China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The Tang has been widely celebrated as a prosperous age of poetic composition. Yet in the meantime, the commentaries and criticisms produced in the Tang have also shaped the way poetry is composed and read thereafter. In the case of “Poetry on Historical Themes” (yongshi shi), a major subgenre of classical poetry as conceived today, the Tang is a significant period to define its nature and scope.
This paper investigates the configuration of yongshi as a poetic category in the Tang with the example of poems on “three good man” by Wang Can (177-217) and Cao Zhi (192-232) collected under the subtitle of yongshi in the Selections of Refined Literature. The Five Official commentary in the Tang invariably grants a topical and personal value to these poems by anchoring them in a specific moment in the poets’ personal lives. As a result, yongshi shi as a category comes to bear the function of history (to offer moral judgment) and poetry (for self-expression) at once. The moral lessons told in these poems are two-fold—one about the antiquity recounted in the poem and one about the poet’s own time. An examination of the two poems, however, shows that the identified personal and topical value fits less well with the poems than with the stereotypical images of the poets and their age. The strong urge to historicize the yongshi shi for two-fold moral lessons is rooted in the exegetical tradition of the Odes and the Tang literary and historical thought.