An Interpretation of Wu 物 in the Chinese Classical Litarary Tradition

Vol. 41 No. 1   03/2011    


An Interpretation of Wu  in the Chinese Classical Litarary Tradition


Cheng, Yu-yu  









Key words

wu (external things or phenomena), categorical correspondence, classical literature, lyric tradition   


        Ever since Chen Shixiang 陳世驤 asserted that Chinese literature is a lyric tradition, the concept and evaluation of Chinese literature as such has become very important, and perhaps even the only interpretation. According to the discussions of many subsequent scholars, for the most part it is believed that the Chinese lyric tradition, as it developed in the Han, Wei, and Jin periods, tended to use tanshi 歎逝 (sighing over the temporariness of life) as the basis for the observation of nature, accordingly endowing nature with a sense of change, sadness, and desolation. Taking this a step further, some have argued that the dolorous poet’s melancholic vision of nature is mainstream in the Chinese lyric tradition. If we take the sighs for the temporariness of life and “autumnal sentiment” (beiqiu 悲秋) as the core of Chinese literature in the Han, Wei, and Jin periods, then obviously the discussion of lyricism will focus more on the subjectivity of the poet and the individual expression of emotion, within which the key concepts of creativity, ganwu 感物 (reacting to external things or to phenomenon) or xinggan 興感 (reacting to external things and inciting feeling), can also be used to interpret the author because they are stirred up in the face of the ever-changing seasons and the myriad things in the world. From this perspective, the idea of ganwu and its formation in the lyric tradition is a kind of subjective way to express emotion, where between external things and self, there is a clear subordinating relationship that wu exists for the sake of “feeling”; moreover, it is considered within the purview of the emotions to choose and give presence to things.

        The focus of this paper is to discuss how the formulation of wu in classical poetry allows us to recognize and describe the empathetic functionality of associations and similitude. In short, how and by what means does wu participate in xinggan (inciting feeling) and lyricism. It is clear that we cannot focus only on wu, but must go one step further and add the constructs of categories of wu or systems of wu, which, of course, must go beyond the limits of individual authors and works, and must be able to demonstrate that, at certain critical points, there was an integrated relationship between textual and extra-textual expression that shapes this typological system of things/objects. This article will take tanshi that dominated early medieval literature as its main scope of discussion, at the same time selecting the most compelling materials, such as those collections that bring together a large number of pre-Sui and Tang works, simultaneously deploying leishi 類事 (types of objects) and leiwen 類文 (types of works), as found in the Yiwen Leiju 藝文類聚 as well as other materials that pre-date lieshu 類書 (commonplace books), such as dictionaries and anthologies that structurally contain typological information, e.g., the Erya 爾雅 and Zhaoming Wenxuan 昭明文選, or those cifu 辭賦 that are full of ancient recitations and such. In response to these materials, I first discuss the classification of wu and the effect of those interconnected leiying 類應 (categorical correspondence). Then, based on the perception of leiying, I lay out what form these categories of things/objects and reactions take that are at the base of so-called lyricism, i.e., what sort of leiying structure would be considered effective in expressing lyricism.



Author: Cheng, Yu-yu
Genre: Article