- Crafting a Collection: The Cultural Contexts and Poetic Practice of the Huajian ji 花間集 (Collection from among the Flowers)
Anna Shields’ book on the Huajian ji is a collection of studies examining the development of the early song lyric, the social and cultural contexts for the genre, and its practice in late Tang and post-Tang settings. By taking this anthological approach to an anthology, Crafting a Collection is able to portray, better than any existing study, the evolution of the ci genre in the late Tang and Five Dynasties, while also raising a number of important, more general questions about genre development.
Shields has arranged her book into two major sections: part 1, “Cultural Contexts,” and part 2, “Poetic Practice.” Each part is further subdivided into three chapters. An introduction and a conclusion frame these six essays.
The introduction describes this often neglected collection, Huajian ji, a collection of five hundred poems by eighteen poets, thirteen of them residents of the Ten Kingdoms’ state of Shu (although on p. 110 Shields avers that only twelve are poets “associated with Shu”). Shields argues that previous studies have tended to undervalue the anthology as merely a step toward the development of the full-fledged song lyric of the Northern Song. She wants to revive the study of the Huajian ji as an important anthology in its own right and to recontextualize it in Tang and Shu society. “Because it was the first collection to claim song lyrics as an elite literary genre,” Shields believes it was “both a transformative moment in literary history and a defining collection for the genre” (p. 6). Her methods include a “reading strategy” of “reading song lyrics in tune title sets,” a technique that “opens up intratextual dialogues and meanings that could have been produced in performance, by allowing lyrics of different poets to speak to one another” (p. 11). Indeed, this technique proves itself time and again in the pages that follow.
One minor difficulty encountered in both the introduction and the first chapter is presented by repeated occasional references there (pp. 10, 21, 22) to the Huajian ji preface written by Ouyang Jiong (896–971) before that important text is actually introduced. Actually, there is a fine translation and commentary at the end of chapter 3 (pp. 150–158), but nowhere in these first pages is there any mention of that (it would fit well into the discussion on p. 4). A second peccadillo involves lines 2–5 of the first poem presented in the book (p. 2), Ouyang Jiong’s “He ming chao” (second of two). Shields translates: “I could only toss him with my fragile hand / a red bean love-token. / In front of others I couldn’t find a way / to artfully tell the things in my heart” [End Page 217] . It seems possible that the ren in line 4 refers not to “others” but to “that man,” that is, the lover. The woman is not worried about other people seeing her convey her love; she is rather too shy to convey it directly herself when faced with her intended. The word an “secretly” (line 3), missing from Shields’ translation, would seem to support this alternate reading.
From the introduction the reader moves to “A Matter of Taste.” This first chapter is much about generic development, both general and specific, and evolves from Shields’ hypothesis that “the song lyrics of the Huajian ji . . . represent a fully conceptualized literary genre in that they are topically and thematically consistent, sharing the topic of romantic love across lyrics to different tune titles, and they are formally coherent, revealing a relatively narrow set of rhetorical strategies, stanza structures, and verse forms that were linked to fixed tunes” (p. 23). A few pages later Shields presents an excellent distillation of a typical quzi ci poem: “the most common depiction of the romance revolves around...