-worn topics." Such poems by Wang "seem to present . . . spontaneously taken 'snapshots of life' that focus strictly on brief and simple moments. It seems that anything can be the topic for a poem, whose casual, almost offhand style reinforces an impression of its free, unstudied thought" (p. 83). Yes! This captures perfectly what is wonderful and unforgettable in Wang Ji. As a sample, let us consider "Early Spring," with Warner's translation of as fine quality as her other translations throughout the book:
The morning before, when I went out for a stroll in the garden,There was not yet a single blossom in the entire grove.This morning, when I came down the hall and looked,The ice-capped pond had been open for quite some time.Snow fled from the apricot trees by the south balcony;Wind urges on the willows in the north court.Calling from afar, I summon the maid in the kitchenTo go and tell my wife weaving at the loom:The season has arrived just in time,Let's fill the jugs and get the spring wine brewing!
Warner goes on to develop an excellent contrast between this poem, so natural and spontaneous in depicting everyday life, and a typical product of the contemporary court poetry, with its "impersonal descriptiveness and rigid structure" (p. 84).
In such a poem as "Early Spring" there is no mistaking a surprisingly early appearance of a degree of colloquialness and closeness to the diurnal that one tends to...