Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Seven Rhapsodies of Ts'ao Chih

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Seven Rhapsodies of Ts'ao Chih

Article excerpt

To scholars of the present day the fu or "rhapsody" remains yet a rather neglected genre of Chinese poetry, even though it was of great importance to writers from the Han (206 B.C.--A.D. 220) through the T'ang (618-907) dynasties. Ts'ao Chih (192-232), the most famous of third-century poets, has more than half as many fu extant as shih-poems, but these have been largely and unfairly ignored. This paper presents seven of Ts'ao Chih's fu, with comments on some related matters.

ACCEPTING FOR THE MOMENT the traditional, albeit ultimately specious, allotment of generic "golden ages" in Chinese literary history which assigns the rhapsody (fu [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to the Han as that dynasty's peculiarly consummate form of literary expression, we cannot but be puzzled that so few of those rhapsodies--to say nothing of those of succeeding eras--have yet been rendered into English, whereas the same three or four dozen shih [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] from the late Han and early San-kuo period continue year after year to enjoy, if not monopolize, the attention of scholars and translators. What is the reason for this? Is it that the demands made on our modem minds by the rhapsody are too taxing, that, having been bred on the milder food of the shih our linguistic dispositions resist, out of self-regard, the heaped mound of a fu repast? [1] Let us not ask embarrassing questions. The day is short, distractions are many: "Such and so various are the tastes of men."

Of course, rhapsodies are more difficult to read--far more difficult and time-consuming than the average shih. This difficulty, muatis mutandis, also defines the greatest virtue of the fu for those of us who study Chinese poetry of the Han through the T'ang. Namely, one is forced to come to terms with an extensive portion of the literary lexicon. Poets from all times and places, in their several languages, have affirmed one thing--that poetry is, before all else, word-choice. It is, in a very literal sense, both lexicology and philology. As Cicero says, poets vocibus magis quam rebus inserviunt ("are more devoted to words than to topics"). The truth of this helps to explain the frequency with which poets everywhere have commented on their craft as less a matter of creation than of discovery. It is, as Borges has suggested (and others in similar metaphors), most akin to the sculptor's work of freeing from the stone the image already contained therein, as though it were merely waiting to be brought forth. Henc e the sense of "fulfillment," in both senses--of "possession," if you will--that a good writer is aware of experiencing upon working a composition to its close: the feeling that the right words were somehow hovering "out there," patient to be found, or perhaps even calling to one to uncover them, through one or more attempts at inventio--that is, both invention and discovery. This is what, in our postclassical if not post-modem world, the Muse is: not so much a divinity breathing her song into the poet but rather the guiding, inchoate voice of a certain formulation of language pressing him to uncover it. The Muse is thus the active, internal force--one might say the te [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] -- of a language. And here is the real meaning of what we call tradition. Tradition is the registry, the certified catalogue, of the various sanctioned transcriptions, each in its own particular calligraphy, of those formulations. [2]

Now, much of the classical poetic tradition in China, at least from the Han through the T'ang, is in fact embodied in the fu. One need only look at the generic proportions of the sixth-century Wen hs[ddot{u}]an [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the indispensable literary anthology for all T'ang writers, to comprehend the significance of the fu in relation to the shih. Thanks to David Knechtges' ongoing, triumphant translation of the entire Wen hs[ddot{u}]an, even those scholars unable or unwilling to read such works in the original have now been provided with reliable English renderings of the most famous examples of the form, as they are also deprived of any future excuse to overlook this important genre of poetry. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.