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2019 MLA Panel: Transitions in Early and Medieval Chinese Literary History

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    Benjamin Ridgway

    Dear Colleagues,


    Please find the details for an upcoming session at the 2019 MLA conference sponsored by the “Pre-14<sup>th</sup> century Chinese literature” forum. We look forward to seeing you there!


    Panel Title: Transitions in Early and Medieval Chinese Literary History


    Keywords: Early China, Medieval China, textual transmission, social identity, art-history, material culture


    Session Description:


    Traditional Chinese literary historiography recognizes literary eras in terms of the reigning political dynasties, and hence the notion of literary transitions is treated epiphenomenally, as a change in intellectual directions necessitated by changes in political leadership. Such traditional conceptions are not without basis, though a fully historicist accounting would have to go beyond conventional political narratives to interrogate literature’s enmeshing within disruptions to social history. During periods of transition writers may adapt old genres or invent new ones, critique hallowed truths or create new systems of cultural knowledge, all the while dispersing their literary works in various new media, as they struggle to respond to the changing times. The papers in this panel attempt to reinvigorate an old issue of literary history—how best to conceive of transitional periods in early and medieval Chinese literature—by using contemporary research methods.




    Presentation ID# 6722: How ‘Early’ Is Early China?

    Alexander Beecroft (

    U of South Carolina, Columbia

    MLA Member

    Expertise and Scholarship: Alexander Beecroft is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of South Carolina. He teaches courses in Greek and Latin language and literature, ancient civilizations, literary theory (ancient and modern) and the theory and practice of world literature. His major areas of research interest are in the literatures of Ancient Greece and Rome, pre-Tang Chinese literature (i.e. before AD 600), as well as current debates about world literature. His first book, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China: Patterns of Literary Circulation was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. He was the recipient of a Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship in the Humanities from the American Council of Learned Societies for the 2011-12 academic year for work on his second book, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day. (Verso, January 2015). His current projectt, A Global History of Literature, is under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press. He is also the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Comparative Literature Association.


    Presentation ID# 6723: From Memorization to Production: The Changing Role of Poetry as Cultural Capital in the Formation of Shi Identity

    Uffe Bergeton (

    University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

    MLA Member

    Expertise and Scholarship: Professor Bergeton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a historian of early China with a focus on pre-Qin (i.e. pre-221 BCE) society and thought. He did research in formal linguistics before embarking on a career in early Chinese studies, linguistic theories and methodologies continue to inform my approach to the study of the pre-Qin period. Currently he is working on a book in which he uses lexical changes to trace the emergence of proto-anthropological concepts in the Warring States period (481-221 BCE). His research projects also include early Chinese theories of epistemology and reclusion, as well as comparisons between pre-Qin China and ancient Greece.


    Presentation ID# 6725: New Media and New Audience: A Case Study of Yu Xin’s Landscape Inscriptions in the North

    Chao Ling (

    Yale U

    MLA Member

    Expertise and Scholarship: Chao Ling received his B.A. from Peking University in 2009, and M.A. from Columbia University in 2011. Currently at Yale he is working on his Ph.D. dissertation about Yu Xin’s inscriptional writings, in which he conducts an interdisciplinary research with literary and art historical approaches.


    Presentation ID# 6724: The Tragedy of Formalism: Yu Xin’s ‘Lament for the Southland’ and the End of Six Dynasties Literature

    Nicholas Morrow Williams (

    U of Hong Kong

    MLA Member

    Expertise and Scholarship: Nicholas Morrow Williams is assistant professor of Chinese literature in the School of Chinese, University of Hong Kong, and the editor of Tang Studies. His research concerns the development of classical Chinese poetry from the Chuci anthology to Jao Tsung-i.


    Organizer and Presider

    Benjamin Ridgway (

    Swarthmore C

    MLA Member

    Expertise and Scholarship: Benjamin Ridgway is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Chinese at the Swarthmore College. His research interests lie in Classical Chinese Poetry; Life and Poetry of Su Shi; Travel Literature; Urban Space in pre-14th cent. literary texts; and Word and Image Relationships in Chinese Poetry and Painting. His articles have been published in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, and ReviewsFrontiers of Literary Studies in China; the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, and in the volume, Senses of the City: Perceptions of Hangzhou & Southern Song China (CUHK Press, 2017). He co-authored an on-line bibliography on the great poet “Su Shi” for Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies with over five hundred entries.


