Southern Girls Or Tibetan Knights: A Liang (502-557) Court Performance (Critical Essay‪)‬

The Journal of the American Oriental Society 2008, Jan-March, 128, 1

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Xiao Yan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (464-549; R. 502-549; posthumously Wudi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], the founding emperor of the Liang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] dynasty (502-557) (1) was born into a devout Taoist family, yet was the only Chinese monarch consciously to enact the role of an "Emperor-Bodhisattva." His rulership was a combination of the Chinese "sage emperor" and the Indian cakravartin. (2) Xiao Yan was also well known for his patronage of scholarship and literature. During his reign, he sponsored the compilation of an unprecedented number of scholarly projects. (3) His own writings, covering a broad range of topics, show that he was a polymath versed in classical scholarship, ritual matters, music, calligraphy, and go (i.e., encirclement chess). (4) Despite the large amount of scholarship on Xiao Yan as an important political figure and advocate of Buddhism, there have been surprisingly few in-depth studies on his poetic works--his shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] in tetrametric, pentametric, and yuefu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] forms, and also his fit [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. The modern scholar Lu Qinli [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] divides Xiao Yan's poetry into two categories: fifty-four yuefu pieces and forty-one shi pieces. (5) Evaluations of Xiao Yan's yuefu pieces, however, have been negatively affected by an entrenched prejudice against the Southern Dynasties yuefu. Believed to be mostly love songs, the Southern yuefu emerged out of the two folksong traditions known as the "Wu Songs" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and "Western Tunes" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. Furthermore, our understanding of the actual process and purpose of yuefu song/music-making is inadequate, as yuefu pieces written by literati are often taken to be imitations of folk songs, which may sometimes but not always be the case. Even worse, there is, among many Chinese scholars, a certain erophobic tendency to take love songs and their writing to be morally dubious. Criticism of the "decadent" lifestyle of the royals of the Southern Dynasties has long been based on the supposed femininity of their art and literature. At the same time, the feminity of Southern Dynasties yuefu is taken to be the result of an unrestrained lifestyle. This kind of circular reasoning has hindered our understanding of the Southern Dynasties yuefu and of the creative activities of the upper class. In this paper, we shall look closely at one of Xiao Yan's yuefu compositions entitled "Xiangyang ta tongti ge" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], to see whether we can get to the heart of this so called "simple imitation of a folk song." In doing so, I hope to shed light on Liang Wudi's court music-making and also to examine the "sound of a perished state" (wangguo zhi yin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), a derogatory epithet that traditionally and even into modern times has been used to explain the failings of the Liang dynasty in particular and of late Southern Dynasties art and literature in general.

January 1
American Oriental Society
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