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  • The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry
  • David McCraw (bio)
Stephen Owen . The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center. Harvard University Press, 2006. 360 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN: 978–0–674–02136–5.

It takes very powerful scholarship to demolish long-held conventional views and tear the veil from dim eyes. We have grown so comfortable with a particular account of early Chinese classical poetry, with its convincing narrative of "growing sophistication," its "landmark poems" (the "Nineteen Ancient Songs" in particular), and its heroes. Reading Stephen Owen's The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry shocked me, the way a seismic shift in paradigms will. Maybe it should not have come as a shock; sure, I had noticed that formulaic language and stock expressions occur and reoccur through these poems, and I had begun to grasp how excavated manuscripts have destabilized our view of Warring States texts (see note 2, below). But it never occurred to me to carry such insights through to their logical conclusion. It takes a sustained application of skeptical inquiry, powerful ratiocination, and considerable imagination to see through our unquestioned assumptions and make us envision things anew. Owen has accomplished this, convincingly. We can never read these poems quite the same way again.

The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry gets my vote for most important work on Chinese poetry and poetics since the publication of Owen's landmark study Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics in 1985.What precisely has Owen accomplished this time? He has shown that much early poetry (emerging largely from the first three centuries C.E., though some took on final shape only during the fifth and sixth centuries) has no convincing single author, belongs to no fixed genre or chronological sequence, and in fact belongs to no single poem, floating rather freely in literary space-time. Owen argues we should set aside our familiar categories—author, genre, notions of poetic "organic unity"—for the less comfortable domains of "topic" and "theme," "performance" (defined on p. 20 and not synonymous with oral performance; Owen also uses the term "realization"), and the "mix-and-match poetics" tossing together an unruly batch of poetic material variously surviving in a haphazard patchwork of transmitted manuscripts—the "poem by template" (esp. pp. 137–178, 209–210). As aftershock, we must abandon our comfortable narrative of growing sophistication and progress; it turns out many of our cherished "old poems" owe more to the tinkering and reshaping of fifth- and sixth-century editors than they do to the supposed origins we had come to cherish. Some of the oldest verses turn out to be the youngest. Owen's introduction presents the ground-shaking argument, and six subsequent chapters flesh out his claims, demonstrating how this congeries of "poetic matter" got assembled and transmitted and how the poetics of later ages gradually reshaped the stuff into something that more suits our tastes—or rather, [End Page 355] how subsequent ages shaped the tastes we now hold. Owen shows how variations in topic and register formed a "grammar" of early verse (chap. 2), how certain topics and skeins of topics tended to realize certain "themes" (chaps. 2–4), and how these fluid and—to conventional tastes—rather chaotic connections complicate notions of authorship (esp. chap. 5) and chronology (esp. chap. 6). Seven appendices shed additional light on selected aspects of this long, complex process.

You can grasp the gist of Owen's thesis by reading just the introductory twenty pages. But the bulk of his book contains so many startling revisions and juicy insights that you should not stop too soon. Among a wealth of erudite fare, I have singled out the following:

  • • The "Lady Li 李夫人" poem "by Li Yannian 李延年" has nine different versions, arguably none of which deserves the appellation "definitive" (pp. 13, 26).

  • • The poem versus ballads 樂府yuefu distinction, for example, depended largely on the vagaries of which text transmitted the poetic material in question—in short, yuefu merely named a "bibliographic distinction" or "conventions of titling" (esp. pp. 31–32).

  • • On Cao Zhi 曹植: pages 256–259 marvelously demonstrate how a ballad now an essential part of Cao's...