Celebrating Sensual Indulgence: Du Mu [phrase omitted] (803-852), His Readers, and the Making of a New Fengliu [phrase omitted] Ideal.

Author:Hong, Yue

Fengliu, literally "wind and stream," is an important phrase commonly used to describe the behavior and character of those possessing a natural dignity and flair, a flowing charm, style or panache, and a spontaneous, unconventional, and romantic sensibility. (1) During the Six Dynasties (220-589), fengliu was associated with the cultivated style and urbanity of the upper classes as well as with the nonconformist spirit and unrestrained demeanor of certain Wei-Jin [phrase omitted] (220-420) elites. (2) The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (zhulin qixian [phrase omitted]) embody the fengliu spirit of this period: they ignore ritual propriety, drink to excess, wear no clothes, and are openly rude to those they despise. (3) During the ninth century, while notions of fengliu associated with the Wei-Jin anti-heroes continued to influence contemporary understanding, the term evolved to include erotic and amorous elements in male-female relationships. In depictions of the pleasure quarters of Chang'an, the fengliu ideal was "part of a discursive obsession with lyricism and sentiment that shaped the client-patron relationship in favor of an aesthetic of feeling and a kind of stylized mutual enchantment between courtesans and literati men." (4) With a flourishing entertainment culture, the development of the civil service examination, and the rise of regional powers, ninth-century elite men often wrote poems about women and sensuality to display their literary talent to capital examiners, local patrons, and their elite peers. (5) The fengliu ideals articulated in these poems--e.g., sensitive poets expressing erotic desire for entertainers, compassionate poets lamenting a courtesan's sad fate, poets as sentimental lovers and passionate craftsmen--were aspects of an emerging elite cultural identity associated with literary talent and sensibility. (6)

When we think about Du Mu, the ninth-century poet who is viewed as the embodiment of the fengliu ideal, his image is very much related to various affairs and frequent visits to the courtesan quarters. (7) Traditionally, Du Mu was regarded as a libertine whose licentious life was documented in anecdotes. To account for his libertine behavior, scholars sought answers from within his family tradition, the influence of courtesan culture, the impact of regional culture at the southern Military Commission headquarters, and frustration arising from unfulfilled political ambition. (8) Recent studies propose that Du Mu's fengliu image has less to do with his behavior than with his self-representation and his readers' interpretations. Stephen Owen, for example, suggests that Du Mu's reputation as a dashing libertine evolved from his poetic self-image, and Jinghua Wangling argues that it was the product of the poet's and his readers' collective creations. (9) Wangling asserts that, while Du Mu's fengliu image largely derives from his collected works, his readers participated in constructing this image by preserving poems that Du Mu had excluded from his collected works and/or by misattrib-uting certain poems to Du Mu. Indeed, it was the accumulation of such images, created both by the poet and his readers, that formed the basis for anecdotal sources that firmly establish Du Mu's fengliu reputation.

While Wangling discusses how Du Mu's fengliu image was constructed, I ask why Du Mu came to embody the fengliu ideal, given that many other ninth-century writers also fashioned themselves as fengliu sensualists. I propose that Du Mu's particular style of fengliu was uniquely appealing to his contemporaries because it was widely seen as idealizing what I call "sensual indulgence" as a form of political disengagement. I use "sensual indulgence" to describe a person's behavior of giving free rein to his sensual pleasures by visiting courtesan quarters, engaging in sexual adventures, and having love affairs. In the core texts that represent Du Mu's fengliu image, the search for sensual pleasures is depicted as an alternative to a life spent in service to the state. Some of the most celebrated cultural ideals within the Chinese tradition are concerned with the ideal of political disengagement, and the emergence of these ideals is often associated with flamboyant historical figures, such as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Tao Qian [phrase omitted] (365?-427), and Li Bai [phrase omitted] (701-762), to name just a few. It was Du Mu's image that added indulgence in sensual pleasures to the fengliu repertoire, a repertoire that had previously mainly consisted of reclusion and drinking. Traditionally, sensual pleasure had been viewed as trivial at best, and disruptive to the social order at worst. In the fengliu image embodied by Du Mu, however, it is viewed much more positively. Like drinking or withdrawal from public life, a life spent in search of romance and pleasure is idealized as being free from the entanglements of politics and the public sphere.

