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Owen - Late Tang coverBook Review
The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860)
By Stephen Owen

Stephen Owen does it again! With the The Late Tang, Owen, the most well-known and influential English-language scholar of classical Chinese poetry alive, continues his magisterial history of Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) Chinese poetry, often considered the “golden age.” What he began in 1977 with The Poetry of the Early T’ang, and continued with 1981’s The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang and 1996’s The End of the Chinese “Middle Ages”: Essays in Mid-Tang Literary Culture, has now come to some kind of a conclusion. Owen’s works have set the terms for all other scholars in the field of medieval Chinese poetry. Anyone who wishes to understand one of the world’s great literary traditions cannot help but engage with Owen’s books.

Because of the importance of Owen’s work, I am going to treat it at length here, so bear with me.

For Owen, the “Late Tang” covers the years 827-860, the endpoint of which marks a major fracturing of the empire, eventually leading to the dynasty’s collapse in 907. In this time, Owen argues, poets began to become more self-conscious, feeling their own belatedness. Out of the carefully constructed “naturalness” of Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846) and his followers, and the painstaking craftsmanship of parallelled couplets by Jia Dao 賈島 (779-843) and the like, emerged a new model of “the poet” as an autonomous being, not bound to the state, perhaps modeled on the way Buddhist monks took vows and renounced the secular world. Poetry, in a sense, was becoming its own sacred realm. Taking this as the general historical narrative of the book, Owen then spends most of his time focused upon certain exemplary individuals (and the groups surrounding them): Bai Juyi, Jia Dao, Li He 李賀 (790-816), Du Mu 杜牧 (803-853), Cao Tang 曹唐 (ca. 797-ca. 866), Li Shangyin 李商隱 (812-858), and Wen Tingyun 溫庭筠 (ca. 801?-866).


Let me now state why The Late Tang is, for lack of a better word, so good. First, Owen excels at characterizing large swaths of poetry in just a few sentences. He seems to have taken in thousands of poems, hundreds of commentaries (traditional and modern), and emerges with his own fresh insights into all of them. In The Late Tang especially, he pays close attention to the shifting dynamics of various periods and “circles” or groups of poets who were in communication with each other. Bai Juyi, for example, was by this time an extremely famous member of the old guard, surrounded by an entourage of admiring young poets, using his poetry as “capital” (ye 業) with which to “purchase” an immortal reputation. The “painstaking composition” (kuyin 苦吟) of the craftsmen of regulated verse emerged partially as a way of resisting Bai Juyi’s influence. Many poets, most successfully Li Shangyin, learned to move between these two styles and to synthesize them.

Yet for all his attention to poetry circles, Owen maintains a healthy skepticism of previous critics’ tendency to overread many poems in terms of their author’s biography. This (my second reason why this book is good) is a welcome departure from the logical fallacies of much traditional Chinese criticism (especially from the Qing 清 dynasty [1644-1911]), in which biographical details are gleaned from a person’s poems, which paints a certain picture of the poet, which then determines how one reads the poems. Instead, Owen builds upon the incredible work of many recent Chinese scholars, especially Fu Xuancong 傅璇琮 (b. 1933), who have attempted to build a chronology of Tang poetry upon much more solid ground, often questioning received wisdom.

Third, in this book more than his previous books on the Tang, Owen pays close attention to the issues of manuscript circulation. What has survived of a poet’s work into the present day is often the result of accidents of history. Many poets’ works, for example, circulated in “minor anthologies” (xiaoji 小集) of a single genre, even if they had written poems in many genres. If only a single such minor anthology of poet’s works survived into the Song 宋 dynasty (960-1279), when printing began to stabilize the textual record, we would have a very lopsided view of that poet. Many times throughout the book, Owen states that our knowledge of Tang poets is very hazy, and could be very skewed by the vagaries of manuscript culture.

Fourth, Owen has a keen eye for the craft of Tang poetry (often relying on earlier critics’ judgments) – what makes for a good parallelism, what distinguishes one type of regulated verse from another, how poets appropriated and altered existing styles, etc. In fact, I believe Owen is at his best when he’s talking about poetics, not individual poets. Chapters 3 (“Regulated Verse in the Short Line”), 4 (“The Craftsmen of Poetry”), 6 (“Regulated Verse in the Long Line: The ‘Meditation on the Past'”), and 7 (“The Poets of the Long Line”) are exemplary models for how such criticism should be done. Anyone interested in the close reading of poetic style in any tradition would benefit greatly from reading these chapters. Owen seems to have learned much from reading Foucault on the importance of “discourse,” and applied it to poetry. The seeds of this sort of analysis existed in Owen’s earlier work (e.g., the appendix to The Poetry of the Early T’ang), but they have not fully flowered until The Late Tang.

