Despite the marked influence of Chinese poetry on that of the West in modern times, this book is the first full-length critical study of any major period of Chinese poetry to appear in a Western language. The period here dealt with is neither ancient China nor the medieval T’ang dynasty, from which the most numerous and most familiar previous translations have been drawn, but the era of the Sung dynasty (960–1279), of which the culture and thought were much more complex and “modern.”
The West is fairly familiar with many aspects of Sung civilization—the superb paintings and porcelains, the political and economic experiments, the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism. One vital manifestation of the Sung spirit has remained little studied—its enormous corpus of poetry. Though poets were far more numerous and prolific than their predecessors in any period of Chinese history, only the most famous of them, Su Tung-p’o, has been extensively written about and translated. In recent years attention has been paid to the tz’u lyrics of this period, but Sung accomplishments in the traditional shih form, which remained dominant, have been too long overshadowed by the brilliant T’ang poets who brought this form to classical perfection.
Though often taking its inspiration from T’ang poetry, Sung verse at its best is no mere imitation of its predecessors but a distinct literary development, exploring directions which T’ang writers had shunned or ignored, and striving deliberately for new effects and values. The most significant Sung poets were closer to concerns of daily life and society as a whole; they expressed a wider if less intense view of life and were more explicit in their philosophical ideas. They often had a more astringent, more “modern” tone, and in their diction some made use of colloquialisms and even slang. There may be found deliberate juxtapositions of classicism and vulgarity suggestive of a Laforgue or Eliot.
Kojiro Yoshikawa, one of the world’s outstanding scholars of Chinese literature, begins with an introduction describing the Sung cultural and literary milieu and the salient characteristics of the poetry it produced. He proceeds to discussions of the various schools and of individual poets both major and minor, pointing out their influences on each other. Numerous poems are cited throughout—many here appearing in English for the first time—to illustrate literary, biographical, or social points.
The author wrote this recent study for the Japanese public—which, although more familiar with Chinese poetry than most Western readers, generally needs more explication and background than Chinese scholars give in a book of this sort for their own people. It is thus particularly useful in a version accessible to non-Asians.