Poetics of Miscellaneousness in Southern Song


A review of The Poetics of Miscellaneousness: The Literary Design of Liu Yiqing’s Qiantang Yishi and the Historiography of the Southern Song, by Gang Liu.

Gang Liu’s dissertation, The Poetics of Miscellaneousness: The Literary Design of Liu Yiqing’s Qiantang Yishi and the Historiography of the Southern Song, is an ambitious structural analysis of the Yuan biji 筆記 (“literally, brush notes” [p. 2]) text Qiantang yishi 錢塘遺事 (“Anecdotes of Qiantang”), by Liu Yiqing 劉一清 (ca. early 14th c.). Biji, Liu writes, is “a type of Chinese literature… whose miscellaneous content, accommodative structure, and flexible form often challenge our very conception of literary genre itself” (p. 2). Liu’s thorough introduction details the evolution of the biji genre in China and reviews scholarship in both China and the West; in his discussion of biji, Liu quotes Christian de Pee that the genre “stands in an implied contrast with a stabilizing center of imperial power, legitimate genres of written composition, and enduring civilization.” Liu points out that biji traditionally have been understood only as historical texts, and remarks that the special “literary qualities” (p. 30) of biji have mostly been ignored.

After his excellent introduction, Liu’s first chapter, “The Enabling Conditions of the Texts,” investigates Southern Song history, seeking out historical conditions “through which the making and reading of the text of Qiantang yishi become possible” (p. 36). In successive sections, Liu finds the Southern Song’s “weakness” (p. 43), the pervasiveness of the binary “war and peace” (p. 51), the “encroachment” of “barbarous” peoples (p. 58), the “enticing beauty” of Hangzhou (p. 65), and finally Southern Song “loyalism” (p. 73) as the primary historical factors in the creation of Qiantang yishi. In addition to providing historical context for Qiantang yishi, Liu also locates the text within “the biji heritage” (p. 75) of the Song dynasty. Liu recognizes three different categories of biji compilations that influenced Qiantang yishi: biji “that focus on urban life, social activities, and customs” (p. 75), biji that “focus on government officials, court politics, and dynastic histories” (p. 77), and biji that are “of a more miscellaneous nature” (p. 79).

This thorough contextualization sets up Chapter 2, “Formless Form,” where Liu invokes Linda Chance from Formless in Form: Kenkō, Tzurezuregusa, and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), particularly her explanation that Japanese readers came to read Yoshida Kenkō’s 吉田兼好 (ca. 1283 – ca. 1350) Tsurezuregusa 徒然草 (“Essays in Idleness”) as a text constructed purposefully without a “planned form, consistency in style, or unity in theme” (Liu, p. 83). This reading inspires Liu’s analysis of the Qiantang yishi as a “formless form,” a term which Liu borrows from Chance. Chance writes:

“The formless text is not the text without form for such is ultimately inconceivable insofar as language is the medium of its being. The formless text has reality and that substance is structured, but the contingency of that structure is exposed to view. These moves commend interpretation to the hands of readers who must more than ever assume the burden of untangling the disparities. Furthermore, this is not an unconscious accomplishment of the writer, who provides for the confusion within an aesthetic scheme of imbalance and discontinuity. In order to transmit the message of formlessness, the author must allow the reader to participate in its creation. Without the writer, there would be no such content, no such form, but without an audience, the content could not be enacted effectively.” (Quoted in p. 84)

Liu argues that this “aesthetic scheme of imbalance and discontinuity” is a conscious accomplishment of author Liu Yiqing. Yet he adds further layers of “imbalance” to his analysis when he later questions the role of Liu Yiqing as “author” of Qiantang yishi. First referencing Michel Foucault’s well-known article “What is an Author?”, Liu problematizes Liu Yiqing’s status both as writer and as author, claiming that “in the case of Qiantang yishi, the person may borrow materials from other sources, but artfully rearrange them so that the borrowed materials start to acquire a new structure and meaning in the new context,” thereby “exemplify[ing] a direction of development between writing and compiling” (p. 116). Liu postulates that Liu Yiqing can be considered the “author” of Qiantang yishi, as Liu Yiqing was “like those creative writers of traditional Chinese fiction, who transformed texts originally not belonging to them into their own through rewriting” (p. 117). Finally Liu expands the text’s “formless form” to its final dimension by questioning Qiantang yishi’s status as historical narrative, claiming that “the text… represents an indispensable stage of intermediacy in our historical perception and conception, in which our knowledge and judgment of history is taking shape but still remains malleable” (p. 128).

Having established the historiographical malleability of Qiantang yishi, Liu returns to a close reading of the text in Chapter 3, “A Symphony of Discordance.” Liu separates Qiantang yishi into four sections: Chapter One, Chapters Two through Six, Chapters Four through Seven, and finally Chapters Seven through Chapter Nine. Liu argues that in the first section, two discourses persist in the text’s treatment of the Southern Song capital, Lin’an 臨安 (modern day Hangzhou): the discourse of fengshui  風水 (geomancy) and that of shanshui 山水 (landscape). Liu claims that Chapter One of the Qiantang yishi is marked by a “constant dialectic” between these two “contrasting discourses” (p. 153). In agreement with the malleability of the text’s historiography, Liu writes that Qiantang yishi is “willing to vacillate between the two [discourses], whereby we learn, “in Barthes’s terms… to appreciate the plural through which the text is constituted” (p. 154).

