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  • A Significant Season: Cai Yong (ca. 133-192) and His Contemporaries
  • Charles Holcombe (bio)
Mark Laurent Asselin . A Significant Season: Cai Yong (ca. 133-192) and His Contemporaries. American Oriental Series, vol. 92. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 2010. xi, 483 pp. Hardcover $68.00, ISBN 978-0-940490-27-7.

A Significant Season is a stylish and erudite volume of literary appraisal and translation in the distinguished tradition of its author's mentors David Knechtges and Paul Kroll. The central thesis of this book is that the years between the notorious Han dynasty palace coup of 159 C.E. and the death of the warlord Dong Zhuo 董桌 in 192—which happens to coincide with the death of this book's protagonist, Cai Yong 蔡邕, a notable late Han dynasty cultural figure—form "a distinct epoch" (p. 2), marked by both an incipient awareness of the end of an era and the first stirrings of a new beginning. Asselin invokes the Greek word kairos (an opportune moment)—especially as wielded by Frank Kermode in his 1967 book The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction—to present Cai Yong's textual legacies as a particular form of "kairotic literature" (p. 3), reflecting Cai's vision of his society's fate as viewed through the lenses of historical memory and contemporary conditions. Asselin believes that Cai Yong's life corresponds with a truly significant season in Chinese history.

Featured especially prominently in this book is Cai Yong's "Fu Recounting a Journey" (Shu xing fu 述行賦), a prose poem (or rhapsody) describing Cai's trip to the capital Luoyang after being summoned there by the eunuch leaders of the palace coup in 159 to perform a qin 琴 musical recital at the court. Cai stopped just short of reaching the capital, however, and then withdrew, feigning illness. His account of this journey, which Asselin calls Cai Yong's "most important fu, if not his greatest literary work," is filled with a "bold expression of personal feeling and sociopolitical protest" (p. 56), often couched in the form of multiple historical allusions. While it is hardly unusual to find sociopolitical protest in a Chinese poem, in Asselin's interpretation, Cai Yong even went so far as to suggest that the Han dynasty might have lost its mandate and to anticipate the fall of the dynasty (pp. 106, 160 n. 13). If Asselin is correct, this would indicate a most definite consciousness of the end of an era, although it is difficult to be certain whether anyone actually foresaw the literal end of the Han, especially as early as sixty years before its official final demise in 220. [End Page 210]

Cai Yong's "Fu Recounting a Journey" also contains what Asselin calls "the earliest clear indication from a Chinese poet that he writes for the purpose of 'revealing my hidden feelings' " (p. 155). Although Asselin, following Michael Nylan, discounts the currently fashionable idea that the late Han dynasty was a time of awakening individualism in China (at least in the modern American sense of the word), Asselin does suggest that the late Han period may really have been marked by a new form of individual personal literary sensibility. This may have been accompanied, also, by a shift in the principal site of literary composition away from the imperial court to private venues, to writing pieces intended for circulation among like-minded literati, and to a certain fin-de-siècle literary decadence. For example, Cai Yong's "Fu on a Grisette" (Qing yi fu 青衣賦) "contains no moral," and "elevates art and love for their own sake." This fu was, moreover, specifically "reproached" 誚 by one contemporary for its alleged decadence. In addition to evincing a plausible end-of-an-era sensibility, moreover, Cai Yong's short and lyrical fu writing style also foreshadowed the next generation of poetic development in China (pp. 218-219). Although Cai Yong himself was still grounded in a fairly conventional old Han-style Confucianism, the "sense of an orthodoxy ending" (p. 51) and the first hints of the new interest in Laozi and Zhuangzi that would so deeply color the next century, with its vogue for...