- Reading Tao Yuanming: Shifting Paradigms of Historical Reception (427–1900)
For the past millennium or so, the Chinese have cherished Tao Yuanming as one of their greatest poets. It comes as no surprise that scholarship on Tao has become a well-mined field where little seems left for further exploration. Wendy Swartz does not venture into this field in the hopes of adding to our knowledge of “Tao Yuanming and his works as such”; rather she aims at shedding light on “the constructions of Tao” and “the mechanisms that underlay them” (p. 4). Her book does not propose a new theory about what kind of man Tao was; nor does it offer any new interpretation of what his works mean. Her concern is with the process (beginning with the death of Tao in 427 and ending with the Qing dynasty) through which Tao came to be considered not only a great poet but also a cultural icon. To that end, she investigates the historical reception of Tao by focusing on a set of key factors, including changes in hermeneutical practices, critical vocabulary, and cultural demands, as well as the intervention of influential readers.
Swartz undertakes two tasks. The first is to analyze perceptions of Tao as a man. Here she focuses on two distinct but closely related aspects of his life: reclusion and personality. The second task deals with the reception to and critical evaluations of Tao’s works in the larger context of evolving cultural and aesthetic values.
The discussion of Tao’s reclusion begins with a close reading of his three early biographies (dating from late fifth to the early seventh century), in the Song shu 宋書, Nan shi 南史, and Jin shu 晉書, as well as Xiao Tong’s 蕭統 (501–31) “Tao Yuanming zhuan” 陶淵明傳. She carefully [End Page 498] compares these biographies and reads them against earlier (and presumably more reliable) texts, such as Tao’s own works and Yan Yanzhi’s 顏延之 (384–456) dirge. Such comparative work has been done before, most recently by Xiaofei Tian in Tao Yuanming and Manuscript Culture: The Record of a Dusty Table.1 Swartz, however, has a distinct perspective. Her purpose is to demonstrate that the biographies are interested constructions rather than neutral sources of information. Although early biographies portrayed Tao’s reclusion positively, Tang literati from time to time voiced criticisms because Tao’s permanent and absolute renunciation of officialdom to be incompatible with their sense of purpose and aspirations; they instead sought or developed alternative models. The positive reception of Tao as a recluse reached its height in the Song, when the motivations and philosophical import of his reclusion received much attention.
The idea that the personality of a writer is embedded in and discoverable from his writings is a basic tenet in the Chinese hermeneutical tradition. Critical discourse on Tao provides a showcase of this tenet at work. After briefly surveying the theoretical assumptions for the practice of reading a poem to know a poet, Swartz traces how Tao was discursively transformed from an eccentric in early times to a Confucian sage embodying a moral ideal in the Song dynasty.
Swartz treats the reception of Tao’s literary works in two chronological segments. The first covers the time from his death to the Song dynasty; the second ends with the Qing. Although Tao was generally neglected as a poet during the Six Dynasties, he became a major poetic model during the High Tang. It was not until the Song, however, that he was finally canonized as one of the greatest poets, embodying some of the aesthetic values most ardently advocated by Song literati, such as naturalness (ziran 自然) and blandness (pingdan 平淡).
For the reception of Tao’s poetry in the Ming-Qing period, Swartz describes three newly developed hermeneutical approaches. The first attempts to assess Tao’s poetry against the historical development of Chinese poetry (including particular metrical forms, such as pentasyllabic and tetrasyllabic verses). The second examines the subtle signification of individual words and lines and scrutinizes the overall structure of a...