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Tang Studies 23-24 (2005-06) Poetry and Fictionality in Tang Records of Anomalies SING-CHEN LYDIA CHIANG BOSTON COLLEGE Beginning the first lunar month of 682, poetry composition became a major component of the most prestigious Presented Scholar (jinshi ~±) examination at the Tang court. The civil service examination system was designed to promote men of true talent, as opposed to those merely with noble privileges. However, after the disastrous An Lushan ~t~h1Jrebellion (755-763), which permanently weakened the once mighty Tang Empire, some began to express doubts about the wisdom of judging a person's ability by the poetry he wrote. 1 A short story set toward the tail end of the An Lushan rebellion, "Mr. No-such-a-Person" (Yuan Wuyou :n;~::¥f, Xuanguai lu, 1.21-23; Taiping guangji *~!Jac, 369.2937-38), by Niu Sengru 4-{~11(780-848), reflects such skepticism: At the end of the second month of the year 762, Mr. No-such-a-Person was traveling alone through the suburbs ofYangzhou tJHI'I. When dusk fell a great storm blew up; and since there had been fighting in these parts and most of the inhabitants had fled, he sought shelter in an empty cottage by the roadside. Soon the rain stopped and a crescent moon appeared. He was sitting by the north window when he heard footsteps in the west corridor and saw four men in the moonlight, all dressed in some antique fashion, who were chatting and jesting to their hearts' content as they composed poems together. Iwould like to thank the two anonymous reviewers of Tang Studies for their helpful comments. 1 Wang Xuncheng ::EWJl~, Ttmgdai quanxuan yu wenxue &{-I:;jij~W)(~ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2001), 316. See also Yu Gang 1ftr~IIiU,Ttmgdai wenyan xiaoshuo yu keju zhidu &{-I:;)(§/J\~Wf4$mUJl (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2004), 93. 91 Chiang: Poetry and Fictionality One of them said, "Tonight there is something of autumn in the air with this fine breeze and moonlight. We must write poems to express our feelings." ... Since they chanted aloud, Yuan could hear them distinctly. The tall man started: White silks like frost and snowLoud and clear sound my high notes. Then the stocky fellow in black chanted: Fine company in a clear night: I hold the torches bright. A third man, also short and in shabby light brown clothes, continued: Clear and cool spring at dawn I draw: Ever in and out is my rope of straw. The fourth man in black chanted: On burning firewood the water ever boils, For others' stomachs I toil. Yuan felt no fear of these four men, nor did they notice the presence of a stranger. The praise they lavished on each other outdid even the self-laudatory poems by 92 Tang Studies 23-24 (2005-06) Ruan Ji jgG:fi.2 Just before dawn they retired, and when Yuan looked for them he found in the hall an old pestle for pounding clothes, a lamp stand, a wooden bucket, and a cracked pot. These, he realized, were the four men.3 Against the ruinous backdrop of a war-ravaged kingdom, the story presents four literati characters who, oblivious of the sociopolitical upheavals surrounding them, are composing poetry to congratulate themselves and one another. Dressed in ancient scholarly attire and engaged in the fashionable literati pastime of poetic composition, these poets clearly intended to project images of themselves as members of the cultural elite. At first glance, their poetic couplets appear to be their self-representations as honorable gentlemen by such conventional imagery as snowy white silk and clear high notes (as fine character and writing); bright torches for gentlemanly peers in a clear night (as integrity and good taste); drawing clear spring at dawn (as purity of intent); and burning firewood and boiling water (as intense and selfless desire to serve others). However, the couplets ultimately turn out to be literal portrayals-not of their author's extraordinary talents-but rather their true identities as shabby, ordinary household tools. The story titled "Mr. No-such-a-Person" consciously exposes its own tracks of fictionalization.4 Thematically, the story may be 2 Ruan]i (210-263) is well known...


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