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Tian wen 天問 Puglia, Francesca


The Tianwen 天問 (“Heavenly questions”) is a long poem structured in a series of questions (wen 問) directly asked to Heaven (tian 天) or concerning heavenly matters, included in the ancient poetry collection entitled Chuci 楚辭 (“Songs of Chu”, often translated into English as “Songs of the south”). Alternative translation for the title Tian wen, besides “Heavenly questions”, are “Asking Heaven” and “Heaven asks”. The poem is attributed to the 4th century BCE Chu 楚 state official and poet Qu Yuan 屈原 (340–278 BCE), yet his authorship of the poem as a whole is debated. The broad range of topics treated and their loose arrangement (possibly due to the mixing up of the slips in the original bamboo copy of the text) support the hypothesis of a collective authorship. Field advances the thesis that Qu Yuan, during one of his trips to Qi, collected diversified fragments circulating at the Ji Xia 稷下 and put them together forming the Tian wen (Field 1986). Hinton suggests that Qu Yuan, in writing the Tian wen, might have drawn most of the material from ancient oral sources (Hinton 2009). The Eastern Han 東漢 (25 CE – 220 CE) poet and librarian Wang Yi 王逸 (fl. 130–140 CE), claiming to have based on Liu Xiang’s 劉向 (79 CE - 8 CE) text, edited the first Chuci anthology with a commentary, the Chuci zhangju 楚辭章句, transmitted in the received version, compiled in the 12th century CE, under the title Chuci buzhu 楚辭補注. Wang Yi’s edition of the Chuci is preserved in the received text, and comprises both a general foreword and several distinct introductions specific for each of the various works, in which he ascribes the Tianwen and other poems, such as the Li sao 離騷, to Qu Yuan. Regarding Qu Yuan’s inspiration for the writing of the poem, Wang Yi refers to an anecdote that allegedly occurred during the author's exile, an episode that is generally considered not to be historically reliable: according to Wang Yi’s introduction (or rather, according to the source to which the commentator refers), the author would have been inspired by seeing murals depicting spirits, deities, landscapes, mythological characters, and more, painted on the walls of the Chu ancestral temple, and would have written these questions on the same walls (Chuci zhangju, Tianwen zhangju 天問章句). Also in Sima Qian’s 司馬遷 Shiji 史記 the Tian wen is ascribed to Qu Yuan. Regarding its structure and content, the Tianwen lists circa 170 enigmatic and mysterious questions, which remain unanswered, directed to Heaven. It consists of about 370 tetrasyllabic lines arranged in around 90 quatrains, of which the even lines rhyme. On a general level, but there are various exceptions, two lines form a semantic unity, in which the first one introduces the topic, while the second one asks the actual question. In contradistinction to all the other poems attributed to Qu Yuan, in the Tian wen the nonce word xi 兮 is completely absent, fueling skepticism about his authorship of the work. The language is archaic as nowhere else in the Chuci, with the exception of few lines of the Li sao. The topics of the diverse lines are extremely varied and range from cosmogonic matters to the actions of divine and mythological beings and religious beliefs. The poem is traditionally divided into three sections, at least starting from the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) times, that separate heavenly, earthly, and human matters (although different commentators divide the poem differently). The first section is concerned with cosmogonic myths and theories, cosmology, and celestial mechanics (e.g. the unaccountability of the origins of the world, the sun and moon’s celestial motion, the stars’ array, etc.); the second section’s focus is put on the asset of earth (e.g. the flood myth, the tilt between the sky and earth resulted from Kang Hui’s 康回 anger, Yi’s 羿 shooting at the suns, etc.); the third and last section refers to the deeds and achievements of legendary characters and to human events (e.g. Yu’s 禹 vicissitudes, the decline of the Xia 夏 dynasty, Nüwa’s 女娲 myth, etc.). Of the questions asked, although for none is an answer offered in the text, some appear to possibly have a knowledgeable answer, while for others a sharp skepticism on the part of the author is evident. It is the case, for example, of the opening verses of the first section: 遂古之初,誰傳道之?At the beginning of distant antiquity, who transmitted the account? 上下未形,何由考之?When above and below had not yet achieved form, how could it be examined? 冥昭瞢暗,誰能極之?When darkness and brightness were confused and indiscernible, who could tell them apart? The poem is almost unique in his genre of listing unanswered questions. The only comparable literary work consisting of a list of riddles on a similar subject, yet considerably shorter, is found in the opening lines of chapter Tian yun 天運 (“Heaven’s revolution”) of the Zhuangzi 莊子.

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