- Das "Ben shi shi" des Meng Qi
Meng Qi's (fl. 886) Ben shi shi (Poems and their original incidents) is a fascinating late Tang dynasty work on poems and the narratives surrounding them. As the book was composed by an otherwise unknown frustrated official during one of the most violent periods of medieval China—the demise of the Tang dynasty in the wake of Huang Chao's rebellion—it becomes clear immediately that we are not dealing with poetry for poetry's sake but with poetry as a way of commenting upon societal issues. Some of the poets we encounter in the Ben shi shi have slipped into obscurity, but an astonishing number of them rank among those who for centuries now have been generally recognized as the greatest of the Tang poets: Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Han Yu, Jia Dao, Liu Yuxi, Wang Wei, and Yuan Zhen. The settings in which we chance upon these poets are predominantly courtly in nature. More often than not, the other characters peopling the anecdotes are emperors, eunuchs, high officials, noble ladies, and concubines. The circumstances in which the Ben shi shi was composed and the nature of the anecdotes it contains have naturally stimulated a political reading of the Ben shi shi as a collection of warnings to the rulers of the dying Tang.
Marc Nürnberger's study of the Ben shi shi is conventionally structured. The introductory part (pp. 1-44) provides information on the transmission of the text of the Ben shi shi, its traditional reception, its successors or imitations, its author, its preface, its title (on p. 44, the author proposes no less than ten different interpretations of the title), and some remarks on traditional Chinese literary criticism. Most of the book is made up of a complete translation of the forty-one entries that constitute the Ben shi shi. The translation tries to stay as close as possible to the original. Every entry is followed by copious commentaries, and the whole is heavily annotated. Not atypical for the work of a budding academic, there [End Page 267] is an unmistakable tendency to try to explain everything, which often leads to pages so laden with footnotes that the main text is seriously marginalized. Throughout the book, all translated entries and passages are given together with the Chinese original. Laudable though this may be, it leads to the only slightly irritating feature of the book: All Chinese characters are repeated in every instance where a Chinese name occurs, even if that name (such as the title Ben shi shi) occurs hundreds of times.
The author contends that earlier research on the Ben shi shi, most notably by Howard Levy, Graham Martin Sanders, Wang Meng'ou, Yamaguchi Sumiko, and Uchiyama Chinari, failed to discover the organizing principle according to which the various materials were structured. The fact that the Ben shi shi consists of forty-one entries divided over seven sections, of which the first happens to be longer than all the other sections taken together, has not been very helpful. Neither has the fact that three-quarters of the anecdotes are set in the periods from 700 to 750 and from 800 to 850. Nürnberger draws clues from the sevenfold structure of the book and places the Ben shi shi in a long tradition of remonstrative literature, going back to earlier texts in seven parts written by (or attributed to) Dongfang Shuo, Mei Sheng, Cao Zhi, and Zhang Xie. The symbolic number seven also leads the author to point to another tradition, at least as old as the Wen xuan, namely that of poetry (Qi ai shi or Poems of sevenfold sorrow) connected with dynastic decline. In the final pages (pp. 260-263), Nürnberger, eager to discover a scenario that runs through all of the seven sections of the Ben shi shi, tries to establish formal parallels between the Ben shi shi and the Qi...