- Chinese Poetry and Prophecy: The Written Oracle in East Asia
Too often our tomes written on the imagery and prosody of Chinese poetry seem somewhat detached from the lives of common people. This is not to say that we should neglect the belle lettres of ancient China, like Hàn dynasty rhapsodies or Táng dynasty shī poems, simply because they appeal to a sensibility only appreciated in the courts and palaces of ancient China. Yet at the same time, readers steeped in the allusions of classical poetry might pause to ask, "Where might one find poetry accessible to a more general audience?" Or perhaps teachers of Chinese poetry hope to respond to students who question how an understanding of classical poetry might help them in their quest to understand contemporary Chinese communities. Michel Strickmann, in his posthumously published book Chinese Poetry and Prophecy, answers such questions by analyzing poetry found in Chinese temples. Strickmann describes poetry found ubiquitously found in temples across East Asia where practitioners select an oracular poem by first obtaining a number from a bundle of sticks. Poetry, throughout this study, is a medium whereby a "voice of authority" from beyond communicates with visitors, and these oracle poems form the basis of a practice that began centuries ago and continues in many Chinese communities today. Yet Strickmann does not simply try to reconstruct and retrieve the role of oracle poetry in China. He argues throughout his book that this form of divination has spread throughout East Asia and is arguably intertwined with divinatory practices found across the world.
The book begins with a foreword by the editor of the book, Bernard Faure, who describes his role as editor of this work first written in 1990. Faure also paints a lively and informative biographical portrait of Strickmann, as scholar who studied in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The first part of Strickmann's study begins with a description of possible approaches of the study of oracular texts. Medical anthropologists might study oracles as a "home-grown psychotherapy," social anthropologists might address how oracles impose hierarchy and ethical codes, and economic historians might research how the questions contained in oracles might reveal attributes of the social classes and institutions from the time of their creation. Strickmann, however, claims his fascination with oracle texts derives from a hope to study their ritual use. The theme of ritual is carried into chapter 1 ("Ritual and Randomization"), where Strickmann briefly looks at Chinese divination as seen in the oldest forms of occult inquiry, the Yìjīng 易經 and mantic tortoise inscriptions. After a brief introduction of the convergence of Buddhist [End Page 512] and Daoist ritual in the fifth century C.E. Strickmann shows how the authors of these oracle poems incorporate elements from pre-imperial classic mantic systems, like trigrams, hexagrams, and asterisms, but this seemingly Chinese frame is draped with concepts and terms borrowed from the Buddhist tradition. Whereas by no means is Strickmann's book devoted solely to the emergence of Buddo-Daoist oracle poetry in the fifth century, he argues that this period is the genesis for many of the poems found in Chinese temples today because of the thematic and prosodic affiliations. Strickmann pauses this thread of his discussion and moves on to nineteenth- and twentieth-century anthropological reports of the divinatory procedures in which practitioners draw from a bundle of numbered stalks and consult a divinatory book or receive an oracle poem to find the divination that corresponds with the stick they selected. The shift in focus to more recent accounts allows Strickmann to develop certain universals about Chinese divination practice in an effort to establish a continuum from early texts like Yìjīng and "Tiānwèn" 天問 chapter of the Chŭcí 楚辭 to contemporary temples.
The temporal continuity is paired with a spatial one in chapter 2 ("Chinese Oracles in partibus") as Strickmann addresses how the practice of...