A Tentative Poetics of Commentary

A Glance at Early Textual Practices
9:00 am – 10:45 am

  • Organised and Chaired by Marie Bizais-Lillig
  • Dinu Luca, “Treason, Reason, Text, Commentary: On an Episode in the Zhuozhuan
  • Olga Lomová, “Commentary as Part of Authorial Intention: Shanju fu by Xie Lingyun”
  • Xiaofei Tian, “The Peripatetic Vision of the Riverine Traveler in the Commentary on the Water Classic
  • Marie Bizais-Lillig, “Kong Yingda’s Woven Commentary: Between Hermeneutical Discussion and Strategies of Absorption”
  • Olga Lomová, Discussant

Despite its centrality, the commentary is usually considered as a tool for deciphering great works or as thin trace of intellectual activity. It is reduced to an ancillary status and denied that of a text per se. In order to enrich our understanding of the commentarial tradition during the Medieval Period, this panel proposes to consider it as textual material and to analyse its linguistic, stylistic and rhetorical dimensions. Although mostly centred on the Six Dynasties and early Tang period, it will include earlier commentaries as reference. Participants mostly engaged in the field of literature will shed light on the textual aspects of commentary without ignoring its relation to an original text.
The contributions will more specifically tackle the type of bond with base text that specific commentaries assert through a series of device. Whereas secondary in time and importance, and by essence open to other and new proposals, commentary altogether stages itself in a position of authority. It even happens that rhetorical gestures bring commentary to proclaim itself as taking control over the original text, whereas the absorption of base text within a commentary points to the creation of a new text, with its stylistic feature along with a hollow missing text. Cases of auto-commentary further question the status that it designs for itself, i.e. as text proper or appendix. Such will be the questions addressed through four case studies in this panel which will lay the foundations of a poetics of commentary.

Dinu Luca, “Treason, Reason, Text, Commentary: On an Episode in the Zhuozhuan

Zuozhuan’s first extensive account, narrating the slow-growing conflict involving two brothers, a treacherous mother, and wise officers of the state, is well-known. This is, of course, the episode centred on Duke Zhuang’s victory over the rebellious Gongshu Duan followed by a celebrated reconciliation around an act of xiao. This complex and meandering piece of textuality also includes a famous fu exchange at the end, the first set of comments made by Zuozhuan’s mysterious “gentleman,” the text’s first quote from the Poems, autonomous, moralizing commentary on the phrasing of the Chunqiu, and also significant use of the figure. And then there is 初. This inconspicuous word begins the account, while also announcing, I claim, the ambiguous, often treacherous relationship between the Zuozhuan and the Chunqiu. As this episode of consummate exploration of the possibilities of language unfolds, we also witness the story of Zuozhuan’s positioning as a parasitical, substituting, supplementing, (in)dependent and insecure/over-secure text in relation to the Chunqiu. It is this performative dimension of a text (figuratively) enacting what it purports to describe (Culler) that I explore in my contribution. My claim is that all the issues related to duplicity and make-believe, manipulation, control of (or submission to) one’s passions, violence, power, and hermeneutics that the story is about mirror what the Zuozhuan itself does in its multi-faceted interactions with the Chunqiu. Such transposition of meaning in the very act of its articulation can function as a good figure for the many possible paths that commentary can follow.

Olga Lomová, “Commentary as Part of Authorial Intention: Shanju fu by Xie Lingyun”

After Xie Lingyun (385–433) resigned from his office in Yongjia he decided to return to his family estate in Shining. On this occasion, he composed an autobiographical poem Shanju Fu (Fu on Dwelling in the Mountains). Here he describes in considerable detail his estate, the natural environment around, and his life there. The poem is regarded as a personal statement about the poet’s ambition to live like a recluse, including his interest in Buddhism and Daoism. It is a long poem in the format of „great rhapsodies“ (da fu) in which the author demonstrates his poetic skills as well as his erudition. The poet provided the verses of his fu with a preface (xu) and copious annotations and explanatory notes (zhu) in prose. The paper will discuss the peculiar format of writing commentary to one’s own work as part of the original composition and will explore how the meaning of the whole piece is shaped through interaction between the two different types of discourse.

Xiaofei Tian, “The Peripatetic Vision of the Riverine Traveler in the Commentary on the Water Classic

The Commentary on the Water Classic by Li Daoyuan (d. 527) is a monumental work of exegesis; it is also a curious creation. The original Water Classic is purportedly a Han dynasty work with interpolations from as late as the third century, recording 137 rivers in laconic, dry language. Li Daoyuan, an official of the Northern Wei (386–534) with a reputation for cruelty and erudition, composed a 40-juan commentary to it. It includes 1,252 waterways, and the original text of about 10,000 characters swells to approximately 300,000 characters. The main part of the commentary consists of quotations from more than 400 books, many of which are no longer extant.
What does Li Daoyuan’s work tell us about the nature of “commentary”? How does his commentary negotiate with the original text of the Water Classic and what do these negotiations signify? Is this a mindless pursuit of a mad bibliographer who claims explicitly he had no interest in “visiting [physical] mountains and rivers,” or is this a work of some self-conscious internal design? In this paper, I propose to examine the mode of writing in Shuijing zhu against the traditions from which it emerged as well as in juxtaposition with the contemporary landscape writings in south China and focus on uncovering the general mode of space perception and representation underlying Shuijing zhu in an era when south and north China competed fiercely and were both intents on crafting a vision and discourse of empire.

Marie Bizais-Lillig, “Kong Yingda’s Woven Commentary: Between Hermeneutical Discussion and Strategies of Absorption”

In a similar move to that observed elsewhere in the Wujing Zhengyi [Correct Meaning of the Five Classics], Kong Yingda (574–648) weaves together a number of previous commentaries in order to establish the right interpretation of the Shijing [Classic of the Poems].
This format has become standard. It allows Kong Yingda to rebuild an intellectual community through tradition—which is quite a common move in his time—and to posit himself within this tradition. It thus legitimises his arbitration.
However, a closer look at the text shows that his team uses different strategies such as the quotation or the expansion of pre-existing commentaries, the translation, and the synthesis of other ones, as well as the assertion of alternative interpretations.
It has been argued that intralingual translation aims, among other things, at adapting a base text to a target group and thus simplifies it.
It is true that Kong Yingda’s expansive methodology renders previous commentaries in a more modern and explicit language. However, it also complexifies the reading of the Shijing by also unrolling the consequences of previous suggestive interpretations.
Loosely linking his own discourse to the Poems while putting forward discussions at stake between commentators of all times, Kong Yingda strengthens the importance of commentarial discourse among literati. It can, indeed, serve intellectual purposes as others like Dong Zhongshu or Wang Bi have shown before, as well as compositional ones (by highlighting useful expressions and phrases to be woven in new compositions as previous commentaries are in this new one).

Event Timeslots (1)

Room C
A Glance at Early Textual Practices