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  • Tao Yuanming & Manuscript Culture: The Record of a Dusty Table
  • Ao Wang
Tian, Xiaofei. 2005. Tao Yuanming & Manuscript Culture: The Record of a Dusty Table. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295985534. Pp. 319. $60.

Although I have for a long while admired Tian Xiaofei’s wonderful poetry, I must admit that until I opened this book I had stayed away from her scholarly work. For some reason I imagined that as one of China’s most gifted contemporary poets she had eventually chosen to become a Harvard scholar in the manner of an ancient Chinese “great recluse”, taking reclusion, that is, in the form of a busy career in a public place, as opposed to the “minor recluse’s” escape to the mountains and caves. So I assumed that what she experienced in the academic world would ultimately reappear, no doubt transformed into something true and strange, in her poetry. Accordingly, I neglected to read [End Page 179] her work on Ming-Qing fiction and comparative literature. But this book I could not resist. Where had she found the courage to take on China’s greatest recluse poet, Tao Yuanming (also known as Tao Qian, 365?–427), given that textual studies of China’s canonical authors seemed a territory already completely occupied by a set of traditional scholars of an erudition so formidable that a young scholar could hardly challenge them?

In the case of Tao Yuanming, we already have several modern editions of his works annotated by authoritative scholars such as Wang Yao, Lu Qinli, and Yuan Xingpei (as listed in the appendix of Tian’s book), establishing the foundations of most modern criticism and interpretation. Reading these editions, we tend to pay more attention to the allusions, names of people and places, and analysis of syntax in the annotations, but we tend to ignore the textual and manuscript variants beside them, as if they were merely records of closed cases.

Tian’s book, by contrast, starts from the variants themselves, seen not in terms of a single absolute winner, but as remaining in competition with each other. Though her approach may be influenced by Western critical theories which question the legitimacy of the single, definitive version of a text, my guess is that when she read Tao Yuanming’s poems, she overheard a buzzing from the footnotes as if the variants were seeking redemption. Tian makes it clear that the different versions of Tao Yuanming’s famous lines had been edited to serve particular aesthetic and ideological purposes, but a more fundamental suggestion of the book is that since we do not have the original manuscript authorized by Tao Yuanming himself, every word in the ancient texts deserves respect, and indeed Tian is particularly sympathetic to the suppressed textual variants in her reading, which provides an opportunity for her to display fully her knowledge and interpretative power. In this view, then, every version is possible, and, taken collectively, form the poet’s truest legacy.

Tian begins at the textual level and then delves into the historical, ideological, and cultural contexts, creating new relations among them. At its best, this approach helps her to locate in Tao Yuanming a range of hitherto unsuspected voices, and this multiplicity of voices enables her not only to argue with his critics, but also to point out the injuries he has sustained from his overly enthusiastic admirers. For example, her study of the differing readings of Tao Yuanming’s verse “I gaze (or see) at South Mountain in the distance” deconstructs the long-held myth about Tao Yuanming’s way of seeing the natural world, showing it to have been largely a creation of the Song poet Su Shi and his fellow poets. In the twentieth century, critics such as Wang Guowei still read Tao Yuanming through the prism of Su Shi’s interpretation, which, in turn, has contributed to the grand myth of the poet that was [End Page 180] integrated in the rewriting of the history of the national literature. In other words, the reading of the variants shows how literary history has been shaped through many centuries by different historical and ideological motivations.

This is surely a...


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