Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Huang T'ing-Chien's "Incense of Awareness": Poems of Exchange, Poems of Enlightenment

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Huang T'ing-Chien's "Incense of Awareness": Poems of Exchange, Poems of Enlightenment

Article excerpt

The writing of poems in association with objects that were exchanged as gifts became a common practice in eleventh-century China. Two sets of poems by Huang T'ing-chien written in 1086 in response to gifts of incense provide an index of his poetic techniques and an instructive contrast with the techniques of Su Shih. In the first set, Huang sees incense in terms of the process by which it is made or the ways in which it functions in the life of those who use it; there are both social and religious themes. Huang also explores in complex and subtle ways the multiple meanings of words, a central theme of his poetics. In the second set, Huang T'ing-chien enters into several exchanges of poems with Su Shih. Su characteristically makes us see his active mind interpreting the world and interacting with the other party to the poetic exchange; Huang also shifts his focus to his friendship with the other poet, but he does not depart from the incense theme, as Su does. Finally, an unrelated pair of poems written in jes t takes us back for a concluding look at Huang's primary interest: the contingent reality of both incense and words.

POEMS WRITTEN AS AN ADJUNCT or response to the giving of presents may be considered almost a new genre or subgenre in the Northern Sung. There are T'ang precedents, to be sure; Goyama Kiwamu gives the following statistics on the number of such poems in the works of major T'ang poets:

Li Po          1
Liu Yu-hsi    14
Yuan Chen     17
Yao Ho         6
P'i Jih-hsiu  10
Tu Fu         11
Chang Chi      5
Po Chu-i      20
Li Shang-yin   5
Lu Kuei-meng  10

But although these figures show a new development in T'ang, the real escalation comes in the Sung:

Mei Yao-ch'en      143
Shao Yung           30
Ssu-ma Kuang        27
Wang An-shih        11
Su Ch'e             26
Chang Lei           34
Ch'en Shih-tao      16
Ou-yang Hsiu        10
Wen T'ung           22
Liu Ch'ang          11
Su Shih            117
Huang T'ing-chien  147
Ch'ao Pu-chih       12
Ch'ao Yueh-chih     57

Goyama explains this escalation by the fact that the new era of relative peace and the expansion of commerce made special local products and luxury items more available throughout the country. One did not have to be an emperor or noble to appreciate and collect the rare and the beautiful. Once in circulation, these articles took on important functions. Political newcomers could increase their chances in the crowded competition for position by sending a gift to a potential patron. Factional allies could confirm their ties through presents. Gifts could also be traded for poems; to receive a thank-you poem from a prominent writer such as Huang T'ing-chien [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1045-1105) would enhance one's prestige greatly. [1]

Many of Huang's poems on such things as tea, incense, wine, brushes, and inkstones, most of them presents, are ascribed to 1086 (though he had written such poems earlier, of course, and would continue to do so). One set of ten poems written in 1086 in response to a gift of incense provides an index of his poetic techniques; a second set written in connection with a similar gift stimulated a poetic exchange with Su Shih [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1037-1101) and offers us a fruitful contrast in style. (Su Shih is the third most prolific Northern Sung writer of gift-associated poems, with two times more such works than the next most active poet in the sub-genre, Ch'ao Yueh-chih.) Su and Huang met for the first time in 1086, although they had corresponded since 1078. Despite their high regard for each other, each brings a unique approach to the poem-in-association-with-gift sub-genre.

In the first series Huang T'ing-chien sees the incense in terms of the process by which it is made, or the ways in which it operates in the life of those who use it; there are both social and religious themes. …

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