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  • Just a Song: Chinese Lyrics from the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries by Stephen Owen
  • Lanlan Kuang (bio)
Stephen Owen. Just a Song: Chinese Lyrics from the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries. Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Press, 2019. ix, 420 pp. Hardcover $49.95, isbn 978-0-674-98712-8.

Chinese society under the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), although highly cultivated in the arts and humanities, was a complexly conflicted one. An era with impressive commercial and technological vibrancy "governed by poets," as Julie Landau put it,1 it endured endless reforms headed by Neo-Confucian statesman Wang Anshi. Having reestablished a central government after the Tang's collapse and the unrest of the Five Dynasties (907–960), the Northern Song court never managed to retake the northern provinces from the nomadic Khitans. Without military prowess and strategic innovation, the court's realpolitik approach and peace agreement with militant neighbors worked [End Page 65] against it. In 1126, the vicious Jurchens invaded and forced the court to move to Hangzhou, which was established as the capital of the Southern Song dynasty (1126–1279), but only until the horse-borne Mongols arrived to conquer all of China. In a complicated socio-political climate, when poets are identified with and held responsible for what they write, can a song be "just a song?" (p. 171).

In Just a Song, a monograph on the textualizing process of song lyrics (ci 詞) in the Song dynasty during the last quarter of the eleventh century, Stephen Owen points out that the Song literary genre was "a voice of individual sensibility in a world that left little room for it" (p. 2) and "a discursive counter-culture in the Song world of public values" (p. 222). How is this possible? Innovatively, Owen's approach to Song lyrics in this book suggests a way to read lyrics as not just musical performances, as they were originally intended, but as textual performances. In other words, by treating the text, in this case the lyric literature genre, ci, as an emerging phenomenon, Owen wisely situates the lyricists, both male and female, in appropriate semantic networks in the process of ci's discursive formation as a textual genre. Highlighting the difference between the "gathering" (cai) of anonymous songs for the Zhou dynasty Shijing and the Han dynasty yuefu (Music Bureau) and the "collecting" of Song dynasty song lyrics composed by known intellects, he treats the performative ci text as an embodied presence of the individuals whose voices were marginalized during the Song dynasty: Liu Yong, Yan Jidao, Su Shi, Qin Guan, He Zhu, Zhou Bangyan, and Li Qingzhao. In effect, Owen presents a hand scroll of Song dynasty lyricists painted with their own voice.

In the first part of the book, Owen lays the foundation for later analysis of the ci in two chapters by addressing some general issues, such as the early circulation and origin of the genre since the Tang dynasty. Choosing a novel approach, he studies the very act of lyric composition as the normative scene embedded within both the Ming and Qing colophons and prefaces and the lyrics per se. Readers are thereby drawn immediately into the performative processes of textualization. Part one is followed by a series of chapters on songbooks and lyricists representing the span from the early eleventh century to the end of it, in "a world of shifting texts and authorship intervening between the moment of composition and the early collection of a lyricist's words" (p. 25). Starting with Liu Yong, the colorful lyricist who was known for frequenting the Entertainment Quarter and wrote, in both the vernacular and the "lofty style," lyrics of love, travel, and very skillfully the "long lyrics" (manci 慢詞), which Owen traces back to the earlier and simpler form of "short lyrics" (xiaoling 小令), most commonly used at gatherings of officials. The shifting image of Liu Yong as a lyricist becomes clearer as the intertextuality of lyrics in practice become visible through Owen's analysis. The final chapter in part two concerns Yan Shu's highly gifted son, Yan Jidao, [End Page 66] pseudonym Xiaoshan. Although criticized by Li Qingzhao in her "Discourses on...


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