Two Chinese Poets: Vignettes of Han Life and Thought

Two Chinese Poets: Vignettes of Han Life and Thought

Two Chinese Poets: Vignettes of Han Life and Thought

Two Chinese Poets: Vignettes of Han Life and Thought

Excerpt

Some readers skip prefaces; others, perhaps advisedly, read them carefully. For a man like myself who has benefited greatly from explanatory prefaces, it seems that a debt of honor claims his laggard energies to write one now. In brief, then, in my last period of research in Peking (1933-34) there was a haunting feeling that for me chiseling away at "the Classics" -- my main center of interest in Sinological studies -- was a Sisyphean task. Each Classic had its own insoluble problems. To a historian in search of dateable material on ideological development, although a number of miscellaneous dates were to be found, they did not afford a basis on which to build: follow one main clue derived from one Classic, follow another from another Classic, and the two clues compared did not make historical sense. . . . It became clear that a purely linguistic approach to the problems was the more profitable course. Some first-rank scholars were working in this field. Could I do anything there? An experiment or two demonstrated that for a lone worker in his Oxford hermitage, even to "settle the enclitic δέ" was practically unachievable.

In the forties I went on to the study of what the Ch'ing litterateurs so happily called "p'ien wen," literally "doubleharness style," first in Later Han prose compositions, then in the mid-Han fu (prose poems). Their attraction lay in the fact that in the first-century-B.C. compendium, the Li Chi ("Record of Rites"), there were lengthy passages, and even whole essays, in which there was continuous complementation of sentences and clauses, together with tighter forms of sentence structure. The study was encouraging, but doubts assailed me when I discovered that in post-Han literature the acknowledged masters of style were not so much concerned with clear statement and accurate description as with making "delicious hanging clusters of words." I then went to the Han scholiasts and the historical recorders to see what . . .

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