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Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic By Paul Manfredi

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Modern Poetry in China:

binary system—alternating in “black” and “white” or void/substance 虛 / 實 (xu / shi) in Chinese aesthetics—the myriad iteration of individual difference is manifest in every specific instance of shade, line thickness, and of course whole calligraphic performance, whether it be of a poem or any other graphic text. In reading calligraphically executed work, one reads a principle (li 理) or pattern that emanates from the phenomenal world, whether formed or naturally occurring.8 By the time writing with a brush was well established in China (third century), the very notion of what it means to write had come to possess cultural implications fully spanning social-political, philosophical, and aesthetic realms. The movement of brush across writing surface had come to suggest a sort of legible humanity in the loftiest sense, an aesthetic accord of human and heavenly principle (dao 道) that are forever inseparable.9 As Fong put it, the traces of the artist are always present in the calligraphic work, such that the subject is always to some extent “the brush as an extension of the calligrapher's own body.” (ibid., 5).

The connection between calligraphy and poetry is also fairly obvious given that the performance of poetic expression insofar as it was not simply oral was carried out with a calligraphic brush in hand. Indeed, the “calligraphy sage” Wang Xizhi’s 王羲之 (303–361) oft-cited “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” 蘭亭序 (Lanting xu), a 324-word essay, was composed at the conclusion of a poetry competition among friends. Wang’s work marks a high point of poetic-calligraphic achievement and is still referred to in all calligraphy manuals and histories. In the centuries following, calligraphy and poetry developed in tandem, a verbal and visual art that, particularly when coupled with landscape painting, amounted to the highest form of cultural expression in China, the very mark of literati culture. Meanwhile, intersections of poetic and visual practice evolved in various ways. Among them, poetic discourse concerning visual art is discernable in the centuries following the Han dynasty, specifically in the huaming 畫名 and huazan 畫贊 genres. These in turn are precursors to the ekphrastic poetry—tihuashi 題畫詩—that developed during the Tang dynasty, notably by the twin towers of