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  • Mimesis and Xing, Two Modes of Viewing Reality:Comparing English and Chinese Poetry
  • Cecile Chu-chin Sun


If I were asked to single out the most significant and radical distinction between English and Chinese poetry, I would say that it is the dominance of mimesis in one tradition and that of xing in the other. By mimesis, I do not mean any particular strain of mimesis as developed in the West, nor any narrow definitions of aesthetic representation associated with the term. Instead, I am referring to a mode of conceptualizing reality in terms of a hierarchical way of thinking with its distinct anthropocentric privileging of human beings over external nature, a concept which is deeply rooted in Western metaphysical thinking. In English poetry, one way of tracing this mimetic mode of thinking is through the metaphorical relationship between "tenor" and "vehicle."1

Xing (lit., evocation), is not merely a poetic device to evoke feeling in the poem through reference to external reality in Chinese poetry. Rather, in its extended dimension, xing represents a lyrical energy that informs Chinese poetry predicated on a cultural orientation in which everything in reality, including human beings, is perceived holistically and as organically integrated. This view of reality constitutes the very premise of the lyrical relationship between "feeling"[qing] and "scene" [jing] in Chinese poetry, the counterpart to the "tenor" and "vehicle" relationship in Western metaphor. Briefly, "feeling" is a collective term referring to the whole range of abstract and elusive human sentiments expressed in a poem. "Scene," equally a collective term, refers to the physical context of a poem, including [End Page 326] all the sounds and sights of external reality. These are primarily of nature, but "scene" can be broader than that. This relationship between "feeling" and "scene" is at the very core of Chinese poetry.2 Any thorough and comprehensive understanding of the significant distinctions between English and Chinese poetry at the level of their lyrical expression must be approached from these two distinct modes of viewing reality as implied in the notions of mimesis and xing, respectively. The purpose of this paper is to compare these two notions from the perspective of their views of reality in order to see how each impacts the lyrical relationship found in English and in Chinese poetry.

Inherent in this comparison involving two such diverse traditions is the hope of broadening our perspective by putting these two modes of thinking into a new context of simultaneity and equality. In this new context, neither mode has the total say on how reality is to be conceptualized or perceived; each represents a view that is legitimately assumed in its own literature and culture. What is to be gained in this enlarged perspective through comparison? Not only will the local have to give way to the more universal, and the momentary and trendy to the more constant, but more pertinently, the assumptions in either tradition will be reflected and seen in a new light. In the end, we are enabled to understand better a relatively unfamiliar culture and, even more significantly, we gain a new understanding of certain aspects of our own tradition which we have all along taken for granted. In looking at the mimetic and the xing modes of viewing reality from this broadened stance, we are not dictated by any imperialism or imperialisms in current critical traditions, but have our eyes fixed on that which truly defines the two poetic traditions in relation to each other. The paper will be divided into two parts. Part I describes the characteristics of the mimetic and xing modes of viewing reality by a brief survey of their historical and metaphysical backgrounds. More space will be give to the xing mode because it is less familiar to Western readers. Part II links the characteristics so defined to the metaphorical "tenor-vehicle" relationship in English poetry and to the "scene-feeling" relationship in Chinese poetry.

Part I: Describing the mimetic and the xing modes of viewing reality

The central issues to be considered in comparing the mimetic and the xing modes of viewing reality are twofold: what is the notion of reality as defined in each mode; and...


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