- Beacon Fire and Shooting Star: The Literary Culture of the Liang (502-557)
This impressive tome is an exhaustive study of literary culture of the Liang dynasty. It contains thorough research, sensitive analyses, as well as insightful comments about many aspects of the culture of the Liang, which, as Xiaofei Tian points out, is one of the most culturally rich, yet most misunderstood, eras of Chinese history.
Tian states in the introduction that her book "is not a conventional literary history of the Liang," but "a social and cultural history of the Liang literature" (p. 4). Her definition of "literary culture" is particularly broad. She says:
By "literary culture," I refer not only to the literary writings themselves but also to the physical process of literary production such as text copying and transmitting, to cultural activities such as book collecting, anthologizing, cataloging, and various forms of literary scholarship, and to the intricate interaction of religion (particularly Buddhism) and literature.(p. 4)
Tian further states that her book "also aims to explore the impact of social and political structures on the literary world" (p. 4). To meet this broad and ambitious goal, she arranges her book into eight chapters: chapter 1: "The Rule of Emperor Wu"; chapter 2: "Mapping the Cultural World (I): Mapping Texts"; chapter 3: "Mapping the Cultural World (II): Contextualizing Taste"; chapter 4: "The Pleasure of the Superfluous: Palace Style Poetry and Resistance to Canonization"; chapter 5: "Illusion and Illumination: A New Poetics of Seeing"; chapter 6: " 'Suppression of the Light': Xiao Gang, Prince and Poet"; chapter 7: "The Cultural Construction of the North and South"; and chapter 8: "Parting Ways." Throughout the book, Tian demonstrates her remarkable ability to marshal a wide array of texts including dynastic histories, individual collections, anthologies, encyclopedias/compendiums, Buddhist scriptures, and traditional/modern scholarship. Through careful examination and analysis of these materials, she arrives at her refreshing judgments and conclusions that challenge the conventional views about Liang literature and culture. A couple of examples should suffice to demonstrate this accomplishment.
Traditional criticism has maintained that the Liang literary world is divided into two rival camps. One was headed by Xiao Tong, and the other was headed by his brother, Xiao Gang. The former espoused traditional views of literature, while the latter advocated a new type of literature that sought to break away from tradition. To promote their views, the two camps compiled their own anthologies, which are, respectively, the Wen xuan 文選 and Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠. Through careful examination of the poems by Xiao Tong and Xiao Gang that were selected in various sources such as Yutai xinyong, Wen xuan, Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚, Chuxue [End Page 269] ji 初學記, Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華, Yuefu shiji 樂府詩集, the seventeenth-century Zhaoming taizi ji 昭明太子集, and the contemporary scholar Lu Qinli 逯欽立's influential Xian-Qin Han-Wei-Jin Nanbei chao shi 先秦漢魏晉南北朝詩, Tian notices that some of the poems "that an orthodox Confucian moralist would consider frivolous" were attributed to both Xiao Tong and Xiao Gang. This textual evidence, together with other statements on literature made by the two, prompts Tian to state that the alleged rivalry between the two brothers is "imaginary" at best, and that the two, in fact, share a lot in both their literary views and production. She further points out that the editorial choices made by some of the editors of the aforementioned collections "derive from a belief in a certain kind of literary historical narrative and have in turn reinforced that narrative" (p. 149). As for the compilations of Wen xuan and Yutai xinyong, Tian shows through her survey of the many anthology-compiling activities of the time that instead of being representative collections of two rival literary camps, they are but "chance survivals from a sea of anthologies produced in the first half of the sixth century," and that although they are "immensely valuable in a variety of ways, their importance in the Liang dynasty itself should not be exaggerated" (p. 108).
The second example concerns Tian's treatment...