- Sound and Sight: Poetry and Courtier Culture in the Yongming Era (483-493) by Meow Hui Goh
Meow Hui Goh’s book is a compact survey of the poetry of the Southern Qi dynasty (479-502), especially the Yongming 永明 (483-493) era. This period has long been renowned for its innovations in tonal prosody, which lay the groundwork for regulated verse. Though Goh does discuss tonal prosody in some detail, she also attempts a broader reconsideration of the poetry of the era, treating not just sound (phonetic patterning) but also sight (poetic imagery in general). This is a timely contribution to scholarship on Six Dynasties poetry: Richard B. Mather in 2003 produced a two-volume translation of the entire shi 詩 poetry of the three great Yongming poets Shen Yue 沈約 (441-513), Xie Tiao 謝眺 (464-499), and Wang Rong 王融 (467-493), but unfortunately had little space for interpretation of the poems he translated so meticulously1 Goh’s study should be seen as a companion volume that focuses our attention on some of the key themes, forms, and tropes of the Yongming poets. In this area it also vies to some extent with another Mather volume, his biography of Shen Yue, but Goh is focused more on poetry itself than Mathers biography, a comprehensive presentation of Shen’s life, thought, and poetry2
Goh’s book is also related to Tian Xiaofei’s recent study of Liang dynasty literature, since it covers the preceding dynasty, and Goh cites Tian frequently3 There were numerous links between the two transient dynasties—Shen Yue himself lived long into the Liang—and the two books overlap somewhat in themes, though rarely in the specific texts discussed. Both books also derive most of their source material from the literature of the period studied, yet simultaneously have some ambition to address its culture, as indicated in their titles. In the case of Goh’s book, at least, the word “culture” in the title is slightly misleading, since the focus really is solely on literature. Moreover, it is one of the explicit goals of Goh’s book to pay due attention to the sound of Yongming poetry, to show us that poetry in its original phonoaesthetic splendor, which exploited all the resources of the Chinese language of Jiankang in the fifth century. Goh writes: “Instead of approaching the poems written in the [Yongming] style as ‘silent readers of mute texts,’ we should imagine them in a process in which sound, imagery, and meaning all unfold together” (p. 31). In other words, the book aims to treat Yongming poetry in its full literariness. This is already a sufficient goal for a monograph, while the secondary ambition to treat courtier culture is not very feasible, given the materials of the study. Nearly all Goh’s sources here are shi poems, so while they do shed indirect light on other aspects of Qi culture—e.g., material culture, politics, religion, etc.—these data are nearly always subsumed in a literary stratum that is highly allusive and multilayered, obscuring their immediate historical import (as is true of classical Chinese poetry in general). [End Page 327]
Goh’s title Sound and Sight is her rendering of the Chinese term shengse 聲色, and it functions as a summary of her thesis that the Yongming poets “ushered in a truly new and influential poetics” (p. 5), and that “their pursuit of ‘sound and sight,’ which emphasized a process of grasping the phenomenal world in a meticulous manner, reflects a hybrid concept of personal worth that was unique to their time and far more significant in Chinese literary and cultural history than critics have acknowledged” (p. 5). At the same time Goh (in some respects, again, following Tian), takes as one of her aims a refutation of traditional views of Yongming poetry as narrowly concerned with materialistic subjects. Goh’s curiously pristine rendering of shengse exemplifies this thesis, as it substitutes for other plausible renderings like “song...