Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

The Hidden Blessing of Being a Last Ruler: Anecdotes and the Song Dynasty Interpretation of Li Yu's (937-978) Lyrics

Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

The Hidden Blessing of Being a Last Ruler: Anecdotes and the Song Dynasty Interpretation of Li Yu's (937-978) Lyrics

Article excerpt

Anecdotes about Li Yu's life have long encouraged an autobiographical reading of his lyrics as being divided between his joyful, self-indulgent youth and his confined, constantly remorseful final years. These circumstantial anecdotes, I argue, were actually politically motivated by the Song Dynasty scholars to disgrace the perceived illegitimate Southern Tang regime and its last ruler, but ironically ended up greatly contributing to the canonization and the burgeoning appeal of Li Yu's lyrics, as the literary form steadily gained in stature and a more personal type of lyrics featuring male persona came to be admired in the late eleventh century.

In his review of Daniel Bryant's Lyric Poets of the Southern Tang, Stephen Owen calls our attention to "a vital tradition in which poem and circumstantial anecdote were circulated together" and asserts that "the values of the person and the story was dependent on the poems; the value of the poems was dependent on the person and his story... Nowhere is the principle more forcibly demonstrated than in the tz'u of Li Yu." 1 Li Yu (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.), the last ruler of Southern Tang (937-975), distinguished himself with his thirty-odd lyrics, which were collected in Nantang erzhu ci (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.) (Collection of Lyrics by Two Southern Tang Rulers; Erzhu ci hereafter). Erzhu ci was not compiled until nearly two centuries after Li Yu's death, most likely between 1167 and 1173. 2 Anecdotes that relate the circumstances of Li Yu's composition multiplied during the interval. The Erzhu ci already contained entries from Tiaoxi yuying conghua (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.) (Miscellanies by a Fisherman Recluse by the Tiao Stream, compiled in the mid-twelfth century), and since then, Li Yu's lyrics and his stories have always circulated together. Li Yu's lyrics thus make a strong case for the significance of such framing anecdotes in shaping our reception of the framed poems, and also allow us to discern what factors may account for the vitality of the tradition.

Drawing upon Kang-I Sun Chang's and Daniel Bryant's research on Li Yu's lyrics, as well as Johannes L. Kurz' s comprehensive overview of the primary sources of Southern Tang history, this paper intends to make a more extensive use of the circumstantial anecdotes, placing my textual analysis in the context of the Song historiography and the increasing prestige of lyric writing.3 These circumstantial anecdotes, although often politically motivated to disgrace the perceived illegitimate Southern Tang regime and its last ruler, ended up greatly contributing to the canonization and the burgeoning appeal of Li Yu's lyrics, as the literary form steadily gained in stature over time.4 Before the mid-eleventh century, the lyric was usually written in the persona of its female performer for entertainment purposes and hence was not considered expressive. On the other hand, the historical and political context provided by the anecdotal frames caused Li Yu's lyrics to be interpreted as autobiographical and later to be admired for having spearheaded the development toward a more personal type of lyric that featured male persona. I argue that without the anecdotal frames that originally sought to taint Li Yu's reputation, his eventual rise to renown would have been less likely. The changing reception of Li Yu's lyrics attests to the increasing prominence of this newly popular genre. Although the lyric had initially been stigmatized as frivolous and transgressive- which could be conveniently utilized to denounce a despicable former ruler- it evolved to become an elitist expression, which ultimately led to the triumph of Li Yu's legacy.5

Anecdotes about poetic composition, which are neither fact-based nor true to historical detail, have, since the Classic of Poetry, been treated as significant hermeneutic sources for revealing authorial intentions. Although this approach is highly problematic, anecdotes remain enormously valuable. …

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