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  • Introduction:Emotion, Patterning, and Visuality in Chinese Literary Thought and Beyond
  • Zong-Qi Cai (bio) and Shengqing Wu (bio)

Emotion or qing 情 has been identified at the core of Chinese thinking about literature, such that "lyrical tradition" becomes an encompassing concept for many to distinguish Chinese literary tradition from its Western counterpart.1 In Chinese literary thought, emotion is consistently conceptualized through verbal patterning and visual manifestation. This convergence has become synonymous with poetry making: emotion externalizes itself in patterned sounds and words, and this language patterning in turn gives rise to visual manifestations, whether in the play of music, the spectacle of dance, or an image of the external worlds of man and nature. Perhaps in no other critical tradition can we find a conception of poetry making so consistently and thoroughly grounded in such a dynamic interplay and merging of emotion, verbal patterning, and visualization.

In exploring the inner dynamics, however, Chinese critics have long emphasized language at the expense of nontextual visuality as a supplemental emotive medium, despite a steady increase of literati interest in integrating poetry with painting and graphic illustrations since the Song. Likewise, we find a conspicuous neglect of emotion in Chinese art criticism. The term qing 情 (emotion), preeminent in poetry criticism, barely makes the list of essential terms in painting and calligraphy scholarship.

As our modern world is increasingly dominated by visual media, neither the neglect of nontextual visuality in poetry scholarship nor the marginalization [End Page 1] of emotion in art scholarship is tenable. Hence, two related tasks emerge for us: to rediscover the role of emotion in traditional Chinese painting, and to assess the impact of nontextual visuality—graphic prints, photography, physical objects, or locales—on the emotive import of premodern and modern literary and cultural productions.

Toward an Emotion-Visuality Symbiosis: Conceptions of Emotion in Chinese Literary Thought

To situate our inquiry in its proper context, we might quickly review the evolving concepts of emotion, verbal patterning, and visuality in Chinese literary thought, as well as the bond between them since antiquity. We find this bond clearly articulated in what is generally thought the oldest Chinese statement on poetry, purportedly made by the legendary emperor Shun, recorded in the Book of Documents:

I bid you, Kui, the emperor said, to preside over music and educate our sons, [so that they will be] straightforward yet gentle, congenial yet dignified, strong but not ruthless, and simple but not arrogant. Poetry expresses the heart's intent [zhi]; singing prolongs the utterance of that expression. The notes accord with the prolonged utterance and are harmonized by pitch tubes. The eight kinds of musical instruments attain harmony and do not interfere with one another. Spirits and man are thereby brought into harmony.

Oh! yes, replied Kui, I will strike and tap the stones, and a hundred beasts will follow one another to dance.

帝曰: 夔, 命汝典樂, 教胄子: 直而溫, 寬而栗, 剛而無虐, 簡而無傲。 詩言志, 歌永 言, 聲依永, 律和聲, 八音克諧, 無相奪倫, 神人以和。 夔曰: 於!予擊石拊石, 百獸 率舞。2

Here zhi 志, or "the heart's intent," certainly denotes emotion, whether exclusively or not. In pre-Qin and Han texts, this term is often used interchangeably with qing, thus giving rise to the binome qingzhi 情志. In more general usage, zhi and qingzhi signify one's emotional response or attitude toward sociopolitical realities. Yet here zhi is construed as giving birth to poetic utterances. What follows is a patterning, in chant and music, of these utterances, culminating in a totemic dance. The physical movements involved in music playing and dancing undoubtedly offer a visual presentation of the body.

The inherent bond between zhi and bodily visuality is not only clearly expressed in this statement but also by the etymological root of the word zhi itself. In the ancient small seal script, the word zhi vertically combines two parts: and . According to many scholars, is a picto-ideograph of feet [End Page 2] stepping on the ground, while is a simple pictograph of a heart. The structure of this character eloquently speaks to a bond between emotion and visuality, even while allowing two different interpretations—either as memory in the sense of something stopping and getting recorded in the heart, as argued by Wen Yiduo 闻一多 (1899–1946), or as a straightforward association of the heart with dancing feet.3

In more reliable historical...


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