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The poetry of Yang Wan-Li Schmidt, Jerry Dean

Abstract

Yang Wan-li (1127-1206) is regarded by Chinese literary historians and critics as one of the three most outstanding shih poets of the twelfth century. The present study attempts to explore Yang Wan-li's unique contribution to Chinese literature largely by utilizing the tools of traditional Chinese literary criticism, rather than emphasizing European methodology as is the case with most studies on non-European literature done by Westerners. I begin with an extensive account of Yang Wan-li's life, paying particular attention to the influence that his political career had upon his literary works. However, the biography is not merely limited to a study of Yang's official life, for the very personal nature of his poetry allows us to explore the inner workings of his mind, and, in particular, the important role played by Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism in determining his outlook on life and his attitudes toward literature. The next major section focuses on Yang's theory of literature and how his Ch'an background led him to view the writing of poetry as an intuitional process which results from sudden enlightenment. Such a theory caused him to reject thoughtless imitation of earlier poets and to advance the idea of natural, unadorned verse. The most concrete expression of Yang's theory of poetry is his "live method" (huo-fa). a poetic method which includes such elements as iconoclasm, illusionistic and paradoxical language, surprise and sudden enlightenment, humor, and extensive use of colloquial language. After this general discussion of Yang's literary theory and practice, I proceed to explore some of the major themes of Yang Wan-li's poetry, finding that a considerable body of his poetry is concerned with the Buddhist theme of illusion and reality. However, Yang's career as a Confucian bureaucrat also was of the utmost importance for his poetry, and he frequently describes his family and his general relationship with society. He is particularly original in his verse of social criticism and the life of the lower classes. However, the most common subject of Yang's literary creations is nature, a tendency which is consistent with the esthetic interests of both painters and poets of his period. Yang's nature poetry has great similarities to the visual art of his contemporaries', and the striking innovations in Yang's nature poetry are easily compared to contemporary changes in Chinese painting. Yang's landscape poetry, In particular, is found to be intimately connected with Ch'an Buddhist mysticism. His poetry on plants and animals, like the painting of the period, is in harmony with the scientific, analytical tendencies of the culture as a whole. I conclude with a study of Yang Wan-li's position in Chinese literature. The influences of earlier poets on his verse are analyzed and the traditional opinions concerning the evolution of his style are found to be erroneous. Yang's poetry is compared and contrasted with the work of the two most prominent shih poets of his period, Pan Ch'eng-ta and Lu Yu. Finally, I give a brief account of Yang Wan-li's influence on later poets and critics.

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