(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

As a point of departure for his consideration of the experience of the past in classical Chinese literature, Stephen Owen proposes some basic differences between the Chinese and Western literary traditions. Both have sought “to perpetuate the self of the good writer,” but whereas the Western tradition has aimed merely to transmit the author’s identity—his name—the Chinese tradition has attempted to bestow on the reader “the very ’content’ of the self.” Further, the Chinese writer has tended to be much concerned with his relationship to the past. Indeed, this concern has amounted to a contract that he has made with the future: “As I remember, so may I hope to be remembered.” This thought, Owen notes, has been invariably tempered by “the fear of loss and some illegible fading away” that has darkened the writer’s hopefulness.

Chinese and Western conceptions of the nature of language and art have also differed significantly. The latter has seen the word as representative of what it signifies and art as a copy or imitation of the forms and acts of nature. The Western image of literature, says Owen, is the emblematic “figure of Truth wearing a veil,” the body of meaning being covered by some transparency that both “conceals and reveals.” Thus, the main Western trope has been the metaphor, which tells the truth under the guise of a lie. In contrast, the Chinese have seen literature under the emblematic figure of Memory, as it were, an expression of things worth remembering, a method of transmitting the ideals of the past. The principal Chinese trope, then, according to Owen, is the synecdoche, by which a part suggests a whole and which commonly amounts to some enduring fragment that prompts a reconstruction of a lost totality. This tradition, Owen says, “carries the same force as the attention to meaning or truth in the Western tradition.”

Owen implies that all literary texts are made from previous texts. The most seminal texts in China differ markedly from such texts in the West. In the latter tradition, the Bible has proven the archetypal text, but many secular texts have been almost equally seminal. Owen cites some Chinese texts which from early times continually seeded the classical tradition: Shu Ching (book of documents); Shih Ching (book of songs); Ch’un-ch’iu (spring and autumn annals); Tso chuan (Tso narrative); Lun-yü (The Analects); and Chung-yung (The Doctrine of the Mean). Apart from these Confucian classics, various Chinese authors have proven inspiring: Chuang-tzu, T’ao Ch’ien, Ou-yang Hsiu, Tu Fu, Li Po, and Po Chü-yi, not to mention others. To know any text properly, one must know those texts that figured in its makeup. This view has little to do with “sources” but, rather, with a set of relations which the text under consideration has with other texts. The track, or wake, of a text contains traces—Owen calls them “ghosts,” bits and pieces of history, ideas, beliefs, rituals, customs, and codes—whose implications a reader must follow if he is to expand the text’s fragmentariness. Owen illustrates this relation of the text with its intertext—although he does not use this word—by an explication of Tu Fu’s poem “Meeting Li Kueinien in the Southland.” He shows that its poetry is not to be found in its words but in the spaces surrounding them.

Owen’s conception of the past is that it is “some fullness that is over and gone, something that survives only metonymically—in texts, shards, and memories.” Such a view leads one to reflect on the continuity of civilization, the possibilities of its transmission, and the feasibility of perpetuating a self which, although valued by Confucianism, is regarded as illusory by Taoism and Buddhism.

Owen examines some ways in which Chinese writers have responded to the past. He cites selected texts and interprets them to explain the issues involved in their making. These issues may be summarized as the idea of erasure; memories of the dead; natural versus moral necessity; fragments that mediate between the past and the present; the misuse of the past; memory and repetition; memory and art; and self-identity and nonattachment. Owen does not intend to write an orderly history—he simply wants to tell the story of how the Chinese have remembered things. Although his method is critical, his aim is pleasure.

The word “erasure” means rubbing, scraping, crossing, or blotting out all the visible traces of something. Owen sees nature as erasing the individual in the cyclical process of life and death, but he also applies the word to a certain kind of writing: “the forceful writing of loss, absence, and rejection.” Since, he says, “we crave to ’be’—in body, in works, in writing—we can never view such erasures dispassionately, as mere blank space.” He recognizes that it is a common human sentiment to feel sorrow and dismay at the “erasure” of the individual—the inevitable disappearance into the collective anonymity of natural repetition. In reaction, he suggests, we seek to detect the traces of what we know was there in an effort to fill in the blanks.