While elite associations with entertainers were viewed positively in ninth-century entertainment culture, attitudes towards indulgence in sensual pleasures remained ambiguous. This ambiguity was reflected in Du Mu's evolving attitude towards his libertine image. Although Du Mu created his libertine poetic self-image as a young man, he attempted to shed this image later in life. It was his readers. I argue, who. through reading his poems creatively and writing anecdotes about his sexual adventures, collectively made him the figure of fascination and fengliu ideal that we know today. In addition to the role of Du Mu's readers discussed by Wangling, I will examine three other ways in which readers and writers of the ninth and tenth centuries shaped Du Mu's fengliu image. First, I suggest that readers' desire to view Du Mu's sensual poems as informed by his romantic experience played a crucial role in the creation of his libertine image. To read Du Mu's sensual poems as his own romantic self-expression, readers altered the poems and their titles and linked them to specific moments in his life. Second, I examine the transmission and reception of one poem that is central to Du Mu's poetic fengliu self-image to illustrate the dynamic between Du Mu's wish to control his work and reputation and his readers' ability to assert their own influence over them. Despite Du Mu's effort to "censor" his libertine image, his readers' enthusiastic circulation of this image made it impossible for the poet to erase it from readers' memory. Third, I argue that in telling and writing anecdotes about Du Mu's sexual adventures, readers and writers of the ninth and tenth centuries validated indulgence in sensual pleasures. In portraying Du Mu as an admirable poet-official who neglected his official duties to pursue beautiful women, they idealized a life in search of pleasure as free from the entanglements of politics and the public sphere.

Most of the texts I discuss in this paper are sources that have traditionally been regarded as unreliable. The poem that is central to Du Mu's fengliu image is included in his supplementary collection, which contains poems falsely attributed to Du Mu. (10) The anecdotes about Du Mu's sexual adventures are unverifiable and of disputed historicity, since the incidents described in them are not found in other sources. While some scholars consider them to be factual records of true incidents, others question their credibility. (11) Recent studies suggest that Tang dynasty anecdotes and tales about historical figures are "part of the discourse through which writers and readers assessed public events and public figures." (12) Seen in this light, the value of anecdotes about Du Mu lies not in helping us to reconstruct his life or understand his character. Rather, they reflect shared views about him and the circumstances that made such views plausible. In her study of Tang anecdote collections, Anna M. Shields describes the value of the anecdotal texts as helping to "fill the gap between historiography and individual collected works, offering us the perspective of 'this is what happened to someone' in between 'this is what happened' and 'this is what happened to me.'" (13) In other words, while historiography provides a political view of the events, and individual collected works give us the author's claims, anecdotes offer insights into a communal perspective. In Du Mu's case, the anecdotes about his sexual adventures and the poems he excluded from his literary collection tell us that while Du Mu and historians both considered male indulgence in sensual pleasures dubious or insignificant, readers and writers of the ninth and tenth centuries best loved and remembered Du Mu for it, thus making him one of the most enduring fengliu ideals in Chinese history.


While Du Mu presented himself as both a scholar engaged with contemporary political life and as a melancholy sensualist resistant to political life, from the second half of the ninth century on he was best known as a fengliu sensualist. (14) The fengliu images associated with Du Mu during the ninth and tenth centuries were of two kinds: poetic craftsmanship and poetic personality. Some believed him to be a poet whose talent and sensibility allowed him to write effectively on sensuality and love. Others, however, believed that he was a dashing libertine who frequented the pleasure quarters and engaged in love affairs. (15)

Scholars have shown that Du Mu's image as a libertine evolved from his poetic self-image. (16) Although the poems in which Du Mu represents himself as a libertine are few, they exerted important influence in shaping Du Mu's reputation. I believe the influence of these poems has much to do with contemporary acclaim for Du Mu's poems on Yangzhou (Jiangsu). By Du Mu's time, Yangzhou, a major center of trade and commerce, had come to be associated with a repertoire of images of extravagance and sensual pleasures...

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