- The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China: The "Fragrant and Bedazzling" Movement (1600–1930) by Xiaorong Li
Xiaorong Li definitively establishes the inherent boldness of the lyric poet in late imperial and modern China. In her confident and far-reaching book, The Poetics and Politics of Sensuality in China: The "Fragrant and Bedazzling" Movement (1600–1930), Professor Li proves that authors of sensual, erotic poetry—known as xiangyan 香豔 (or xianglian 香戀) poetry—were dedicated troublemakers, contentious and self-aware, promoting their work and their ideology. As she states via her title (Poetics and Politics of . . .), she seeks to prove that narrating the erotic in poetry is both a private and a public act, asserting that a poetic genre is, in this case, a movement. She does not limit her discussion to one time frame as is typically found in treatments of love (qing 情) in, for example, fiction, prose essay, or opera. Professor Li's study is diachronic; the poems and attached theories were aggressively articulated in the late Ming, continued through the Qing—despite charges of indecency—and taken up with zeal in the Republican era. Professor Li proves with rigorous, persuasive scholarship that the xiangyan genre was indeed a political exercise with a 600-year lineage.
Dr. Li defines the xiangyan poetry as a "discursive realm set in the private, inner chambers, focused on feminine images and depicting sensuality or erotics of sensibility and romantic sentiments, in highly aestheticized language" (p. 32). The xiangyan poets defined in verse the world of love and eroticism, with a focus on the intimate and small scale, creating a sense of time frozen, as they [End Page 136] mapped the measured inscape of (mostly) masculine emotion. Professor Li's approach is detailed and thorough; in all cases, she provides copious and beautifully translated examples, accompanied by Chinese texts, all well framed by analysis. Of course, she treats the language and images of sensual encounters and erotic attraction, but she extends her discussion to include the ways xiangyan poets appropriated estrangement. For example, in her treatment of the Ming Poet Wang Cihui 王次回 and his two collections, Collection of Phantom Rain and Collection of Phantom Clouds, Li notes "his distinctive poetics of sensuality" and suggests not only the sensual, but also a narrative of aversion. Wang Cihui requisitions a "realm of gentleness" (wenrou xiang 溫柔鄉), in which the poet claimed "self-indulgence, sickness, fragility, strangeness and disengagement" as emblems of the self. "Disengagement" marked his landscape of the deeply private. One of Wang Cihui's poems serves as example:
The loner, idle in autumn, reflects on his loneliness in illness.Outside the window desolate grasses cover chirping insects.Poetry and books beside the pillow, a rickety desk stands,Mountains and rivers in front of the bed, a painting unfolds.(p. 83)
Elsewhere she examines another poet's use of ridicule and self-mockery as well as tropes of alienation, such as the "man of sorrow" (henren). Xiangyan poets created a world beyond the purely erotic, a world marked by a contemplative solitude, discontent, and refusal, suggesting tropes of modernity.
In addition to her analysis of motifs, Professor Li makes a rarely offered, but highly mete, defense of poetry, arguing for the compelling nature of lyric poetry in these eras. She establishes how the art of naming the small and intimate, or the passionate or misery-soaked moment, was essential for men and some few women. She also notes the inherent satisfactions of the practice of poetry in the context of a demanding public life. The xiangyan poets craved the time and spaces for writing, carving them resolutely out of official life. Li explores, for example, the work and life of the official and poet Fan Zhenxiang, his poems dominate in The Five Hundred Poets Anthology: "One is struck by two parallel tracks, poetic engagement and a political career. These dual motivations are evident in his personal account." Fan Zhenxiang first finds solace in poetry after passing the jinshi...