The Chinese Lyric Sequence: Poems, Paintings, Anthologies

by Joseph R. Allen


This book is the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Professor Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

Classical Chinese poetry is the dominating lyric form of world literature. Mainstream shi (lyric poetry) is a genre spanning more than two millennia, with poems numbering in the hundreds of thousands—extant shi from the medieval Tang dynasty alone consists of 48,000 poems by 2,200 authors. In these thousands of poems are some of the world’s more enduring examples of the short occasional poem, inspiring readers and writers across the globe with its vivid language of perspicuity. And embedded within that great lyric tradition, from its very beginnings to contemporary times, is the subtle but unsung form of the sequence of poems. Along with its related meta-forms of the literary anthology and album of paintings, this forms the Chinese lyric sequence.

The Chinese lyric sequence was never named or even noticed, by the poets, painters, or anthologists who worked in the genre over the millennia. It was an invisible but powerful form; in fact, Professor Joseph Allen argues that its power was lies in its invisible hold on the artists. Although the works discussed are some of the most canonical in the tradition, this is the first time that close attention and detailed analysis has been brought to the Chinese lyric sequence, both in its specific manifestations and as a shared aesthetic form. In doing so, Allen provides a focused introduction to Chinese literature and art for the general reader, while offering new insights for the specialist.

The works discussed include liturgical hymns, risqué folk songs, religious poems cast in dramatic forms, sensuous songs of the seasons, dense ponderings of personal travail, intimate landscape and figural paintings, and important collections that give them form. Despite the diversity of these works, Allen offers an abiding rationale for understanding all of them in the rubric of the Chinese lyric sequence, providing an original protocol for reading. This interpretation derives from deep Chinese cultural norms, such as parallel structures, significant numbers, and the interweaving of modes of understanding, but each example offers its special manifestation of those norms.

Allen places the genre in a comparative perspective with both Japanese and Western models, using theoretical language derived from the Chinese lyric tradition itself. All poems are provided in original and translation, with extensive contextual notes and detailed readings. Examples of paintings are provided, including one complete album.

This book is a valuable resource for scholars and students in Asian studies, comparative literature, and Chinese literature.


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