The European Enlightenment relished Sheikh Sa‘di of Shiraz, 13th-century Persian poet and moral philosopher for his work, The Rose Garden, a witty mixture of prose and poetry, morality and ribaldry, lyric and proverbial wisdom.
Many cultures under, or in the shadow of, an empire sometimes make use of that empire’s language to express themselves. Latin was used throughout Europe, while for a couple of centuries after the Norman conquest, the dominant written language in England was French. China exerted a similar cultural pull over its neighbors: Japanese poets would write kanshi and Koreans hansi, both terms being probably derived from the word Han, referring to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China. For both, using written Chinese was to make a cultural statement, indicating that these writings were for an elite class of people. Furthermore, despite the invention of hangul, an optimized Korean script, by king Sejong in the 15th century, classical Chinese—both the language and the script—remained the preference of Korean literati for several centuries. Hangul did not in fact hit its stride until well into the 19th century; and, given their acute sense of class-consciousness, Koreans may simply have felt more comfortable reading their stories in classical Chinese.
The 19th-century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib always evoked strong opinions about his literary worth. An early 20th-century critic proclaimed, “India has just two scriptures or divine gospels, the holy Vedas and the poetry of Ghalib.” Meanwhile an anonymous Delhiwallah quipped: “I get the verse of MirMir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor but Mirza’s just too odd. Maybe he gets himself, or maybe only God.”
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|1.||↩||Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor|
The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) is widely held to be the greatest work of Chinese literature, beloved by readers ever since it was first published in 1791. The story revolves around the young scion of a mighty clan who, instead of studying for the civil service examinations, frolics with his maidservants and girl cousins. The narrative is cast within a mythic framework in which the protagonist’s rebellion against Confucian strictures is guided by a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest. Embedded in the novel is a biting critique of imperial China’s political and social system.
Despite being separated by the sea and eight centuries, both of these poets share feelings of exile and displacement and exile as they wander more or less aimlessly around their respective countries, attempting to sort themselves out through writing poetry. They also share the good fortune of having attracted excellent biographers, who let them speak freely and directly through their poetry rather than simply writing about their deeds and personalities. Readers as a result vicariously travel with the poets, feeling their experiences directly and responding to them viscerally and emotionally as well as intellectually.
Laura Moretti’s Pleasure in Profit begins and ends with the image of a bookshop in 17th-century Kyoto:
Now step back in time, to seventeenth-century Japan. Imagine yourself on Teramachi Street, in the heart of Kyoto.
The book is a study of the works of the Northern Song Chinese poet Chen Yuyi (1090–1139) as he fled the invading Jurchen soldiers in the political throes of a dynastic transition. Author Yugen Wang demonstrates how Chen’s poems epitomize the new style of writing in the Song that is markedly different from that of his Tang predecessors. Underscoring this stylistic and aesthetic analysis is a comparison of Chen and his model, the Tang master Du Fu (712–770).