- Drifting among Rivers and Lakes: Southern Song Dynasty Poetry and the Problem of Literary History by Michael A. Fuller
Drifting among Rivers and Lakes is no ordinary book; it is no ordinary literary history either. It accomplishes three things at once. First, it offers an overview of the major poets and developments in poetic practice during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Second, it anchors this overview in a broader consideration of how understandings of literary practice and the structures of aesthetic experience were changing between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Finally, this second and central aspect of Fuller’s work also leads to a new model of literary history. In its contextualization of the literary in larger political, social, and cultural processes, the model may appear reminiscent of literary theory after the cultural turn and New Historicism. However, in seeking to ground literary theory in permanent problems relating to human experience, the model also seeks to integrate European and Chinese philosophies of aesthetics.
There are several substantial Chinese-language surveys of Song-period literature in general and poetry in particular, but no such work exists in English. In some ways, Fuller’s contribution to The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature foreshadows the more extensive account in Drifting among Rivers and Lakes.1 In that earlier work, Fuller had already begun to tackle the question of how the development of the Neo-Confucian movement of the Learning of the Way [End Page 471] (Daoxue 道學) reshaped writing by challenging the basic assumptions on which literary and poetic practice rested. In Drifting among Rivers and Lakes, Fuller traces the gradual and multifaceted transformations of poetic practice and discourse during the two centuries when the Learning of the Way moved from the periphery to the center of literati life. In so doing, Fuller offers the best account yet of Southern Song poetry. Some of the poets who play a central role in this account are well known (Yang Wanli 楊萬里, Lu You 陸游, Liu Kezhuang 劉克莊, and Wen Tianxiang 文天祥, for example). Traditional surveys accord some space to these figures and represent them as patriotic heroes or average talents in a period that holds little interest for those focused on the traditional genres of Chinese poetry ascendant during the great age of Tang and Northern Song poetry. In contrast to such standard accounts, Fuller’s work contextualizes the work and literary criticism of these poets (and others now forgotten but well known at the time) and explains how poets, both individually and collectively developed and adapted new understandings of poetic practice.
In the first chapters, it becomes evident that the Song reconfiguration of the relationships between language, experience, and meaning does not in fact derive from the purported Learning of the Way founders (the Cheng brothers, Zhang Zai 張載, Shao Yong 邵雍, and Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤). The much broader reorientation toward the self and moral cultivation that took place during the eleventh century set the stage for a thorough rethinking of how poets and poetry expressed meaning and activated aesthetic structures. Scholars from the twelfth century onward have recognized and affirmed the central role of Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 in this transformation of poetic practice. Fuller explains that, in contrast to his more illustrious contemporary Su Shi 蘇軾, Huang Tingjian broke away from the traditional concept of poetic practice as an irrepressible expression of the human response to all sorts of phenomena in the world. Despite sharing the traditional cultural notion that the natural and the human world are coherent and share patterns, Huang Tingjian nevertheless reoriented poetic response away from phenomenal experience and toward texts. The Chinese textual tradition recorded human responses and moral commitments, contained authoritative insights into human nature, and thus provided for attentive readers the opportunity to discover internally the moral order of the phenomenal and human realms— [End Page 472] a moral order whose discovery depended upon aesthetic experience through the reading of texts.
The question that Huang Tingjian and his contemporaries left for twelfth-century literati was how the textual...