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  • Reading Philosophy, Writing Poetry: Intertextual Modes of Making Meaning in Early Medieval China by Wendy Swartz
  • Ping Wang (bio)
Wendy Swartz. Reading Philosophy, Writing Poetry: Intertextual Modes of Making Meaning in Early Medieval China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. xii, 304 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-674-98382-3.

This new study on pre-Tang classical Chinese poetry is one of a kind. For the first time, the handful of best-known poet-intellectuals from the Period of Disunion are discussed as a group. The theoretical framework thoroughly laid out at the beginning and adopted throughout the case studies makes this rather unusual grouping possible, and even desirable. The author's creative interpretation is buttressed by a solid grasp of the texts discussed. The kind of attention given to the poems and accuracy in rendering some of the most difficult passages are commendable. Even more valuable is the crisp clear logic and thoughtful structuring that differentiate this work. The combination of these traits makes the volume a gem. It will satisfy the expert as well as pique the interest of a novice in classical Chinese literature. For graduate students in the field, this book surely sets an example to follow in research and writing. Additionally, Swartz's theoretically informed study, by no means self-referentially theoretical, opens new avenues for bringing Chinese poetics into conversation with studies of literary texts in other languages without the jargon. For example, instead of repeating the somewhat esoteric sounding term "allusion" that has been the norm for analyzing the rich textual layers of a text, Swartz simply calls an allusion a "marker" (p.7).

Swartz's stated goal is to "illuminate the space between reading and writing in early medieval China" (p. 1)—a time period that Swartz aptly describes as having "witnessed an exponential growth in cultural wealth as the literati class developed a distinctive mosaic of ways to participate in their cultural heritage" (p. 3). Through the re-writing and reconfigurations of philosophical texts using the literary medium of poetry, fueled by an intellectual obsession with the investigation of the mysterious Dao and driven by the existential angst aggravated by all the uncertainties at the southern court, the writers showcased in this volume—each noteworthy and famous for a different reason in conventional literary history—are brought together for the first time with a focus on their intertextual engagement with the three foundational Daoist texts, or xuanxue canons, which constituted the core of early medieval literary culture. In other words, buttressed by Julia Kristeva's theoretical formulation of the "literary word" as "an intersection of textual surfaces" and "a dialogue among several writings," Swartz examines how Xi Kang, Sun Chuo, Tao Yuanming, and Xie Lingyun produced poems voluntarily or involuntarily that may demonstrate the principle of intertextuality. As such, Swartz proposes a "concept of literature as a reserve of knowledge, signs, and meanings in a [End Page 145] culture that can be drawn from and used by any one of its participating members" (p. 2). In essence, Swartz understands early medieval Chinese practices of reading and writing as praxis to display knowledge, to honor the past, and to enter into a conversation with texts and traditions (p. 7).

Chapter 1 of the book lays the theoretical groundwork for studying the literature of early medieval China when reading and writing "demanded a cultural competence underwritten by a mastery of certain texts and traditions and a familiarity with contemporary intellectual developments" (p. 42).

In chapter 2, adopting Levi-Strauss' concept of "bricolage," Swartz posits that, with quotations from the Laozi and Zhuangzi, Xi Kang represents the first major poet in the discourse on the mode of xuanyan or "metaphysics." A defining feature of xuanyan poetry is to probe into the mysterious way. Very importantly, Swartz challenges the conventional approach of treating xuanyan poetry as a subgenre or a product of the xuan learning. Instead, she points out that xuanyan poetry "illustrated a mode of perceiving and articulating metaphysical notions through materials ranging from abstractions to text to landscape" (p. 46). In other words, xuanyan poetry constituted a mode of expression that allowed the early medieval intellectuals not only to...


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