Friday, January 13, 2017

Mountains and forests and the marshy banks of rivers

'The four seasons move on in their lush cycles; but stillness of heart is important for them to enter into a writer's meditations.  However opulent and dense the sensuous colors of physical things may be, their expression in language demands succinctness.  They will produce a flavor in the writing that floats above the world; it will make the circumstances glow and be always new. [...]  Mountains and forests and the marshy banks of rivers are indeed the mysterious treasuries of literary thought.  Yet if the words are too brief, the description will lack something; and if it is too detailed, it will be too lush.'
- Liu Xie (c. 465-522), The Literary Mind Carves Dragons, Chapter 46, on 'The Sensuous Colors of Physical Things', trans. Stephen Owen.
This comes from the first book-length study of literature in Chinese, written in the Southern Qi (Ch'i) period (479-502) by Liu Xie (Liu Hsieh), a Buddhist scholar who came from what is now Jiangsu Province.  A translation of the whole book was recently republished in NYRB's Calligrams series.  In the chapter on 'The Sensuous Colors of Physical Things' Liu discusses nature poetry, beginning with the turn of the seasons - the ease of spring, the lushness of summer, the high, clear skies of autumn and the frosts of winter.  'The year has its physical things, and these things have their appearances; by these things our feelings are changed, and from our feelings comes language.'

Liu praises the compressed imagery of the Classic of Poetry (c. 600 BCE) where simple phrases like "gleaming sun" 'give the natural principle in its entirety.'  He then moves forward in time to the late third century BCE and mentions the more extensive treatment of things in Qu Yuan's Li Sao ('Encountering Sorrow'), where descriptions are piled on top of each other.  Then, 'by the time we get to Sima Xiangru [c. 179 – 117 BCE] and those around him, the scope of mountains and waters was displayed with bizarre momentum and outlandish sounds, and characters were strung together like fish.'  Twentieth century Chinese critics shared this negative view of the Han Dynasty's ornate fu poetry, of which Sima was the greatest exponent.  In Liu's own day, he writes, the best poets have achieved a balance by attending to the world, 'sculpting' the landscape, delineating details but with no need of additional embellishment.

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