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  • The Protean World of Sanqu Songs
  • Patricia Sieber (bio)

Arguably, sanqu 散曲 songs may be the most misunderstood lyrical genre in the Chinese literary corpus. Sanqu is often thought of as a Yuan dynasty genre given to a witty world-weariness (bishi wanshi 避世玩世),1 written by "frustrated souls" (shiyizhe de ge 失意者的歌)2 who, alienated from the centers of power, wrote sanqu as thinly veiled critiques of contemporary affairs. Partly, such an emphasis on sanqu as a Yuan form is a legacy of how sanqu was incorporated into the literary mainstream in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Late Qing and early Republican critics and practicing songwriters—notably, Wu Mei 吳梅 (1884–1939), Ren Ne 任訥 (1894–1991), and Lu Qian 盧前 (1905–1951)—sought to wrest the genre from near oblivion through the creation of anthologies and monographs.3 While Ren Ne highlighted the songs of Yuan playwrights, Lu Qian insisted on the importance of song suites from both the Yuan and Ming periods.4 Meanwhile, May Fourth critics such as Xie Wuliang 謝 無量 (1884–1964) and Zheng Zhenduo 鄭振鐸 (1898–1958), preoccupied with breaking free from the yoke of foreign imperialism and with creating a literary genealogy for the modern vernacular, defined sanqu as aYuan dynasty genre, the rich corpus of Ming sanqu notwithstanding.5 Whatever limitations such pioneering scholarship had, it nevertheless laid a philological foundation for further studies in the Chinese-speaking world and, to a lesser degree, in Japan and the West, while privileging a small corpus of both single stanza songs (xiaoling 小令) and song suites (santao 散 套) as literary masterpieces and textbook classics destined for modern consumption. Thus, in contrast to many other orally connected genres of middle and late imperial times, sanqu succeeded in moving, [End Page 1] albeit in historiographically overdetermined ways, into the modern canon of traditional Chinese literature.

In North American sinology, James I. Crump and Wayne Schlepp, through studies and translations, began to draw the genre into the ambit of scholarly inquiry and, in the case of Crump, to train a new generation of scholars with interests in what we might call "mixed-register" forms of literature. In the Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Stephen H. West, one of these erstwhile students and now a doyen of middle imperial literature in his own right, authoritatively laid out some of the paradoxical attributes of sanqu songs. Calling sanqu "a new form of hybrid poetry," West noted that as early as the Song dynasty, a writer observed the permeability of socioliterary boundaries when it came to songs: "My father once said that he was a visitor in the capital during the last days of the Northern Song, and the vulgar in the streets and alleyways often sang foreign songs. … The language was extremely coarse but all of the men of worth sang them."6 As West observed, sanqu songs, their rapid social ascent during the late Jin and Yuan notwithstanding, typically retained their colloquial features—binomial expressions, long three- and four-syllable onomatopoeic phrases, and extrametrical phrases, to name a few—no matter who wrote them. In West's view, this ability to "reach across many social boundaries" gave the songs "broad appeal to a wide literate audience both inside and outside elite circles."7 It is in this spirit that this special issue aims to showcase a body of original research to expand our understanding of how sanqu traversed social, literary, religious, political, and historiographical terrains to bring the genre within the scholarly mainstream of Chinese literary studies.

In the inaugural issue of the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, I put forth the idea that sanqu songs were, pace Yuan critic Zhou Deqing 周德清 (1277–1365), "everybody's song."8 The articles gathered here do much to flesh out the many "everybodies" that accounted for the genre's efflorescence in the Yuan and Ming periods. Furthermore, as many of these articles demonstrate, the genre not only reached many kinds of audiences but also, in the process, developed new functionalities. As the articles demonstrate, in doing so the genre often broke down boundaries between popular, ritual, court, and literati realms; between indigenous and foreign practitioners; between musical, literary, and communicative uses; and between different literary genres. To...


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