Tuesday, January 19

Homework #2 is due at the start of class today.

Reading assignment:  The Legendary Emperors; Verses From the Book of Poetry

Supplements: Key Names in the Classical Account of the Distant Past; Early Interpretations of the Book of Poetry

Tuesday's agenda has two items:  the Classical era story of the origins of China's patterned civilization, and a fundamental emblem of that culture:  its poetry.

I.  The first of Tuesday's readings is an account of the earliest rulers of China, rulers of enormous wisdom, morality, and power.  Towering heroes of the past, whose only defect is that they did not exist -- they are legends.  But for the people of the Classical era, they were real, and so, in our effort to adopt the perspective of the Classical age, they will be important for us.  Begin by noting the lists of names and questions.  The narrative of the legendary emperors includes a series of figures, but the emperors who will be key for us will include: 1) The Yellow Emperor, 2) Yao, 3) Shun, 4) Yu.  Each of these figures stands for important aspects of culture creation in early China; we will look closely at the stories of the first three to pinpoint just what these were.  To help keep these legendary rulers straight, a supplementary sheet of names is linked above.

I don't intend to lecture about the legendary emperors at all -- this seems to me a very straightforward reading. (I recognize it is dry -- there is no need for you to read closely details such as the genealogical lists embedded in the account: the task here is not memorization of details, but an understanding of the basic story line of traditional legend.) 

II.  The poetry of the distant past is not dry or straightforward - the challenge is reading it with an eye attentive enough to see both the picture of the past it may convey, and to understand that Classical era patricians saw quite a different picture.  Our text here is the canonical Book of Poetry, a collection that was compiled during the Western Zhou (1045-771) and early Spring and Autumn eras, probably reaching its present form by approximately 600.  We have seen, in the story of Han Qi, which supposedly recounts events of 526, that the patrician courtiers of early Classical China had not only memorized these songs, but had learned how to use them to convey subtle messages in ritually heightened settings, such as court diplomacy.  The poems were, in this way, essential elements of Classical culture.  

In this regard, the poems function on at least three levels for us:  (1) The poems, read in their original contexts, capture some facet of early Chinese social, religious, or moral life, often facets of everyday life (love, courtship, marriage, farming, war) which we know little about from other sources. (2) Each poem was taught and learned with a culturally sanctioned interpretation, known to all who recited or heard the poem.  Understanding a poem means knowing something about its canonical interpretation.  (3) Each poem was used in certain specific types of contexts -- some were performed as parts of set rituals at court, ancestral temple, or village hall; others were employed as more often for the type of discursive interplay that we see in the Han Qi tale.  

In class, we will be concerned principally with (1) and (2).  We will look at a few of the poems closely, in order to answer questions of the type posed at the end of the reading (especially #1 and #3; please also give attention to the remarks about Granet's theories on p. 4). 

We will contrast the straightforward reading of the poems that we will do with the culturally sanctioned interpretations that constrained the way these poems were read during the Classical era.  These readings, which often map the meaning of a poem against the background of the legendary history of sage rulers, gave the poems a highly politicized moral slant.  These interpretations are now preserved in "prefaces" which appear before each poem in the Book of Poetry - a sample of the prefaces is given in the supplement to the Poetry reading.

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