CASE 1:  Women and Arts in the 13th Century


Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi (772–846 AD) came from an impoverished scholar family, although his father was a magistrate for a time. While studying for the examinations, Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen dreamed of bringing about social reform in their careers. Bai got into trouble for his outspoken criticism. Of his own poems, he most treasured the fengyu shi, or social criticism. Among other things, he criticized the treatment of palace women. He strove for clarity and simplicity in language.

Du Fu

Du Fu (712–70 AD) came from a family that was on the far end of an old Six Dynasties aristocratic line. He served in various minor positions but suffered considerable poverty during his lifetime. His own son died of starvation. Generally referred to as “China’s greatest poet,” he was indeed extremely influential among later poets from Han Yü to Lu You and beyond. Much of his poetry used vernacular phrasing and diction, though his vocabulary was broad and varied. When a later generation would value, simple, vernacular language, Du Fu’s vocabulary was rich and learned, even though he often wrote of simple, rural folk. He wrote extensively of injustice in his time and celebrated the feelings and customs of common rural people.

Han Yü

Han Yü (768–824 AD) came from a family of scholars and minor officials. He established the guwen literary style as an alternative to florid styles. Guwen style incorporated elements of vernacular rhythm and diction and paid more attention to pragmatic and political themes. Han Yü was strongly opposed to blind religiosity and superstition.

Huang Tingjian

Huang Tingjian (1045–1105 AD) came from a family of poets. He rejected conventional poetic rules and combined minute observation of everyday life with difficult, sometimes obscure diction. Like Su Dongpo, he was banished for opposing Wang Anshi. One of his poems praises Su for his courage in the face of political repression. Known for his unconventionality, he created his own poetic style called “unregulated” style, breaking rules of parsing, tonal distribution, rhyme, and emphasis.

Li Qingzhao

Daughter of a noted prose writer and member of Su Dongpo’s literary circle (Li Gefei), Li Qingzhao (1084–ca.1151 AD) is known as China’s greatest woman poet and a leading master of the lyric form who influenced many later poets. Since the Song Dynasty, she has been appreciated for her proud and unconventional spirit, reflected in her sometimes indecorous poetry. Learned and widely read, she was also known as a collector of antiques, painting and calligraphy.

Liu Zongyuan

Liu Zongyuan (773–819 AD) came from scholar family with some blue blood. His father had been a censor, whose main job was to expose abuses of power in government. As prefect of Liuzhou, Liu Zongyuan devised a means of releasing men and women held as surety against debts (as did Han Yü), sometimes redeeming people at his own expense. He championed social reform throughout his life.

Mei Yaochen

Mei Yaochen (1102–60 AD) came from a minor official family and mostly held minor posts. Together with Ouyang Xiu, he initiated the “new realism” in Song literature, which described the most common, even vulgar, aspects of human experience, such as rats, dog saliva, violent illness, or even vomit. His early work was characterized by social criticism and aimed at the ugly and the trivial. For the first time, poetry was devoted to such subjects as an ugly stone, an earthworm, a maggot, a rat, or a louse. He often used vernacular language and emphasized the relativity of aesthetic perception.

Su Dongpo

Su Dongpo (1036–1101 AD), also known as Su Shi, came from a family of lower officials, although his father was a distinguished writer. Yet, the fact that his father, a “commoner,” would hobnob with high officials excited disapproving comment. Su was sympathetic to the impecunious throughout his career. In his examination answers, for instance, he complained how the “wealthy clans and guilds dominated the private economy, controlling prices and bankrupting smaller merchants and farmers.” Extremely influential, he managed to introduce new forms of dress and new inventions for agriculture through his practice and his poems.

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