- Written at Imperial Command: Panegyric Poetry in Early Medieval China
Scholars of medieval China are in the debt of the State University of New York Press, which continues to publish monographs on premodern topics—an increasing rarity in this age of slashed university press budgets and modernist preferences. Scholars of this period are also indebted to Fusheng Wu, who follows a study of so-called decadent poetry (The Poetics of Decadence: Chinese Poetry of the Southern Dynasties and Late Tang Periods [SUNY Press, 1998]) with one focused on a genre that he identifies as “panegyric poetry.” In this volume, Wu undertakes to broaden and complicate critical conceptions of traditional Chinese poetry by examining a topic that most scholars have avoided. There is much to recommend [End Page 401] this volume, not least of which is the author’s impressive knowledge of early medieval literature and history.
The book is divided into nine short but dense chapters that take the reader from the Western Han to the Sui dynasty, covering an impressive span of six centuries, along with an introduction and conclusion. In chapter 1, Wu first sketches the reign of Han Wudi with particular attention to the “Shanglin fu” by Sima Xiangru . In chapter 2, the author takes up lyric poetry during the Jian’an period, the last Han reign period when Cao Cao was de facto ruler. Wu discusses at length the poetry of Wang Can , along with examples by Cao Cao, Cao Pi , Cao Zhi , and Liu Zhen . Chapter 3 examines the poetry of the Western Jin dynasty, with lengthy discussions of Ying Zhen , Zhang Hua , and Pan Yue . In chapter 4, Wu turns to the Liu Song dynasty and takes up poems by Xie Zhan and his better-known kinsman Xie Lingyun . Also discussed are poems by Fan Ye , Yan Yanzhi , Bao Zhao , and Xie Zhuang . Chapter 5 turns to the Southern Qi dynasty, focusing on poems by Wang Rong , Shen Yue , and Xie Tiao . Chapter 6 discusses the Liang dynasty and the poetry of Liang Wudi , and his sons Xiao Tong and Xiao Gang , as well as poems by Liu Xiaochuo , Shen Yue (again), and Tao Hongjing . In chapter 7, Wu examines the Chen dynasty. Along with lesser-known poets of the period, he comments on a number of poems by the last Chen ruler, Chen Houzhu (Chen Shubao ) and the eminent Chen poet Jiang Zong . In chapter 8, Wu discusses the Northern Dynasties, and he ends, in chapter 9, with poems at the court of Sui Yangdi .
As one can see, Wu covers a breathtaking amount of ground. Further, many of the works that are translated here are difficult and without modern Chinese annotation. Yet despite the admirable scholarship displayed in this volume, I have some reservations with how Wu has conceived his project. Wu has chosen to define panegyric poetry as poems that were “presented to reigning monarchs,” and that many of the poems “bear the title yingzhao or yingzhi , ‘written at imperial command’” (p. 1). As with his previous monograph, the author has borrowed a term used in Western poetic discourse and adopted it as a convenient heuristic term for the medieval Chinese context. And just as with Wu’s previous monograph, there are problems with how the central heuristic is defined and employed. Any study that seeks to examine a body of texts through the lens of a single interpretive concept must first clearly define what is to be included and what is to be excluded from the conceptual framework. Are all poems addressed to emperors actually panegyric poems? Are all poems composed at imperial command even necessarily panegyric poems? Is it not possible that there may be a significant non-overlap between the two parts of the author’s title—in short, that poems “written at imperial command” may sometimes not be “panegyric poetry”? Rather than allow for this possibility, Wu forces all poems that are composed in a [End Page 402] court...