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  • The Problem of Beauty: Aesthetic Thought and Pursuits in Northern Song Dynasty China
  • Roslyn Lee Hammers (bio)
Ronald Egan . The Problem of Beauty: Aesthetic Thought and Pursuits in Northern Song Dynasty China. Harvard East Asian Monographs 271. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. 405 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 0–674–02264–5.

Ronald Egan's latest contribution to Northern Song literary studies delivers a wide ranging narrative apropos of, and a welcome compliment to, the voracious intellectualism of a culturally charged era. The Problem of Beauty offers an impressive exploration of Egan's established interests in two preeminent scholar-officials, Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi, while embarking upon new directions in other areas of cultural production. The book's scope engages larger implications of the two literary scholars' separate and sometimes competing assessments of Northern Song artistic and cultural practices. Ideas of aesthetic pleasure as embodied in these two scholars would subsequently enter public discourse through the works of their tenth- and early eleventh-century contemporaries, including Mi Fu, Wang Shen, Huang Tingjian, Sima Guang, and Qin Guan. As Egan notes in the introduction, this study is not a comprehensive or a systematic discussion of Northern Song aesthetics. Rather it is a selection of topics that emerged during the Northern Song and in Egan's view were unprecedented in the aesthetic discourse of the time. A perusal of these topics makes for insightful and sometimes surprising reading.

The book offers fresh perspectives on the dynamic nature of Northern Song scholarship as it intersects with uncharted areas of aesthetics. It consists of six chapters offering Egan's analysis of Northern Song dynasty thought that has received little or no critical, scholarly attention. Ouyang Xiu is central to the first half of The Problem of Beauty. The book opens with a discussion of this scholar's pioneering collection of lapidary inscriptions and problems of methodology associated with their selection. Through an analysis of Ouyang Xiu's own accounts of specific inscriptions, Egan constructs an account characterized by the scholar's vacillating justifications for possessing the writings. Egan shows that Ouyang cannot quite make his collection wholly consistent with the cultural values of the time. He accommodates calligraphy that he finds "especially attractive," not necessarily didactic or historically significant. Ouyang has to balance the collection's larger intellectual weight against the aesthetic gravitas of the calligraphy that he cherishes for its beauty alone. How Ouyang negotiates one of the oldest art historical debates is borne out with a mixture of wit and lucid scholarly interpretation. It is this combination that makes The Problem of Beauty an engaging as well as penetrating work. Egan has combed painstakingly through Ouyang Xiu's and later Su Shi's respective oeuvres to distill, in his own inimitable style, an account of aesthetic choices that clearly animated Northern Song cultural ideas. Reading [End Page 424] Egan's account one becomes aware that many of these debates are just as relevant today as they were when the two literati masters engaged with them.

Egan's ability to bring tenth-century aesthetic debates to life is most evident when he discusses Ouyang Xiu's scholarship on the peony in chapter three. The flower was considered ravishing and sensuous, and therefore a highly inappropriate subject for intellectual discussion. Through a comparison of texts related to the peony, Egan elucidates how Ouyang's perspective on the flower was radically original. In his treatise, Ouyang eagerly demonstrated his hands-on knowledge regarding the botanical and technical aspects of the flower's cultivation. From his writings as Egan reconstructs them, the reader can imagine that Ouyang had personally cultivated the peony. Ouyang displayed an enthusiasm for the flower that at the time was unprecedented for a scholar. Ouyang also offered unusual commentary on the fanfare that erupted in Luoyang (a city that was and still is famous for its peonies) during the flower's blooming season. This discussion of popular culture, particularly one associated with a flower, was a subject also unworthy of an intellectual. As Egan notes, Ouyang was compelled to find fault with the peony. Its beauty was manipulated by man and therefore unnatural. In Egan's account...