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  • The Limits of Poetry as Means of Social Criticism: The 1079 Literary Inquisition against Su Shi Revisited
  • Yugen Wang

The 1079 literary inquisition against Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101), known as the Wutai shi’an 烏臺詩案, or “Crow Terrace Poetry Case,” has been of enormous interest to students of Song literary and cultural history. Many aspects of the case, especially, the political motivation and significance of the inquisition, the legal issues involved and judicial procedures followed in it, and the case’s general literary profile and its impact on Su Shi as a writer, have received extensive examination.1 The rich literary interpretive and hermeneutical consequences and implications of the case, however, although they have been variously touched upon in existent scholarship, remain to be fully explored. This article is devoted exclusively to exploring the case’s complicated literary interpretive and hermeneutical landscape. Since the establishment, proceedings, and final resolution of the case all centered upon the key issue [End Page 29] of how some of Su Shi’s poems should be and could be interpreted, a focused study of this aspect of the trial will provide us with an opportunity to observe how the established conventions and principles of poetic interpretation interacted with the political and intellectual contingencies of the inquisition and, particularly, how the ancient premise of poetry as a legitimate means of indirect social criticism figured in the case. My aim is to see how the terms of that age-old tenet were tested and subtly renegotiated under the dramatic and harsh circumstances of a life-threatening inquisition and, again, how this subtle process of renegotiation was indicative of changes and tendencies in the broader literary and intellectual culture of the time. To better understand the rich dynamics of this process, I will posit the question in both the immediate microcosmic context and concerns of the trial itself and the larger political and intellectual contexts and conditions defined by the many purposes, perspectives, and interests represented by the different parties directly or indirectly involved in the case. In other words, I will examine not only the trial and its internal mechanism, but also how the event was reminisced, reflected upon, and evaluated in the broader literary and scholarly community both at the time and in later periods. I begin with a poem that would figure prominently in the trial and summarize my findings and conclusions at the end of the article.

Prologue: The Interpretation of a Poem

江梅有嘉實 The river plum bears fine fruit;
託根桃李場 it lodged its roots in the garden of regular peaches and plums.
桃李終不言 The regular peaches and plums in the end did not speak a word;
朝露借恩光 it nevertheless availed itself of the morning dew and favoring sunshine.
孤芳忌皎潔 Envied was its solitary fragrance, together with its brightness;
冰雪空自香 pure as ice and snow, it gave off its scent in vain.
古來和鼎實 Since ancient times a harmonizing ingredient in the ritual tripod,
此物升廟廊 this plant has ascended to the halls of the ancestral temples.
歲月坐成晚 Time passed quickly and all of a sudden the year was already late;
烟雨青已黃 in the misty rains, its fruits have turned from green to yellow.
得升桃李盤 Having been elevated to the plates for regular peaches and plums,
以遠初見嘗 they were for the first time, because of their distance, being tasted.
終然不可口 In the end, they proved to be unpleasant to the palate,
擲置官道傍 and were discarded on the broad roadside.
但使本根在 So long as the original roots are intact,
棄捐果何傷 what harm, indeed, can this abandonment bring to it?

[End Page 30]

The poem tells a story of striving and abandonment, of ambitions unfulfilled, of value and talent being not appreciated and being wasted. It begins with a description of the fine qualities of the “river plum” 江梅, a species of wild plum known for the intense brightness and fragrance of its blossoms, the plant’s privileged status in the ancestral ceremonies, and its perseverance in seeking to join the ranks of the “regular peaches and plums” 桃李. It then, in the second half, turns to narrate the seasonal ripening of its fruit, its first tasting, and eventual abandonment. In traditional Chinese poetry, this is indeed a very old theme, traceable, most prominently, to the “Ode to the Orange Tree” 橘頌 in the Chu lyrics 楚辭. In that...


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