Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

The Rhetoric of Hiddenness in Traditional Chinese Culture

Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

The Rhetoric of Hiddenness in Traditional Chinese Culture

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

The Rhetoric of Hiddenness in Traditional Chinese Culture, edited by Varsano, Paula M. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 387. $95.00 (hardcover), $29.95 (paper); ebook and Kindle editions also available.

Writing on a topic such as this would seem a daunting task. The language difficulties alone would be considerable: references to hiddenness by definition are obscured by indirection in writing, negation in philosophy, and simple lack of representation in the visual arts. Yet by not confining themselves to simply rhetorical approaches to the subject, and by spreading their net widely across pre-20th century Chinese culture, the thirteen collaborators here manage to explore this topic-and technique - from an impressive range of perspectives and through a remarkable range of texts and objects. Together these essays - each challenging in its own way-reveal formal and rhetorical hiddenness in far more diverse manifestations than in any other publication of which I am aware.1

To exemplify their topic, Paula Varsano begins her introductory essay with the text and a translation of a recondite poem, Deng Ш (Lamp) by the Tang poet Li Shangyin ... (813-858). She then proceeds to demonstrate couplet by couplet how the poem's meaning-even after all cultural and biographical clues have been adduced-remains a matter of conjecture. Her project demonstrates how hiddenness develops in Chinese culture along with a social group or groups of cognoscenti, the cultural elite among those who were sufficiently well educated to identify the relevant clues and to pursue them to some level of understanding. Her contention, well supported by her analysis and those of her collaborators, is that for consumers of the high cultural products of art and literature, thought and medicine, some assembly is always required.

This collection grew out of a 2007 conference involving some of the most prominent scholars of premodern China who write in English. Each essay is a nuanced consideration of its subject. And indeed, despite their apparently common topic when expressed in English, their key concepts in Chinese vary widely: from wu ... and wei ..., through yi ..., and zangyi ... and of course, by implication if not explicitly, yin ... (as opposed to P?), and others. James Robson probes openings in the backs of Buddhist statues where texts and amulets might be hidden; Shigehisa Kuriyama illustrates the problem of distraction and the medical understanding that comes only with observing transient conditions of the body. David Schaberg interrogates the hiddenness of qing in early moral philosophy, while Michael Nylan shows the uneasy social balance between being hidden and being seen in pre-Han times. Xiaofei Tian and Wai-yee Li review the poetic uses of women as metaphor for situations faced by male poets; Sophie Volpp discovers hidden values in a vernacular story and Lillian Tseng reveals the absence of the Great Wall in pre-20th century Chinese art. Eugene Wang traces misunderstandings in how to represent obscurity in painting, Stephen Owen displays how much can be hidden by the use of synecdoche in verse, and Michael Puett explores ways that a commentator can make subtle philosophical differences disappear by simply ignoring them. Zong-qi Cai exposes ideas behind early theories of literary criticism, and Paula Varsano reveals what is hidden in a major Tang theoretical text. Each essay is to a large degree independent from the others, and yet readers, regardless of their own disciplinary strengths, will find every one of these essays innovative and highly rewarding.

As Paula Varsano explains in her Introduction, each essay contributes essentially to grasping the significance of the central topic, and indeed, many essays refer to others in the collection to clarify their own points. At a glance, these thirteen essays would seem to fit together only quite awkwardly; some include apparently incongruous illustrations. …

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