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Tang Studies 25 (2007) WORDS FOR THE DEAD AND THE LIVING: INNOVATIONS IN THE MID-TANG "PRAYERTEXT" (JIWEN~X) ANNA M. SHIELDS UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, BALTIMORE COUNTY The new ninth-century interest in writing about personal experience was a critical development in late medieval culture, part of the growing intellectual autonomy characteristic of the Tang-Song transition. In the era known as the mid-Tang, roughly 790 to 830, this turn toward the personal took many forms, from examining intimate subjects, such as love affairs or the death of children, to adopting unconventional, even eccentric styles in texts of self-representation.! This diversity of mid-Tang literati explorations of personal life may sometimes obscure a common concern among influential writers of the period, a concern that reveals the more profound shift underway. Literati such as Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, Liu Yuxi, and Bai Juyi desired not only to increase the acceptable topics of wenzhang X ~ but also to expand its potential. The defenses of literary culture in the mid-Tang political sphere offered by very different literati demonstrate that this commitment pervaded the post-Rebellion period;2 the turn to the personal should also be seen as part of literati efforts to reform and deepen the significance of writing. Writing about personal life gave literati a way to connect individual experiences to the values of the mid-Tang elite community and, more importantly, allowed them to reinterpret those shared values individually. The increasing circulation of texts from the late eighth century onward gave this writing greater impact, as compositions of all genres were frequently sent to fellow literati, then copied, recopied, and collected. By exploring personal experience in a range of texts that they circulated widely, mid-Tang literati contributed unique voices to ongoing cultural debates and refashioned inherited literary genres to suit their individual needs. 1 Stephen Owen has examined this literary turn in The End of the Chinese "Middle Ages':' Essaysin Mid-Tang Literary Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996). In this article, I focus less on the texts of the private sphere and more on the social significance of writing about personal experience. 2 See Peter Bol, "This Culture of Ours':' Intellectual Transitions in Tang and Sung China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 108-47; and Anthony DeBlasi, Reform in the Balance: TheDefense ojLiterary Culture in Mid-Tang China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002). 111 Shields: Wordsfor the Dead and the Living In this essay, I examine three responses to the death of friends as examples of the innovations that personal writing brought to mid-Tang literature. In the three prayer texts (jiwen ~)() for the dead I discuss here, Liu Zongyuan, Liu Yuxi, and Bai Juyi address the spirits of their deceased friends (all of whom were themselves famous literati) and communities of the living, moving outward from the close circle of companions to mid-Tang elite society and even to posterity. As I have argued elsewhere, mid-Tang literati wrote of personal experience most commonly in genres that emphasized communication, interaction, and selfrevelation , thus, in genres such as letters, exchange verse, and new informal modes of prose writing such as the ji ~c, "record."3 The prayer text genre shared this communicative function: unlike grave memoir inscriptions, which were expected to be respectful but factual accounts of the deceased, or poems of mourning, which gave writers lyrical outlets for sorrow, jiwen were vehicles for literati to express their praise and grief directly to the spirit of the departed. Writing within the context of friendship also helped close the distance between different readers by exploiting certain assumptions about literary exchange among friends-for example, the expectation of sincerity, and the implied close relation between writer and addressee. This framework of intimate exchange allowed mid-Tang writers to bring a new informality, an eclectic blend of registers, and an emphasis on direct emotional expression into some of the most serious and formulaic literary genres, including funerary texts. The fact that mid-Tang literati sought to experiment with funerary writing, perhaps the most conservative realm of Tang literature, also points to the broader significance of their turn to the personal. In the hands of the strongest...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1759-7633
Print ISSN
0737-5034
Pages
pp. 111-145
Launched on MUSE
2021-04-08
Open Access
No
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