- Chinese Aesthetics: The Ordering of Literature, the Arts, and the Universe in the Six Dynasties
Chinese Aesthetics: The Ordering of Literature, the Arts, and the Universe in the Six Dynasties, edited by Zong-qi Cai, is a book of ten essays on one of the most culturally vibrant and artistically inventive periods in Chinese history. By exploring a wide range of topics such as calligraphy, music, painting, gardens, literature, and aesthetic thought, these essays shed new light on a series of larger issues that are important not only in the study of the Six Dynasties but also for our understanding of earlier as well as later periods.
The Six Dynasties has often been described as a period of "literary self-consciousness," but Wai-yee Li's chapter "Shishuo xinyu and Aesthetic Self-Consciousness" endows this commonplace saying with a new dimension. Li eloquently demonstrates how an aesthetic mode of apprehending human existence emerges in the world portrayed in the .fth-century compilation Shishuo xinyu. Particularly convincing is her argument that the fascination with gesture, performance, and spectacle in the Shishuo often overrides concerns with content and meaning, or, in her words, "form is content and surface is meaning" (p. 241).
The absorption in surface, however, often betrays an interest in depth; after all, surface matters in the Six Dynasties only because of the implicit belief that surface is prompted by and hence should ideally express what lies beneath. A person's speech, behavior, manners, and sometimes even physical appearance as represented in the visual arts are taken to be an articulation of the person's inner qualities, without which the outward manifestations either cannot transpire in the first place or are recognized as arti.cial. Toward the end of her essay Li explores anxieties about inauthenticity brought about by the emphasis on surface, perception, and the evaluation of human character. Such a concern is especially apt for the Shishuo xinyu, considering its typological descriptions of character traits, which may easily become nothing more than poses and gestures devoid of depth.
The unease about genuineness and mere performance had wide and lasting reverberations. Robert E. Harrist, Jr.'s "Replication and Deception in Calligraphy of the Six Dynasties Period" offers a fascinating review of something that haunts every connoisseur and art historian: the replication of works of art-in this case the work of the renowned fourth-century calligrapher Wang Xizhi. Underlying the discourse on the "genuine traces" (zhenji) of a great artist is the perennial anxiety about the fake passing for the authentic, and Harrist shows that there were plenty of inauthentic Wang Xizhi pieces in circulation in the .fth and sixth centuries. The increasing concern of art connoisseurs with correctly identifying [End Page 62] fakes mirrors the phenomenon, beginning in the same period, of consciously imitating a poetic style (consider, for instance, Bao Zhao's [?-466] and Jiang Yan's [444-505] imitations of earlier writers). Indeed, wei 偽, the very character denoting "inauthentic," is directly related to wei 為, deliberate, conscious action as opposed to spontaneous action, and it is interesting to observe how conscious striving gradually becomes synonymous with faking.
One of Bao Zhao's imitations is of the style of none other than Tao Qian (365?-427), the poet who has come to be regarded as embodying the very qualities of genuineness, spontaneity, and a total lack of self-consciousness. Kang-i Sun Chang's "The Unmasking of Tao Qian and the Indeterminacy of Interpretation" examines the history of the reception of Tao Qian. Moving deftly through the various myths developed around Tao Qian, Chang shows that attempts to uncover the "genuine" Tao Qian are often no more than acts of invention and self-invention on the part of Tao Qian's readers. The "genuineness" of Tao Qian is an ideological construct .rst espoused by the Northern Song literati, and the selfconscious poet who would "care very much about a reader's response" (p. 183) has often...