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Nicholas Morrow Williams on The Fu Genre of Imperial China

When people hear “Chinese poetry,” they often think of a brief, imagistic poem about nature, like Wang Wei’s famous “Deer Fence”: “In the empty mountains, no one to be seen . . .” And there’s no doubt that this type of poetry has been particularly influential and well-received in modern times. When we look further, though, it turns out that Chinese literature in its long history has contained many quite different types of poetry as well, from romantic dramas to philosophical expositions. My edited volume The Fu Genre of Imperial China: Studies in the Rhapsodic Imagination highlights one of the most important of these genres.

The fu 賦 or “rhapsody” is a type of poem that tends to be relatively long and intricate. Even its name is hard to translate or find any equivalent for in English, which is why our volume for the most part simply romanizes the term directly as “fu.” In spite of the challenges in approaching, though, the fu is indispensable to understanding the cultural history of imperial China, though. In the early dynasties, it was one of the main genres composed at court for the entertainment of princes and emperors; in the later dynasties, it was often required as part of the civil service examinations, and the ability to compose a fu was a sine qua non for the literati.

Moreover, some of the literary works from China’s premodern culture that have won enduring popularity lasting even up to today also happen to be fu. The image on the cover, for instance, is a Southern Song painting depicting the subject of Su Shi’s (1037–1101) great “Rhapsody on the Red Cliff” 赤壁賦. This is a poem that uses the spontaneous occasion of an outing with friends:

The moon rose up over the hills in the  East,

And between Dipper and Ox it lingered  high;

A white dew covered the Yangtze’s  face,

And a watery sheen had filled the  sky.

to reflect on the famous battle of the Red Cliff, when Cao Cao (155–220) was defeated in his attempt to unify the Three Kingdoms. Finally Su ponders the fundamental question of what survives in spite of the inexorable passage of time

Thus examining them from the viewpoint of what changes,

All of Heaven and Earth cannot endure even a moment  long;

But examining them from the viewpoint of what does not change,

Both these things and myself are never altogether  gone.

In the introduction to the book, I use this poem to introduce the four key themes that structure the remaining chapters, all of which are fundamental to any discussion of the fu.

The first is “recitation and display.” The fu originates as a court performance piece that uses verbal dexterity and ornate language to impress its audience. In our book, Su Jui-lung shows that this etymological sense of “recitation” is essential for understanding the fu genre, while Shih Hsiang-lin brings to life the use of fu poetry as a means of social exchange in the Jian’an period (196–220).

The second is “lyricism and form.” Though the fu is distinct from shorter, lyrical poems in the Chinese tradition, there is also much interaction between them, an issue which Cheng Zhangcan surveys in his authoritative study of “the assimilation and dissimilation” of the two genres. Meanwhile, Casey Schoenberger offers a ground-breaking essay on the rhapsodies of late-Ming writer Xu Wei, showing how they exemplify the tensions between “catalogue and critique, lyricism and logic” that are typical of their period.

Third is “philosophy and dialogue.” This section of the book examines some of the aspects that make the fu such a strong counterexample to any preconception of Chinese poetry as being limited to concrete images from nature. To the contrary, these two chapters look at fu poetry that is dedicated to more abstract topics, and depicts them using dialogues among multiple speakers. My own essay looks at the Daoist and Buddhist content of the “metaphysical” (i.e. xuanyan 玄言) fu of the Six Dynasties period, while Robert Neather presents the philosophical reflections of mid-Tang writer Li Guan.

Finally, no study of the fu would be complete without some attention to its political messages. Though this comes up in the previous chapters, it is the last two essays that focus on this critical issue. Since its origins in the Han dynasty, one recurring topic of debate has been whether the fu genre is essentially frivolous entertainment, or whether its elaborate  content conceals political messages intended to offer indirect advice to the ruler. Y. Edmund Lien convincingly analyzes a Han fu by Zhang Heng (78–139), and by close analysis of its astronomical references, shows that the celestial journey in the poem conceals a hidden message for the emperor. Finally, Cheng Yu-yu’s magisterial study of 17th-century fu discourse shows how the fu tradition became the fulcrum of a multi-sided debate about complicity and resistance during the Manchu conquest.

The fu tradition is a huge corpus accumulated over two millennia, and this volume makes no attempt to be comprehensive; instead, we have tried to offer new angles and approaches that show how fu poetry has been intricately related to so many other dimensions of Chinese cultural history. We look forward to seeing how others respond to and build on our own forays into this subject.

by Nicholas Morrow Williams