This dissertation argues that early medieval Chinese poetry had a hermeneutical function and that by reconstructing the past within an aesthetic realm poetry played a role in the constitution of its own tradition. Imitative poetry from the Six Dynasties period provides a pertinent illustration of the self-referential nature of poetic discourse, and the dissertation examines the ways in which poetic imitation resembled other forms of textual commentary and collection.
Chapter One discusses relevant theoretical and historical perspectives on the practice of imitation in early medieval China and is divided into two parts. The first section examines poetic intertextuality in light of conceptual schemes developed both in theories on cultural memory and in the study of ritual and textual practice in ancient China. The second section places the practice of poetic imitation within the wider literary and historical scene of the Han and Six Dynasties and in relation to the development of other forms of written textual exegesis.
Chapters Two through Four provide analysis and discussion of Six Dynasties imitation poetry. Chapter Two considers the extent to which imitation poetry resembled textual commentary and exposes the reflexive nature of the poetry's rhetoric. Additionally, the chapter explores how the poetic models from the late Han themselves are likely imitative of even more ancient verse.
Chapter Three examines the correlation between imitation poetry and other forms of literary criticism, literary history and personality assessment. The chapter suggests that distinctions between lyrical and critical forms are often normative rather than descriptive. It also argues that reflexivity within poetry draws attention to literary parameters from the past and reveals the extent to which poets were shaped by earlier statements about literary value.
Chapter Four analyzes the ways in which poets used rhetoric to reorganize the past according to new aesthetic logic. Their efforts reflected the same drive toward order that governed the compilation of anthologies and typologies. To conclude, the chapter argues that poetic authority was shared and that poetic success depended not simply on individual literary talent, but on a moral commitment to transmit the values that embodied the Chinese cultural identity.
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