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UBC Theses and Dissertations

High versus low : elite criticism and popular lyrics Lam, Lap


Between the seventh and twelfth centuries, a new kind of popular song developed in China through the merging of Central Asian music with local folk tunes, enjoying widespread currency among urbanites, and then later among elite circles. Two strongly contrasting categories of song lyrics, or ci, emerged in the course of this development: the popular song, characterized by its directness, colloquialism, artistic simplicity and occasional "vulgarity," and the elegant, refined pieces of most elite writers. Today many readers are misled by traditional elite criticism's view of ci as primarily a "high" art, believing that emotional restraint is its fundamental characteristics. This dissertation attempts to redress this misconception by studying the genre in its original historical and cultural context and challenging the wholesale adoption of the elite aesthetics of ci criticism. While acknowledging the mutual influence of popular and elite lyrics, the thesis contends that the former served a different audience and had their own artistic functions, and thus a different aesthetic standard must be applied to their study and appreciation. The dissertation is in four chapters. Chapter one compares the attitudes of Western and Chinese scholars toward popular art, suggesting that the class background of the artists should not be the sole yardstick for aesthetic value judgements, that we should not exaggerate the political implications of popular culture, and that "high" and " low " culture frequently influence each other. Chapter Two attempts to discern distinctive aesthetic qualities and stylistic features of the anonymous Tang and Song popular lyrics. The third chapter focuses on the "vulgar'' lyrics of the elite writer Liu Yong (fl. 1034), asserting that popular art is accessible to audiences and cultural producers from all economic and intellectual classes. The last chapter is a study of three strategies that the elite critics used to elevate the status of the ci, especially their attempts to establish a reputable genealogy for the genre, their imposition of elite aesthetics on popular lyrics and their insistence on the practice of selecting refined lyrics for their anthologies.

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