    Abstracts of presentations:

    First, in his paper “How ‘Early’ is Early China?” Dr. Alexander BEECROFT reappraises the meaning and utility of the category of “Early Chinese Literature.” Based on ongoing archaeological discoveries and the increasingly sophisticated techniques used to date texts with complex histories, such as the Lunyu, he contends that the category of “Early Chinese Literature” might be said to be on the point of collapse. His presentation shows that many of the “Early” texts we know are in fact products of Han (206 BCE-220 CE), or sometimes later, invention, and that those later texts only indirectly echo an earlier literary world. While scholarship on the texts themselves generally reflects these ongoing shifts in understanding, the periodization remains largely unchallenged in broader contexts. He cautions that the literary history of the Han can also be misrepresented as largely about the texts which originate in the Han and not about the “Early” texts whose shaping into their enduring forms is in fact a key achievement of the Han. He concludes with the counter-argument that “Early Chinese” literary history should be characterized as primarily a period of free-floating textual fragments, deployed for various purposes, and only organized into coherent texts and genres at a later date.


    Next Dr. Uffe BERGETON continues the conversation on transitions in Early Chinese literary history through his exploration of the central role played by poetry in the articulation of shi 士 identity in his paper, “From Memorization to Production: The Changing Role of Poetry as Cultural Capital in the Formation of Shi 士 Identity.” The main argument of Dr. Bergeton’s paper is that the transition in the modes of composing fu poetry both reflect and inform the changes in the shi 士 identity over the long duration of the in the third and second centuries BCE. His analysis focuses on the development of fu poetry, from its early precursors in the Xunzi and the Chuci down to the peak of its development in the work of Han poets such as Sima Xiangru 司馬相如 (BCE 179-117), and Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53 BCE – 18 CE). He holds that the change in shi 士 identity in the Early period was triggered by the increasing meritocratization of government bureaucracy, reflected in the shift from passive memorization to active production of poetry. He shows that the development of the ostentatiously learned style characteristic of fu poetry over the period from the late Warring States period to the mid-Han can be seen as a reflection of the increasingly important role for the shi 士 class of “self-fashioned identity” compared with “birth-determined identity” in the same period.  He further concludes that the evolution of the early Western Han sao-fu of Jia Yi into the fully-fledged palace fu (or Han fu) of Sima Xiangru manifests the institutionalization of shi identity, gradually introduced through the incipient formalization of the system of recruitment for higher offices in the government and the legal codification of the relationship between ruler and minister.


    The next two papers bring us to the end of the Six Dynasties period and consider different literary genres composed by the transitional poet Yu Xin 庾信 (513–581) as both the culmination of literary formalism and as the avatar for a new cultural synthesis of northern and southern cultural trends on the eve of the Sui dynasty reunification. Dr. Nicholas Williams MORROW’S paper, “The Tragedy of Formalism: Yu Xin’s ‘Lament for the Southland’ and the End of Six Dynasties Literature,” focuses on Yu Xin’s epic “Ai Jiangnan fu” 哀江南賦 (Lament for the Southland) which implicitly blamed the fall of the Liang dynasty on the scholarly and religious interests of its rulers. Dr. Morrow argues that although Yu Xin’s fu anticipate the archaicist (fugu 復古) critique of Tang Confucian thinkers; yet significantly Yu does not voice objections to Six Dynasties literature per se, nor advocate a return to the literary style of the ancients. Instead, Dr. Morrow holds that the style of the fu represents the absolute culmination of Six Dynasties formalism, employing isocolon, allusion, periphrasis, apophasis, metonymy, inversion, and ellipsis, all in such lavish density that energetic debate over the intention between key lines in the poem continues even today. He concludes that Yu Xin’s great poem thus showed that Six Dynasties formalism had reached its limits; Tang writers were then forced to seek out entirely new values for literary production. While the Sui and early Tang would maintain some features of Six Dynasties literary production, Yu Xin’s fu already marks the transition to a new epoch.


    Finally, in his paper “New Media and New Audience: A Case Study of Yu Xin’s Landscape Inscriptions in the North,” Ph.D. candidate Chao LING reveals the important stylistic changes that the literary works of Yu Xin, a prestigious poet originally from the southern Liang court, underwent after his detainment in the Northern Zhou. Specifically, utilizing an interdisciplinary approach combining studies of poetry and art history, he examines Yu Xin’s inscription about Mount Zhongnan終南山, arguing that the culture of stele production, then extremely popular in the Northern Zhou court, helped realize this stylistic change in his poetic writing. While acknowledging that Yu Xin perfected his poetic skills in the southern court and became an iconic court poet there, Chao Ling argues that scholars have neglected to examine how Yu Xin’s move to the north, the influence of north-centric views of legitimacy based on geographical occupation of central plains, and the popularity of landscape steles in the north all blended into his poetic writing and thereby produced a new cultural synthesis. Chao’s paper breaks new ground by showing that the move north for Yu Xin resulted in a major twofold poetic transition for Yu Xin: in the material form of poetic transmission, Yu Xin shifted from paper to stone and in political context, his status pivoted from serving as a central figure at the heart of a regional southern Chinese court to become an important contributor to the narrative of legitimacy for the Northern Zhou in a non-Chinese court. Chao thus concludes that Yu Xin’s landscape stele inscriptions, therefore, provide a rare chance for us to observe how one very important poet dealt with changes of genre and audience.

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