Beauty without borders: a Meiji anthology of classical Chinese poetry on beautiful women and Sino-Japanese literati interactions in the seventeenth to twentieth centuries.

Author:Li, Xiaorong


In 1914, Shanghai shuju (Shanghai Press) published an anthology titled Meiren qiantai shi (Poems on a thousand manners of beautiful women; hereafter abridged as Meiren). (1) Judging by its cover, a reader would have presumed that this was an anthology of poems describing women's beauty by Chinese poets. There were indeed many similarly titled collections of writings about beautiful women popular on the book market at the time. However, if the reader had continued to turn the pages, s/he would have found that the table of contents listed mostly Japanese poets. This anthology was, in fact, a collection of poems in classical Chinese and forms by both Chinese and Japanese poets.

The anthology was initially published by the Japanese press Yoshioka Hobunken in Japan in 1892, and republished by Shanghai Press. In 1914, the Japanese press Suzando published another edition entitled Bijin sentai shi: Korentai sen (Poems on a thousand manners of beautiful women: Selected poems from the fragrant cosmetic case) in Osaka. The republications by Shanghai Press and Suzando are almost identical to the 1892 edition in terms of prefatory matter, table of contents, and contents. All include a preface (xu) written by Yamamoto Ken (Baigai, 1852-1928) and a self-preface (zixu) by a man who identified himself as Wanhongyuan zhuren or Bankoen shujin (Master of Late-Blossom Garden). Both Japanese publishers identify this man as Waku Mitsunori, while the Chinese publisher omits the information. Both prefaces are dated Meiji 25 (1892). The two prefaces are brief and not informative, but the anthologist does inform us that the content of the anthology consists of "poems on beautiful women by poets in China and Japan in the past and present". (2) The Meiren/Bijin anthology consists of 397 poems in total, among which 287 are by Japanese and 110 by Chinese poets. The poems are organized by poetic forms: quatrain, regulated-verse, and ancient style. For the 58 Chinese poets, the anthologist indicates their dynasties. They include Li Bai (701-762), Bai Juyi (772-846), and Han Wo (844-923) of the Tang, Su Shi (1037-1101) and Xie Fangde (1226-1289) of the Song, Yang Weizhen (1296-1370) of the Yuan, Tang Yin (1470-1524) and Gao Qi (1336-1374) of the Ming, and Li Yu (1610-1680), Wang Tao (1828-1897), and Huang Zunxian (1848-1905) of the Qing. (3)

For the 134 Japanese poets, there is no indication of the time in which they lived. However, it is evident that most of them were active in the Edo period (1603-1868). Among them, the best known may be Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), Rai San'yo (1780-1832), Yanada Seigan (1672-1757), and Kan Chazan (1748-1827). There are also a significant number of Meiji (1868-1912) poets, such as Ogasawara Gokyo (1822-1881) and Mori Shunto (1819-1889). Ema Saiko (1787-1861), a woman poet and Rai San'yo's disciple, is also included in the anthology.

How should we understand the existence of the Meiren anthology? What were the historical and cultural conditions that underscored its emergence? As the title indicates, it is a collection of poems on manners of beautiful women. What images of women do the poets portray? What does the making and publication of this anthology mean for our understanding of the cultural history of East Asia?

As a result of frequent and vigorous cultural contacts over centuries, literary Chinese, in particular Classical Chinese poetry, was a lingua franca used in literati communities not only in Japan but also other countries in premodern East Asia, such as Korea. The Chinese writing system and other cultural elements were shared by the three major cultures--Korea, China, and Japan. From the late nineteenth century, however, the process of modernization/ Westernization and the rise of nativism/nationalism changed and complicated the cultural landscape. (4) Many in Japan felt a great deal of uneasiness about Chinese elements in their cultures. While some considered kanbun an integral part of their nation's literary pasts, others held a narrower definition of nationalist literature, excluding or slighting this part of history. Within the limited scope of this paper, I shall refrain from generally engaging in this huge debate. In my view, it is neither productive nor meaningful to rigidly define works from an ethnocentric perspective as Japanese literature in Chinese or Chinese literature by Japanese.

