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Oldest anthology of Chinese literature continues to inspire

XIE ZONGRUI | 2018-11-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Sun Mingjun (Left) is a professor of literature at the School of Humanities at Tsinghua University.
Liu Zhiwei (Right) is a professor of literature at the School of Literature at Zhengzhou University. He also serves as the deputy director of the Chinese Institute of Wen Xuan Study. Photos: FILE


Wen Xuan, or Selections of Refined Literature, is the oldest surviving anthology of Chinese literature. It is a selection of what were believed to be the best poetic and prose pieces from the late Warring States period (475–221 BCE) to the early Liang Dynasty (502–557). At present, it is a major part of Chinese studies and a research interest of scholars across the world. Why do those centuries-old literary selections remain valuable? How do today’s people understand the ancient writers’ thoughts and aims through reading their works? What are the trends in the study of the great anthology? To answer these questions, a CSST reporter interviewed Sun Mingjun and Liu Zhiwei, two experts on literature in the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties.


CSST: Could you introduce the trends in Wen Xuan study?

Liu Zhiwei: Wen Xuan is dubbed “the crown of all anthologies.” It has been prevalent and hugely impactful since the Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907). The study of the work has lasted through today, becoming a crucial part of traditional Chinese scholarship. The original mindset and rich culture embedded in the anthology influenced the Chinese nation in terms of culture, art and aesthetics. Also, the text’s influence extended to such surrounding regions as Japan and the Korean Peninsula as early as the Tang Dynasty, thus playing a big role in the formation and development of the East Asian cultural sphere.

The systematic compilation and study of such valuable a legacy can be conducted in different ways. Examining how the study of Wen Xuan has changed with the times helps trace the evolution of Chinese literature. The work touches upon some associated fields such as history, philosophy and art. In addition, it provides access to explore China’s aesthetics, culture and values.

Since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the focus of Wen Xuan study has undergone several changes, achieving much despite rough times. The field entered a new stage after the late 1980s. Two global forums on Wen Xuan were held in Changchun, Jilin Province, in 1988 and 1992. The Chinese Institute of Wen Xuan Study, established in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, in 1995, provided a new platform for the research.

At present, studies on the great selections cover a wide range of topics, such as compiler and compilation methods, original compiler Xiao Tong’s preface to Wen Xuan, versions and annotations, writers and their works, genres and literary theories, and comparison between the anthology and its counterparts.


CSST: What are some features of the modern study of Wen Xuan?

Liu Zhiwei: More scholars have broadened their research to integrate with other disciplines such as aesthetics, art and calligraphy, so that the study has made great progress in some marginalized fields. The selection of research material is becoming more abundant. Scholars have started to compile overseas documents and remnants collected in museums. Relics such as epitaphs, seals and genre paintings have been applied in relevant studies.

Meanwhile, methodologies are being innovated as they become more diverse, standard and systematic. Scholars have adopted mature methods from other disciplines to study Wen Xuan, solving a number of problems that were out of reach in the past. These disciplines include archaeology, folklore, calligraphy, meteorology, sociology and economics. The study is gaining mounting attention from global academia. In Japan, Shiba Rokurō, Okamura Shigeru, Shimizu Gaiho and other renowned sinologists started to explore the literary anthology in the early 20th century. Their efforts also promoted the studies within China. Other groups of scholars dedicated to the anthology are from the Republic of Korea and some Western countries. They produced valuable material, making their branch a major part of Chinese studies.


CSST: In your new book Studies on Literature Composed by Nobles in the Southern and Northern Dynasties, you cited the opinion of Japanese sinologist Naito Konan that “the Six Dynasties are the root of Chinese culture.” How do you understand the argument?

Sun Mingjun: Indeed, this argument has had far-reaching impacts on the academic circles of China and Japan. Before answering the question, we need to clarify the concept of the Six Dynasties, because Chinese and Japanese scholars split on its meaning.

Most Japanese scholars hold that the concept of the Six Dynasties refers to the period connecting the Han and Tang dynasties and covers the entire area of the Chinese nation. For Chinese scholars, the Six Dynasties is a term for the particular period of the six regimes who located their capital in Jiankang, today’s Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. The regimes include Wu, Eastern Jin, Song, Qi, Liang and Chen. In this way, Japanese scholars’ definition is broader than that of their Chinese fellows in regard to the scope of history, culture and geography.

Now, let’s look at the view of Naito Konan. In my opinion, he tends to emphasize that the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220–589) paved the way for Chinese culture in the following eras. In other words, the cultural traditions of that period consistently affected Chinese culture since that time. The integration of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism is central to the stance. Buddhism spread to China in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) and it penetrated deep into Chinese civilization during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties. At that time, a saying went that “there were 480 Buddhist temples” in southern China, while a host of Buddhist constructions were built across the country’s northern region, including White Horse Temple, Mogao Grottoes, Yungang Grottoes and Longmen Grottoes. The exclusivity among Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism shifted to a harmonious coexistence and finally reached a form of integration. This tendency has sustained throughout the history of Chinese civilization. Therefore, Naito Konan proposed that “such integration is the foundation of present Chinese culture.”

Chinese scholars have different opinions on Naito Konan’s argument. It is safe to say that Tang poetry and its successors can find their roots in the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties. But when it comes to political mechanisms, the Qin Empire (221–207 BCE) marked the beginning of the autocratic monarchy that has lasted for 2000 years. In terms of thought and philosophy, the doctrines of the pre-Qin philosophers are at the core of Chinese civilization.
However, we should note that Chinese scholars and Naito Konan examine the issue from different perspectives. Their views do not contradict with each other.

CSST: The refinement of the literati of the Six Dynasties reflects the temperament of Chinese culture. Refinement became the life pursuit of the literati of the following eras. What are the core values of their refinement? What lessons can we learn from them?

Sun Mingjun: The temperament of intellectuals in the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties has become an integral part of Chinese culture. We must acknowledge that such temperament is a contradictory lifestyle formed in a period of great turmoil. Literati used it to escape from the great mental pain caused by the precarious environment.

The literati in that era had a good taste for literary creation. Being knowledgeable and agile, they boldly promoted individuality, challenged traditions and broke established rules. These people were free and innocent in their life, having the courage to untether themselves from ethics. In a chaotic period, they didn’t compromise to authorities, remaining true to themselves. Such character not only emancipated the scholars’ thinking, but also contributed to their attitude towards life. They believed what they should do was seize the day. In this context, many of them turned to liquor to paralyze their nerves.

Nowadays, people are struggling with many secular constraints. They can find comfort in the stories of these ancient literati and improve their artistic accomplishment through reading ancient works. The scholars in the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties attached importance to family reputation and the education of later generations. Their adherence to family codes still matters today. Their elegant and refined aesthetic orientation still helps guide current social trends and fashion.

Serving the court or living in seclusion was a major choice for ancient Chinese scholars. The choice directly related to how they achieved value in life, made a living and dealt with their relationship with society and nature. Most scholars would choose to become officials, while only a few would live the secluded life. For those who served the court, they may have had the intention deep in their mind to retire and go back to nature someday. At the same time, those staying away from the secular world probably harbored the ambition for a successful career. Seclusion and bureaucracy both supplied ancient scholars with abundant themes and inspirations. Today, readers often reflect on these works and the experiences of their creators.


(edited by MA YUHONG)