The second section of Chapter 3 describes what Liu calls a “political trio” (p. 154) of “voices” (p. 184) in the text, occupying Chapters Two through Six of the Qiantang yishi. This “political trio” consists of “emperors,” “domineering ministers at court,” and “regional military commanders” (p. 184). Liu argues that “textual form” (p. 185) matches the thematic message; that just as the “domineering ministers” exhibited increasing influence on Southern Song politics, so do entries concerning them come to dominate the text. Liu calls this “conformity between text and form” (p. 185). In the third section, which addresses Chapters Four through Seven, Liu compares the structure of the text to a “mosaic portrait” (p. 186), where the “grand image of a person is made visible only through the collage of numerous smaller images” (p. 210). The “person” in question is late Southern Song chancellor Jia Sidao 賈似道, (1213–1275). This atomized historical image of Jia Sidao embodies (or disembodies) “the text’s persistent resistance against a finalized or determined form that will either undermine its flexibility or limit its possibility of being read” (p. 210). In the final section of Chapter 3, Liu divides Chapters Seven and Eight of the Qiantang yishi into one group, and Chapter Nine into another. Similar to his argument earlier in the chapter, Liu claims that the “disjointedness” (p. 225) among the entries of Chapters Seven and Eight is analogous to the “overall chaotic picture” (p. 225) the text conveys. Hidden beneath this “disjointedness,” however, is “an implicit spatiotemporal order” (p. 225), where the text’s historical narrative moves southeastward as the Song dynasty collapses. Chapter Nine, however, travels northward, following the surrender of the Southern Song government.

Following this detailed structural analysis, Liu’s final body chapter is Chapter 4, “Poetic Eyes.” The term “poetic eyes” originates in the idiom hualong dianjing 畫龍點睛 (“Dotting in the pupils of a painted dragon” [trans. Liu, p. 240]). The “poetic eyes” of a particular text are the essence of its vitality, “the sources of life of the text, the moments of revelation, and the keys” (p. 242). For Liu, the “poetic eyes” of Qiantang yishi are the poems embedded in the text. The “provocative” (p. 250) poems add layers of interpretation diversifying the reading process. Liu carefully elucidates the dense allegory and intertextuality present in a drinking game of poetry exchange between government officials Jia Sidao, Ma Tingluan 馬廷鸞 (1222-1289), and Ye Mengding 葉夢鼎 (1200-1279). Liu writes that while the “narrative only provides us with a general guideline of what is going on in the story, it is the culturally loaded poems that encourage us to dig deeper and uncover their hidden relevance to the political reality of the past” (p. 270). In the final section of Chapter 3, Liu analyzes three poems by Southern Song poet and statesman Xin Qiji’s 辛棄疾 (1140-1207), claiming that they mimic the “tripartite” (p. 290) structure found in the “political trio” Liu discusses in Chapter 3. Liu writes: “Xin Qiji’s poetic lament over his political and military career has been made to transcend its personal scope and become a condensed version of Southern Song politics” (p. 290).

While Liu primarily takes a structuralist approach to reading Qiantang yishi, he also keeps the instability of structural analysis in mind. In his Afterword, Liu writes:

This dissertation… aims to be a structural analysis of Qiantang yishi, through which I hope to reveal the hidden pattern, form, and meaning that have been buried underneath the text’s apparent miscellaneousness. In trying to achieve this goal, however, I also deconstruct my very structural approach by constantly highlighting those points of inconsistency, uncertainty, or contradiction that challenge my very assumption of the text’s continuity and unity. (p. 291)

Gang Liu’s dissertation is an important analysis of an oft utilized but understudied category of Chinese historical writing, biji. Liu confronts the formidable task of deciphering the “miscellaneousness” of Qiantang yishi, building on the scholarly work of Linda Chance and Christian de Pee, among others. Not only will Liu’s work be useful to Sinologists investigating biji texts, it will also be of much use to anyone interested in Southern Song political and cultural history and in the Song-Yuan transition.

Edwin Van Bibber-Orr
Assistant Professor of Chinese
Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics
Syracuse University

Primary Sources

Han Wei Liuchao biji xiaoshuo da guan 漢魏六朝筆記小說大觀
Qiantang yishi 錢塘遺事
Quan Song biji 全宋筆記
Song Yuan biji xiaoshuo daguan 宋元筆記小說大觀
Tang Wudai biji xiaoshuo daguan 唐五代筆記小說大觀

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan. 2010. 322 pp. Primary Advisor: Shuen-fu Lin.

Image: Qiantang yishi. Chinese Text Project.