In this paper I focus on the Meiren anthology in the hopes of shedding light on cross-cultural practice in a specific context, particularly the issues raised above. My investigation shows that the practice of kanshi (poetry in classical Chinese or Sinitic Verse) composition had been sustained by major Japanese men of letters through the late Meiji (and even into the Showa) era. Within conventional narratives of the rise of modern Japanese literature, especially in the genre of prose fiction, it is generally held that there was a rupture between Edo and Meiji-Taisho literature. Within the discursive space carved out by the Meiren anthology, however, we see a continuity that unified the Edo and Meiji eras. Many of the poets were active long before and long after the Meiji Restoration, and they used sources from Chinese literary history including both earlier and contemporary times. In order to make sense of the anthology and the history of its publication we must reject a rigid schema of national literature. (5)

The Meiren anthology enables us to investigate the particular literary and intellectual trends of which it was part and the general history of cultural interactions between China and Japan. In this paper, I contextualize the anthology in relation to traditions and trends in Japan and China, examine the poems collected by the anthologist, and analyze the significance of the poetic tradition centered on images of women for understanding border-crossing literati culture from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries.


The republication of the Meiren anthology in Shanghai may have had much to do with Yamamoto Ken, who also contributed a preface. Having worked as a journalist, editor, and lecturer, among other jobs, Yamamoto did not have a stable career. But his major areas of achievement were those in which he could put to use his knowledge and skills in Chinese language, culture, and history. He was well traveled in China and made connections with influential figures such as Wang Kangnian (1860-1911), Luo Zhenyu (1866-1940), and Liang Qichao (1873-1929) when he visited Shanghai. He maintained scholarly exchanges with the latter two. (6) The reprinting of the anthology in Shanghai was most likely owing to these connections.

The circumstances under which the press asked The Master of Late-Blossom Garden (Bankoen shujin) to compile the anthology are unknown, but the production of the poems and the anthology was not isolated from larger intellectual and cultural undercurrents in Japan and China. The anthology was not only informed by the earlier Chinese literary tradition, but also closely related to new developments in late imperial China. Feminine and sensual poetics had been developing long before the late imperial era, but my investigation shows a surge in literati construction of the image of meiren at the turn of two centuries, the late Ming to the early Qing, and the late Qing to the early Republican period. Both moments witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of sensual poetry. (7)

The title of the anthology indicates that it is a collection of poems on "beautiful women", meiren in Chinese, bijin in Japanese pronunciation). Women, in particular beautiful women, are a time-honored subject in Chinese literary history. Many topical subgenres on and about women had been established by the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E-220 C.E.). However, it was not until the Six Dynasties and the Tang (third to tenth century) that the image of beautiful women who long to be loved became a prevalent poetic phenomenon. These dynasties saw the emergence of a subgenre specifically identified as "style of the fragrant cosmetic case" (xianglian ti, J. koren tai), a term derived from the Tang poet Han Wo's Xianglian ji (Collection from the fragrant cosmetic case), a collection of poems focusing on women's looks, manners, and emotive world. (8) If we say that the sixth-century anthology Yutai xinyong (New songs from a jade terrace) had canonized images of the beautiful and/or abandoned women in terms of feminine beauty, poses, and manners, Han Wo's poetics portrayed the beautiful woman persona with more meticulous attention and highlighted the subjective perception of the male lover. (9)

It is not surprising that the Meiren anthology includes twenty-one poems by Han Wo, one of the largest selections of any one author. To illustrate the poetic art of Han Wo, I quote the following:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] New Autumn [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] One night of clear wind stirs her fan and sorrow, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] She is afraid that her beauty will fade into the new autumn. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] The peach blossom face glistens with tears, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Holding them back until deep in the night, she lets them flow on her pillow. (10) The theme of the poem is revealed through an allusion to the Han period poem attributed to the court lady Ban, who expresses the "sorrow of a fan"--that is, that a woman is afraid to be abandoned by her lover, like a fan to be put aside when summer is gone. It is a classical situation, but Han Wo's creative touch lies in the contrast between delicate beauty and strong emotions as depicted in the last two lines. Her holding back of the tears during the day to release them late at night reveals the power of her interior world.

Following the monumental developments of the Six Dynasties and late Tang in the shi genre, and those of the...

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