- Reading Tao Yuanming: Shifting Paradigms of Historical Reception (427–1900) by Wendy Swartz, and: The Transport of Reading: Text and Understanding in the World of Tao Qian (365–427) by Robert Ashmore
The two books under review here are thoughtful studies of Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365?–427) and his place in traditional Chinese culture. Both books are filled with valuable reconsiderations of familiar Texts, grounded in a broad reading of less-well-known sources. They rely on the foundation of the two complete translations of Tao’s poetry into English from the 1970s and 1980s, as well as much recent Chinese scholarship.1 Swartz generally follows Hightower’s translations, and Ashmore, while providing his own accurate and occasionally even poetic translations, relies implicitly on the fact that Tao’s poetry is otherwise available in English, allowing him great latitude in selection of Texts and interpretation.
The two books conjoin in their titles Tao Yuanming and the practice of reading.2 Yet throughout Swartz’s examination of “reading Tao Yuanming,” Tao’s interpreters tend to focus their attention on the man himself, not on his works, and as Ashmore traces “reading … in the world of Tao Qian,” the reader may object that what Tao’s contemporaries were reading was not, in general, Tao’s poems. Comparable studies of, say, Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 (385–433) would find that his readings of classics and poetry were always entangled in his depictions of personal experience, and that “reading Xie Lingyun” is an endeavor easily assimilated to our own modern practice of scholarship. However, the conjunction of Tao and reading seems to me more problematic than it would be for most other Chinese poets. Tao’s poetry has, perhaps uniquely among medieval Chinese poets, some quality that resists any reduction to the literary or hermeneutical. Both writers engage with this challenge, sometimes explicitly, but it still manages to disrupt and destabilize some of their arguments.
Part of the problem has to do with Tao’s unique importance to Chinese culture, especially from the Song dynasty to the present. As a result of his cultural standing, Tao has been the subject of more recent scholarship in English than perhaps any other Chinese poet.3 As worthy a subject as Tao Yuanming is, I wonder whether it might not be more reasonable for some of these scholars to redirect their efforts to other major Six Dynasties poets, like Cao Zhi 曹植 (192–232), Lu Ji 陸機 (261–303), Bao Zhao 鮑照 (421–465?), or Yu Xin 庾信 (513–581). It would be an easier task to complete such studies, since one would [End Page 294] have to deal with so much less previous scholarship than when facing the scholarship on Tao. Instead, scholar after scholar has returned to the well-trodden ground of Tao Yuanming’s corpus, as if recapitulating Tao’s famous return to his peaceful farmstead.
The books under review, then, themselves exemplify the complexity of Tao Yuanming’s reception, the topic that Swartz has chosen for her book. Despite the vast scholarship on Tao himself, less attention has been paid to the later reception, and Reading Tao Yuanming is a painstaking attempt to survey that reception throughout traditional China. It should be pointed out that there is a similar study of Tao’s reception by Li Jianfeng 李劍鋒, published in 2002 in Chinese.4 The apparent precedence of Li’s study is misleading, however, since Swartz’s book is a revised version of her 2003 dissertation, and, in fact, the genesis of the two works must have been nearly contemporaneous. Swartz also emphasizes that her book goes beyond the scope of the earlier treatment, which basically ends its narrative with Su Shi (Swartz, p. 16). However, only one chapter of Swartz’s...