- How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity through the Tang ed. by Zong-qi Cai
How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity through the Tang is the third in a three-book series that "aims to break down barriers that have long stood in the way of both teaching and learning Chinese poetry" (xxi). While the previous volumes focus primarily on language and translation, this final one consists of essays meant to put the poetic works it presents into a range of intertwined contexts, including but not limited to the historical, aesthetic, social, and political. It should be noted that, while the three volumes are connected, their historical ranges vary. The first, How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology (2008), includes works in a chronological range from the Shijing 詩經 to the shi poems of the Qing dynasty. The second volume, How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook (2012), also begins with poems from the Shijing but includes only a single work later than the Song period (and that is from the Yuan); the focus there is heavily on the Tang and Song. How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context is chronologically narrower still, ending with the late Tang period. Its content includes a brief introduction followed by seventeen chapters organized into four time periods: pre-Han times (two chapters), the Han dynasty (three chapters), the Six Dynasties (four chapters), and the Tang dynasty (eight chapters).
The goal of the book is explicitly pedagogical. It does not aim to present new and groundbreaking scholarship but, rather, offers materials that can be used as part of a college-level course on Chinese literature or as a supplement to history and "civilization" courses that cover the period in question. Though organized chronologically, it includes a table of "thematic contents" that provides an alternative way to navigate the text. Indeed, the introduction encourages the reader to skip around to the periods and topics of most interest rather than read the book cover to cover. Though this reviewer did read the book cover [End Page 481] to cover, it was specifically with an eye to how the individual chapters might be used in an undergraduate classroom. As this is a short review, rather than go through and summarize each chapter I discuss in more detail a smaller number that show particular promise for instructional use.
The preface to the volume expresses a desire to avoid "repeating the standard grand narrative of Chinese history behind its poetry" (xxi) by focusing more on "historical snapshots" and anecdotes that that are not part of the "official" historical record. The "grand narrative" of Chinese literature itself, however, is more difficult to avoid. All of the three volumes in the series focus on the "greatest hits," those works that one might expect to find in any post-May Fourth anthology of Chinese literature. This is understandable, and even desirable, though it is not without its complications. For example, Chen Yinchi and Jing Chen's chapter "Buddhist Enlightenment: Wang Wei and Han Shan [sic]" (205–21) focuses primarily on seeking out Buddhistic themes in some of Wang Wei's 王維 (692?–761) best-known poems of reclusion, such as "Zhongnan Retreat" 終南別業 (Zhongnan bieye) and "In Response to Vice-Magistrate Zhang" 酬張少府 (Chou Zhang shaofu). For a better sense of the role Buddhist themes play in Wang Wei's poetry, one might instead turn to such works as "When I Was Sick with Layman Hu I Sent Him These Poems and Showed Them to Some Students" 與胡居士皆病 寄此詩兼示學人 (Yu Hu jushi jie bing ji cishi jian shi xueren), with its discussion of skandha and dhatu. These are not, however, poems likely to engage undergraduates (or many others). The grand narrative does have a certain undeniable grandness.
Stephen Owen's chapter "Poetry and Authorship: the Songs of Chu" offers a promising solution to this conundrum: it takes the reader through such canonical works as Li Sao 離騷 (Encountering Misery) and "Mountain Spirit" 山鬼 (Shanhui), but...