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  • The Sound and Sense of Chinese Poetryed. by Zong-Qi Cai
  • Lian-Hee Wee
The Sound and Sense of Chinese Poetry(Special Issue of the Journal Of Chinese Literature and CultureVolume 2, Issue 2. ISSN 2329-0048). Edited by Zong-Qi Cai. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015 Pp. 328.

The inseparability between poesy and phonology, though long recognized, has often taken the back seat in literary studies, championing instead the analysis of metaphors, historical context, stylistics and genre. In fact, the editor himself echoed Alexander Pope in the quotation, "The sound must be an echo to the sense". This special issue dedicated to the sounds and senses of Chinese poetry, the namesake fruit of an international conference in 2014, is therefore cogent beyond the usual demands of literary studies. As evident from the set of essays contained therein, the volume extends into a truly cross-disciplinary and multi-perspective research programme that promises to enrich not only our understanding of the literary works, but also the deeper cognitive aspects of our capacity for language, particularly phonology. I cannot help but wonder if Alexander Pope might be mistaken, because the sound in poetry is not an echo, it is the actual physical manifestation (acoustic-physics or articulatory-phonetics) of the senses encoded by the abstract symbols from the poets' written hand.

The volume is structured into three main parts, bookended by the editor's introduction at the onset and his theoretical reflections in the coda. I find reading the introduction particularly rewarding. The overview provided distills each article so elegantly that the volume as a gestalt of the various authors materializes as a crystalline tome treating Chinese [End Page 231]verse and prose across nearly two millennia. A detailed review of each article in the collection is almost unnecessary as it is already so wellabstracted in the introduction.


The lead-in to the volume begins with the ancients. Two papers are included here. Smith's corpus study on the sound symbolism in the reduplicative vocabulary. His approach is particularly modern, gently reminding the reader that whatever the sound symbolism might have been in the past, it is important to contemplate also if a modern reading invites similar associations. The paper, however, then returns right back to focusing entirely on the reconstructed OC pronunciations, explicating their paradigmatic meaning relations. This is not to say that the examples and analysis are not fascinating. In fact, they do provide the reader with fresh and important insights on the importance of a phonological understanding of verse. Also particularly delightful is the author's free-ranging ability to draw upon the works of historical linguists and philologists alike, enriching literary studies of old texts with modern methods.

The second paper in this section deals with prosody, particularly of pentasyllabic poetry. The claim is that tonal regulation developed out of musical rhythm. The authors favor an approach that traces the development of the pentasyllabic poetry from a study of the grammatical constructions and the linguistic mechanisms of prosody rather than the pre-modern descriptive-statistical approach on when the pentasyllabic line first appeared to be substantial. The methodology adopted in this paper is inspired by modern theories of prosody, citing in particular Feng (1997). This is very promising in offering new insights, especially since the study of tonal prosody in Chinese is only recently receiving its deserved attention. In fact, it was only in 2015 when linguists held their First International Conference on the Prosodic Studies (Jun 13-14, 2015, Tianjin China). The authors, Zhao and Ridgway, offer a gamut of examples, all footed, but do not provide explicit justification. After all, even with an odd-number of syllables in a line, there is no a priori reason to assume that the footing will be 2+3 or 3+2, since it could also be 2+1+2, 2+2+1, where the monosyllabic foot could be degenerate or perhaps lengthened to form a full foot. Since we are dealing with poetry by the ancients, one would do well to be aware of such possibilities [End Page 232]before jumping...


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