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Reviewed by:
  • Einundachtzig Han-Gedichte
  • Nicholas Morrow Williams (bio)
Hans Stumpfeldt. Einundachtzig Han-Gedichte. Bibliothek der Han. vol. 1. Grossenberg: Ostasien Verlag, 2009. vii, 279 pp. Paperback €29,80, ISBN 978-3-940527-18-9.

The poetry of the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e–220 c.e.) occupies an uneasy and marginal position in the history of Chinese literature—if by “poetry” we understand the Chinese term shi , excluding the genre of fu . Fu holds the pride of place in the literary history of the Han dynasty, with whose imperial pomp and grandeur it is so inextricably associated. By contrast, Han shi poetry strikes the modern reader as undistinguished for several reasons. First, many Han poems are of dubious authenticity or difficult to date, and their historical value is thus questionable. Second, Han poems form a miscellany of prosodic forms, of which modern scholars tend to pay special attention solely to the relatively few pentasyllabic and heptasyllabic poems that prefigure the glories of the Six Dynasties and Tang. Third, with few exceptions, identifying any strong individual voice before the very end of the Eastern Han and the revolution of Jian’an era (196–220) poetry is difficult. In other words, although an important body of material for research on the origins of later forms of poetry, Han poetry in itself does not have a coherent identity in the sense of Han fu or Tang shi.

This charmingly readable anthology is a modest introduction to this disparate body of poems. Stumpfeldt aims to introduce Han poetry to the general reader but “nicht an sinologische Fachleute” (p. 8). The anthology makes a convincing presentation of the value of Han poetry on both literary and historical terms. It is not primarily a scholarly text, so there are no footnotes, but it does have a scholarly bibliography and refers occasionally to recent scholarship in the field. Moreover, Stumpfeldt’s treatment of poems often strays from mere contextual introductions to more technical issues that are very much of interest even to the practicing sinologist. He provides the Chinese text for the eighty-one poems, though not for any quotations within the commentary to the poems.

For the general reader, the book is an approachable introduction to an obscure body of work, in the manner of Arthur Waley. Its closest counterpart in recent Western scholarship is probably Anne Birrell’s Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China.1 Stumpfeldt’s work has a larger scope, in that it treats court poetry as well as anonymous yuefu poetry, but includes fewer poems and has less detailed literary analyses of individual poems. The book is organized wittily into nine chapters of nine poems each. The book’s nine chapters naturally fall into three larger divisions of three chapters each: the first division consisting of poems attributed to imperial nobility, courtiers, and court ladies; the second of anonymous poems; and the third of poems by identified poets, mostly of the Jian’an period. Each nine-poem chapter has a preface explaining its unifying topic (e.g., [End Page 378] “emperors and kings” or “unnoticed poems”), and each poem is followed by several pages of commentary. These commentaries vary according to whatever issues are raised by the poem itself, but tend to focus on the historical circumstances of composition and the biography of the author. The entire book is preceded by a general introduction laying out background information in a clear fashion for a reader unfamiliar with early Chinese literature and Han history. For each poem, Stumpfeldt provides the Chinese text and his own fluent and quite accurate translation. Throughout Stumpfeldt does an excellent job of explaining the background and historical significance of the poems. He describes the prosody and rhyme scheme of the poems and pays some attention to their literary value. However, the primary focus is historical. One intriguing feature of the book is that it frequently quotes previous German translations of poems (including some retranslations into German of Arthur Waley’s translations) for contrast with his own. For instance, here is the conclusion of Conrad Haussman’s rhyming translation in iambic dimeter of Emperor Wu’s “Qiu feng ci” :

Heiß war die Lust,   Das Leid ist...