- Ten Thousand Scrolls: Reading and Writing in the Poetics of Huang Tingjian and the Late Northern Song by Yugen Wang
Huang Tingjian was a major Song poet, the founder of the Jiangxi School of poetry. Huang’s poetics are a response to living in a time of intellectual and material change — and the two were inseparable from one another, as Yugen Wang shows in Ten Thousand Scrolls: Reading and Writing in the Poetics of Huang Tingjian and the Late Northern Song. Wang shows both how Huang’s poetics changed the tradition of Chinese poetics and how it was incorporated, perhaps unwittingly, by those who succeeded him.
Huang stressed the process of becoming a poet through wide reading. In Wang’s telling, this approach differed from previous accounts, particularly Su Shi’s, in which poems were understood to spring naturally in response to a situation. Such naturalness and spontaneity were Huang’s aim as well, but this required, as he understood it, a great deal of cultivation involving wide and thorough reading, particularly in the works of Du Fu, as described in chapter 1, “Striving for Perfection.” In fact, much of Du Fu’s subsequent fame is due to Huang’s promotion of Du Fu as a poetic exemplar. [End Page 1310] Chapter 2, “Handle of the Hatchet,” then explains how Huang’s wide reading allowed the discovery methods (fa 法) of poetic composition that rely on models, such as the verses of Du Fu. But these methods were only mastered through a great deal of effort. How that effort was made invisible is the subject of chapter 3, “Leopard in the Fog.”
The title of chapter 3 is a reference to a well-known story about a leopard who hid in the mist to perfect his camouflage. Wang uses this to show how Huang differed from earlier thinkers in how he changed the story, in this case by changing the emphasis from the result — the perfect pattern of the leopard’s fur — to the arduous process of reaching that result — the days the leopard spent in the fog and rain, without food, perfecting his pattern. Where previous writers focused on the poems that were the result of their efforts, Huang stressed the laborious reading and practice one must engage in to write well. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the importance of nurturing (yang 養) in Huang’s poetics.
Chapter 4, “The Reading of Books,” focuses on how Huang wanted aspiring poets to approach reading, namely through a combination of breadth and depth. Much of this chapter is drawn from letters Huang wrote to younger poets. In these letters, Huang often ascribes a poet’s faults to his inadequate reading. But this broad and deep reading, so central to Huang’s poetics, was only possible due to the recent proliferation of books, which is the topic of the final chapter, “Ten Thousand Scrolls.”
Where previously ten thousand scrolls was an unimaginable number for a library, by Huang’s time such collections were common. There had been an enormous growth in the availability of texts. Accordingly, a poetics such as Huang’s, which gave reading so central a place, was unlikely to have arisen earlier. Yet this chapter, unlike the previous ones, concerns Huang Tingjian only tangentially. The focus is instead on Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi. Ouyang’s difficulty at finding a collection of Han Yu’s works as a boy, and even when much older, illustrates how rare and precious books were. Yet a generation later Su Shi’s “An account of the book collection in Mr. Li’s mountain studio” (李氏山房藏書記) shows how quickly things had changed: Mr. Li’s book collection is on a scale scarcely imaginable earlier. It is largely in response to this change that Huang’s poetics developed.
In his conclusion, Wang shows how later critics of the Jiangxi school, such as Yan Yu, in fact took for granted not only the ready...