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Chinese Rhyme-Prose , by Burton Watson

Chinese Rhyme-Prose - Burton Watson, Lucas Klein



Han Dynasty text employing the so-called clerical script.



Nota bene: I am combining the reviews of two books into one; if you have read one review, you have read the other.





The fu (*) is a literary form apparently unique to the Chinese, which usually consists of a prose introduction followed by poetic prose passages intermixed with verse whenever the author wishes to heighten the effects(**), often closing with a kind of reprise. The prose is generally very rhythmic and the verse is structured by rhythm, rhyme and, later in its development, also by tone. The length of the lines of verse, i.e. the number of characters per line, can vary between various sections of the fu.


Though commentators have tried to connect fu with the Shih-ching and the Ch'u tz'u (***) the first and second compilations of Chinese poetry, the earliest unmistakable fu were written during the early part of the Former Han dynasty (206 BCE - 8 CE). Fu were chanted, not sung as were the poems of the Shih-ching and Ch'u tz'u, and commonly employed, in Knechtges' words, "parallelism, elaborate description, dialogue, extensive cataloguing, and difficult language." But, as Knechtges emphasizes, the fu appeared in many forms, and no single descriptor is valid for all fu. Not even the mix of prose and poetry was uniformly observed by writers of fu, for I have read fu which were only verse and a much later branch of fu employed only freely rhymed prose. Typically, the author signaled his intent by placing the word "fu" in the title of his piece. The range of topics for fu was very broad, from the more standard laments at parting or at the transitory nature of life, through florid descriptions of cities or landscapes to ironic fu on a rat or on shoes; there is even a fu on fu. Some of the fu get very personal; others are display pieces written for the court (some of the early Han emperors were great aficionados of the genre).


Of particular literary historical interest is that the earliest fu are apparently the first examples of epideictic texts in the Chinese tradition, i.e. a central motivation for the author to write the text was to display his skill at literary effects, hence the exaggerated, sometimes fantastical images, the joy in lists of uncommon nouns, the use of recondite language. This generated an immediate backlash by the Confucians, for whom the role of poetry was to guide the people and the state to a satisfied equilibrium in accordance with the values of a legendary China that probably never existed. This struggle between the "artists" and the "moralists", not unknown in other cultures, continues to this day in China, even though the genre fu is now neglected. 


In his Chinese Rhyme-Prose Watson provides a potted history of the fu which is more than a little too pat, too tendentious. But I greatly enjoyed his translations of fifteen of the more important and famous fu from the beginnings of the form through the 6th century CE. Watson deliberately chose to translate fu which employed as few literary allusions as possible, but when they arose, or when some word or phrase was controversial, he added an informative footnote to help the nonspecialists. He appended translations of early Chinese criticism concerning the fu.


In The Han Rhapsody Knechtges is both more nuanced and more detailed in his presentation of the genre fu than is Watson, though one should perhaps note that Watson was writing for a more general audience than Knechtges; The Han Rhapsody is an adaptation of his doctoral dissertation and observes all due academic form. 


In the process of providing insight into the beginnings of the fu, Knechtges finds a source for the fu in a body of rhetorical prose which sought to convince rulers of the proper ways to carry out their task. Such a purpose goes back at least to Confucius and probably much further, but it appears that in the 4th century BCE hordes of itinerant "experts" wandered from state to state to offer their advice (for suitable reward, of course) and some of these attempts to persuade were written down, though probably after the fact and with substantial re-writing. Knechtges translates examples mixing prose and poetry in a manner that is certainly suggestive of the later fu, including the manner in which the poetry is used in the prose context. This transit into rhetorical texts leads Knechtges into a surprisingly interesting discussion contrasting Chinese persuasive writings with the Greco-Roman. 


He continues tracing the beginnings of the fu, giving some translations of excerpts along the way, until he reaches Yang Hsiung (53 BCE - 18 CE), an author of fu who was one of the leaders of the initial Confucian reaction. Most of Knechtges' text is occupied with explaining what little is known about Yang's life, translating and closely reading a number of Yang's fu, and describing the effect had upon the genre by Yang's criticism and fu. After reading this book, I actually feel I have an inkling of the genre and its context.


There were no limits on the lengths of fu - I have read fu over 20 pages in length, and I am sure there must be longer ones, given the nature of human one-upmanship. So I cannot offer my typical samples, usually the part of poetry reviews I most enjoy writing - the selecting, weighing, re-visiting. Any partial sampling of a single fu would be an act of misrepresentation. So let me just say that there are fu for many tastes; if you don't like the one, you'll probably like the next. Not as distilled and intense as the shorter forms of lyrical poetry are, the fu has other, more expansive pleasures. In any case, I am very much looking forward to reading Knechtges' three volume translation of the Wen xuan (Selections of Refined Literature), a collection of fu compiled in the 6th century.




(*) Called rhyme-prose by Burton Watson in Chinese Rhyme-Prose: Poems in the Fu Form from the Han and Six Dynasties Periods (1971), rhapsody by David R. Knechtges in The Han Rhapsody: A Study of the Fu of Yang Hsiung (53 B.C. A.D.18) (1976), and various further terms by other authors - I'll just call it fu.


(**) In this respect, the Japanese drama form of Noh evinces a similarity.


(***) This is a standard maneuver made to legitimize any form of poetry, for the Shih-ching was the oldest authority on poetry in the Chinese culture, given the seal of approval by Confucius himself; indeed, the tradition has it that Confucius was the compiler of the Shih-ching.  



Han Dynasty painting