The Chinese have always been wedded to a past golden age, the age of the sage-kings, those “makers” who created the basics of Chinese civilization. Since “making” belonged to the sage-kings, to the Chinese “transmission” became “the task of the best of the later-born, of hsien, ’those with virtue.’” Hence contracts of remembrance bound Chinese civilization together through time. Transmission was viewed not simply as a duty but as the centerpiece of civilization.

As a transmitter rather than a maker, Confucius reminds us of the fragility of things—how they are “subject to erasure unless tended with constant care.” To support this contention, Owen cites and interprets several works: Meng Chiao’s poem from his series “Autumn Meditations”; Mao Ch’ang’s preface to his commentary on Shih Ching and the song “There the Millet Is Lush”; a prose excerpt from the Tsin History on the memorial stone erected on Mount Hsien in honor of the local governor Yang Hu; Mêng Hao-jan’s poem “Climbing Mount Hsien with Others”; and Ou-yang Hsiu’s prose piece “A Record of the Pavilion on Mount Hsien.” Owen shows how each of these writers displays his own particular sensitivity to the idea of erasure.

In respect to human memory of the dead, Owen notes how the living tend to feel a certain kinship with as well as sorrow for the dead. He examines the memories of the dead expressed by several Chinese writers: Chuang-tzu’s anecdote concerning his confrontation with a skull (from the eighteenth chapter of the Chuang-tzu); Chang Heng’s Tu-lou fu (prose-poem on the solitary skull; translated by Arthur Waley as “The Bones of Chuang Tzu”); Hsieh Hui-lien’s report “Ancient Tomb: Ceremonial Address to the Dead”; and Wang Shou-jen’s prose piece Yi-lü wen (“Burial on the Road”).

In all four of the above works, Owen finds an irony underlying the surface meaning—a concealed meaning that undermines and destroys the apparent theme of the author and suggests an opposite conclusion. Such contradictions in the writing process are the stuff of deconstruction, but Owen does not invoke this fashionable term. In the case of Chuang-tzu, Chang Heng, and Hsieh Hui-lien, this “deconstructive” process is apparently under the conscious control of the writer, but that appears not to be so with Wang Shou-jen (better known as Wang Yang-ming).

The problem of natural versus moral necessity has been treated frequently in Chinese literature, especially in elegiac poetry. Owen contrasts the treatments of this theme in the Chinese and the Western traditions. The concept of tragedy has figured prominently in the West, where the emphasis has been placed on the limit of human power and on human moral deficiency in the form of a tragic flaw, or hamartia, in a character. Tragedy in this sense has no important status in Chinese literature. In early China, amoral necessity was linked to the impersonal forces of nature, while later, its more subtle operations were called ming (fate), a concept derived from a refined physics. This latter view recognized not merely a certain determinism but also the freedom of the natural world as manifested in chance or accident. Nevertheless, many Chinese also paid tribute to a moral as well as a natural mechanism, uniting these incompatible concepts under the term Tien (Heaven). Owen points out that such an attempted linkage excluded freedom from the natural world and gave to moral necessity “an exclusive, but problematic, home in the human world.” He notes that one of the main concerns of the Chinese has been the effort to reconcile these “two irreconcilable forces.” He illustrates his contention by citing and interpreting Tu Mu’s poem “Red Cliff” and Pao Chao’s fu “The Wind Covered City.” The first is a recollection of the battle that took place in 208 c.e. at Red Cliff, a site on the Yangtze River not far from Hangchow; the second recalls the splendor of the old city of Kuang-ling, which was sacked in 459 c.e..

Owen discusses the significance of fragments as they are related to some whole. He is interested in fragments that mediate between the past and the present. The significance of a fragment differs according to whether it has an identity or is anonymous. A skull that is a memento mori is a metonymy...

(The entire section is 3958 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Choice. XXIV, September, 1986, p. 134.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, July 16, 1986, p. 19.

Los Angeles Times. April 30, 1986, V, p. 10.