Taoism and East Asian Literary Theories: Chuang Tzu's Theory of Selflessness and the Poetics of Self-Effacement

By Shin, Eun-kyung | Korean Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Taoism and East Asian Literary Theories: Chuang Tzu's Theory of Selflessness and the Poetics of Self-Effacement


Shin, Eun-kyung, Korean Studies


This article examines several East Asian literary theories that emphasize self-effacement, self-abandonment, and self-surrender and explores Chuang Tzu's ideas of self-forgetting or selflessness as part of the philosophical background of the theories. Examples are drawn from the works of Ssu-K'ung T'u, Yi Kyu-bo, Yi I, Yi Sang-jong, Zeami, Matsuo Basho, and Wang Fu-chih.

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The Encounter of Literature with Philosophy

This article examines a group of literary theories in East Asia (1) that emphasize self-effacement, self-abandonment, and self-surrender. It also explores Chuang Tzu's ideas of "self-forgetting" or "selflessness" as philosophical background of the formation of the literary theories. (2)

In East Asian tradition, literary theories have evolved with several characteristics. They are: (1) poetry-oriented (3); (2) fragmentary, by which is meant nonsystematic in the sense that the theories are sporadically found in prefaces and postfaces (4) of personal anthologies, various kinds of "collection of Remarks on Poetry" (sihwajip [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), letters, and even in poems, all of which assume the form of short comments and sometimes obscure expressions; and (3) more critical rather than disciplinary in the sense that they focus on exploring the criteria by which to evaluate what is a good poem and what is not. Viewed from the Western standpoint, these literary remarks may not be seen as theories of literature dealing with the theory of literary criticism and the theory of literary history, nor as literary theories, that is, the study of the principles of literature. (5) In a sense, they may be considered much closer to simple notes on literature or records of personal impressions about poems, poets, or anthologies than to literary theories. Taking these characteristics into consideration, "literary theories" is used in this article to denote simply literary discourses in the form of both prose and verse conveying thoughts on literature--chiefly, poetry.

So far, the approach to the correlation of literary theories and philosophy in East Asia has fallen into several categories: first, to find any remarks on literature in Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist writings and to describe them; second, to relate literary theories to the theorists' philosophical proclivities; third, in the case that a literary theory A and a philosophical idea B have some similarities, to manifest the affinity of A to B; and fourth, to elicit any clue to discovering literary principles from a philosophical edifice rather than correlating two entities directly. Many of the studies on East Asian literary theories so far belong to the first and second categories; this study is based on the third category. It is concerned with the literary theories themselves, not the philosophical proclivities of the literary theorists. It addresses literary theories built around the ideas of self-negation or self-deconstruction, such as Ssu-K'ung T'u's notion of "transcendence"; Yi Kyu-bo's "empty-mindedness"; Yi I's "emptiness and insipidness"; Yi Sang-jong's "emptiness and insipidness, freedom in peace and loftiness"; Zeami's "detached way of seeing"; Matsuo Basho's "detaching oneself from one's personal mind"; and Wang Fu-chih's "fusion of feeling and scene."

Chuang Tzu's ideal, echoed throughout the Chuang Tzu, is to rise above the world of differentiation colored by dichotomy such as good and bad, right and wrong, this and that, being and non-being, life and death and to merge with the undifferentiated Tao. This, Chuang Tzu said, entails mind-training and self-cultivating practices in order to see myriad things with disinterested, even, and impartial eyes. To reach this mental state, he suggested "sitting and forgetting" (chwamang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), by which is meant both a kind of meditation skill in a modern sense and a mental state caused by the meditation. …

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