Sound and Meaning — Natural Cadence and Modern Han Poetics

Vol. 44 No. 1   3/2014    


Sound and Meaning — Natural Cadence and Modern Han Poetics


Cheng, Yu-yu









Key words

natural cadence, Tang Yue, Hu Pu-an, Chen Shih-hsiang, modern Han poetics


        During the early-nineteenth-century literary revolution in China, Hu Shi 胡適 (1891-1962) advocated the concept of natural cadence, in which the emphasis is placed on sound liberation and meaning segmentation. This concept gave rise to a tugof-war between sound and meaning. Briefly, cadence means the rhythm or the cadenced section of a poetic sentence. As Chinese characters are monosyllabic and independently-formed units, the contention was primarily about whether poetic phrasing was for meaning or for intonation. This was arguably the crucial issue in the development of modern Han poetry. In the twenty to thirty years following the literary revolution, this debate was not only applied to modern Han poetry, but was also extended to re-evaluate “Chinese poetry” or “Han poetry” in general.

        In this study, the theories of three lesser-known Chinese scholars—Tang Yue 唐鉞 (1891-1987), Hu Pu-an 胡樸安 (1878-1947), and Chen Shih-hsiang 陳世驤 (1912-1971)—are discussed for the purpose of presenting their new discourse of “poetic articulation” which, while based on the poetics of classical Chinese poems, was inspired by modern Han poetry. Tang Yue attempted to break away from “primary” rhyming, transforming the set rhyming four tones into “subtle rhyming.” Through these efforts, he unintentionally touched the most fundamental issue of what Hu Pu-an called “construction of meaning through sound.” We can see that Hu conducted a systematic exploration of how Chinese characters symbolize feelings through an imitation of animal sound, and how characters are combined into phrases and developed into meaningful articulation. However, this theory of conveying meaning through phonological sound is just the first turn. This bodily rhythm in poetry had been mentioned as early as Ren Shu-yung 任叔永 (1886-1961) and Wen Yi-duo聞一多 (1899-1946). They both agreed that meaning is beyond the working of vocal organs. Taking it one step further, Chen Shih-hsiang went past segmentation of language meaning, presenting another turn which is beyond the traditional idea of “sound” and “meaning.” Tracing back to an “innate” affective gesture, a mobile rhythm awakens and lures the whole body to dance. This is a journey from “subtle rhyming” to “construction of meaning through sound,” and then to a new dimension of “affective gestures.” Apparently contradictory to the idea of language as a “tool” at the period, this sequence of ideas presents an endeavor of constructing the ontology of “cadenced articulation” in Han poetics.



Author: Cheng, Yu-yu
Genre: Article