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  • The Matrix of Lyric Transformation: Poetic Modes and Self-presentation in Early Chinese Pentasyllabic Poetry
  • Li Yanfeng (bio)
Zong-qi Cai . The Matrix of Lyric Transformation: Poetic Modes and Self-presentation in Early Chinese Pentasyllabic Poetry. Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies, 75. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1996. x, 259 pp. Hardcover $50.00, ISBN 0-89264-111-8.

In this analysis of two forms of poetry (yuefu and gushi) and two poets (Cao Zhi and Ruan Ji) of the Han dynasty, Zong-qi Cai presents a study of the transformation of pentasyllabic poetry from about the first to the third centuries, not only providing abundant supporting commentaries by the major Chinese critics—both historical and modern—but also applying the structuralist approach on a macro level by constructing a model of four modes and one thread that links them up. Within this model are detailed examinations of the text. In addition, Cai presents two major poets and their works as examples. The emphasis in the book is divided equally between constructing an overall model and examining the works of these two poets. This kind of model and this kind of approach to the poetry of this period has not been done in other books on the subject.

The four modes are dramatic, narrative, lyrical, and symbolic, and the thread is the styles and themes in the way that the poets present themselves. Cai fruitfully explores the progression of development from the dramatic mode to the symbolic mode.

Cai's first argument regarding the transformation from the dramatic to the narrative mode is that the traditional attempt to classify folk yuefu and literati yuefu—a model that relies on textual analysis such as the dating and authorship of a work—should be abandoned; instead, the criterion for classification should be the artistic features of a poem regardless of who wrote it or when it was written (p. 28). Under this new approach, poems that are characterized by collective composition and performance are seen as belonging in the dramatic mode of folk yuefu, and poems that have a sole narrative speaker in the narrative mode of literati yuefu (p. 29). This approach in discussing Han yuefu is quite creative.

The book's contribution to an understanding of the dramatic and narrative modes of folk yuefu includes a summary of seven characteristics (pp. 30-49) that significantly highlight the importance of applying the concept of the dramatic mode in the interpretation of certain early poems of the period. Since the important influence of dramatic performance on poetry in the early Han is not sufficiently understood, it becomes quite productive to interpret these poems in the light of dramatic performance.

The transition from folk to literati yuefu is marked by the replacement of the multiple storyteller by a sole (or noninteractive) storyteller (p. 49), which is shown here largely by making reference to living oral traditions in certain cultures [End Page 402] to understand how folk yuefu may have been composed in ancient times. For example, Cai demonstrates that the way in which the folk songs of the Lang minority (in Guangxi Province) are composed orally reflects how the folk yuefu were composed during the Han dynasty (p. 49). Cai's argument is convincing, although historically it is likely that the yuefu we see as folksongs were created through a more complex process.

Cai uses the presence or absence of a noninteractive storyteller as a criterion for classifying yuefu as folk or literati. This assumption may need reexamination, because apparently some folk yuefu also include poems spoken by individual speakers. In addition, Cai argues for the speaker in folk yuefu to be a storyteller, while in literati yuefu the speaker becomes a character in the poem who not only narrates the poem but plays a role in it. This argument is somewhat unconvincing, however, because the shift from narrator to character did not originate with yuefu—it can actually be seen as early as the Book of Songs, as C. T. Wang has argued (The Bell and the Drum [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974], pp. 58-97). I wish Cai had explained how this shift in...


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