Zhu XI as Poet

By Yang, Zhiyi | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2012 | Go to article overview

Zhu XI as Poet


Yang, Zhiyi, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


This paper examines Zhu Xi's poetic composition chronologically and thematically. Whereas previous scholarship subjugates Zhu Xi's poetry to his literary criticism, and the latter further to his philosophy, this paper argues that the three endeavors did not necessarily share the same agenda. Read closely in its own right. Zhu's poetry reveals multiple dimensions: it advanced an aesthetic ideal; it proposed, commented on, and modified philosophical positions; it defined social relations; and it addressed the author's hidden political and private concerns. It also generated delight on its own. Many paradoxes underlay Zhu Xi's theory and his practice of poetry. A little-examined side of his apparent stance against literature is his visceral understanding of literature, developed from his long and self-conscious literary practice driven by both purpose and pleasure.

In the eleventh month of 1167, Zhang Shi (1133-1180), a prominent teacher in Hunan, invited a visiting scholar and his disciple on a wintry excursion to the snow-mantled South Paramount Heng. Inspired by the merciless blizzards, the three of them composed 149 poems in eleven days. The principal guest alone composed fifty-one poems. After a solemn farewell, the guest headed east toward his Fujian hometown. His spirit still burning, he produced another ninety-six poems in the twenty-eight days of the journey.

This diligent poet was Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who a century later would be enshrined in Confucian temples across China. (1) Today he is known to students of philosophy as a formidable opponent to the study of literature. This dominant opinion is supported by substantial evidence from various periods of his long life. Peter K. Bol argues that Zhu Xi represented a narrowed intellectual tradition, in which the moralistic "Learning of dao" (dao xue) eclipsed the diversity of cultural accomplishments (wen) represented by Su Shi (1037-1101), "the last of the great literary intellectuals." (2) Benjamin A. Elman also notices Zhu's "vehement" call for the complete abrogation of poetry and rhyme-prose from the civil examination. (3) In this line of scholarship, Zhu Xi seems to advocate the slogan "crafting literature harms dap", (4) coined by Cheng Yi (1033-1107), whose philosophy was accepted by Zhu Xi as a precursor to his own. Considering that Zhu Xi once in a dialogue approvingly cited this slogan, (5) his avid interest in "crafting literature," as demonstrated by his large body of poetry, may appear odd and peculiar.

Part of the seeming contradiction lies in the diverse, context-specific meanings of wen. Among its dozen definitions, those related to dao include: 1) patterned manifestation of cosmic principle; 2) cultural accomplishment; 3) writing in the broad sense; 4) "belletristic" literature, i.e., those literary texts that beyond their pragmatic functions are deeply concerned with aesthetic appeal, and that hence resist being reduced to mere vehicles of propositional messages: and, within the latter, 5) prose in particular. As a result, when two authors talk about wen and dap, both addressing their antagonism (or compatibility), the kind of wen they have in mind could be quite different. When Zhu Xi, in a single dialogue, first calls the wen of the classics the "overflow from dao," then compares dao to rice and wen to appetizing dishes, and finally reproaches Su Shi's wen as harming the orthodox dao, (6) is he salvaging wen, subjugating wen, or simply disapproving certain genres or styles of wen? The didactic flexibility of the dialogic form allows all these ambiguities to exist simultaneously.

Moreover, in practicing literature Zhu Xi developed a tacit understanding of its craft that he did not explicitly articulate when reasoning about wen in the philosophical discourse of the time. Unlike Cheng Yi, who had censored all his poems and left only three extant pieces, (7) Zhu Xi chose to leave an abundant literary legacy, documenting his poetic career from childhood to the last days of his life. …

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