Fifth and finally, Owen’s own writing style is both clear and powerful. He eschews complex sentences, subordinate clauses, and the like, in favor of short, declarative sentences. None of the evasiveness of most essays written by professors of comparative literature – you always know where Owen stands. Moreover, his translations are similarly potent. Though I could quibble with a number of his choices, on the whole he is very good – literal without being too literal.


All that said, no book is perfect. I have been critical of Owen in the past, and I will not back down now just because this is his best work to date, and just because I myself will soon be embarking on a career in a field where Owen would have the power to make or break me.

While Owen’s attention to the difficulties of manuscript culture is laudatory, he is remarkably uncritical in choosing “representative” poets and poems. In general, Owen relies upon traditional judgments to determine what is good or bad, and reasons from there. What makes something “typical late Tang” versus “typical late Tang in the mind of Song critics, or Ming critics, or 20th-century critics”? While Owen addresses this problem from time to time, he fails to heed his own warning, making confident judgments where none should be made.

This is not just Owen’s problem, but one inherent in any wide-ranging literary history, which attempts to “characterize an age.” Certain works are included, and certain works are excluded based upon the narrative(s) one wants to tell. One of the major problems in the study of Tang poetry, in my opinion, is the fact that no one has attempted to give an annotated translation of any major Tang poet’s complete oeuvre. How many translations of Goethe’s complete works exist in English? Of Virgil, Dante, Rilke, Baudelaire, Mallarmé? There exist no translations of the complete works of Bai Juyi, Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), or Li Bai 李白 (701-762). What are we missing out on by only focusing on “exemplary” pieces? Until any scholar attempts a comprehensive study of a poet’s complete works, we will never know.

Secondly, Owen invests a whole lot in the idea of “poetry circles,” that there were groups of poets in frequent communication, who influenced each other in fairly direct ways. But what would a poetry circle even look like? Think of more recent movements in the arts (be it visual, literary, musical, etc.) and how stubbornly the artists resist being considered part of a movement. Also, the term “poetry circle” creates the image of a close group of associates, meeting to discuss their craft, like a contemporary writers’ workshop but more intimate. But our only evidence of the existence of any such circle is either: 1) sets of exchange poems, or 2) prefaces and narrative anecdotes. These genres, like all other genres, came with their own sets of conventions, one of which was the display of intimacy, whether or not such intimacy really existed. Who are we to say which circles were genuine, and which were not? Can we really reify any group of individuals as a distinct “circle” without some sort of distortion? Talk of “cirlces” and “schools” is all backward projection, an attempt to order an otherwise messy body of poetic output. Likewise for Owen’s use of the concept of “epigone.”

Thirdly, Owen ends his work far too early. The Tang, we must remember, went on for another 52 years after Owen concludes his book. In this time there were many important poets with enormous bodies of work. Though Owen mentions a few of these in his introduction and conclusion, he largely dismisses them as following the trends set out by the poets of 827-860. One can only hope that Owen will rethink this rash judgment and write a study of “The Late Late Tang.”

Fourth, and most importantly, Owen very frequently fails to give credit where credit is due. Looking through his footnotes, one would get the impression that Owen only reads Chinese scholarship, and works by his own teachers and students. Virtually the rest of the community of scholars of Chinese poetry is completely ignored (to give just two examples of hundreds: when explaining the Yulanpen 盂蘭盆 festival, he does not mention Stephen Teiser’s The Ghost Festival in Medieval China [1988]; and when noting a reference to “stamping songs” (tayao ge 踏搖歌) in one of Wen Tingyun’s poems, he does not mention the detailed study on the topic by Charles Hartman [in CLEAR, 1995]). Owen, I am absolutely certain, is not ignorant of other western scholars’ works. Thus, one can only conclude that he deliberately fails to cite them. I can think of several possibilities why this would be the case:

1. He does not take good notes when reading western critics’ accounts of Chinese poetry, and thus he does not wish to look up all those pesky references. This seems unlikely to me.

2. In an effort to defend himself against charges of Orientalism, Owen wishes to highlight his great debt to Chinese scholars. In order to do so, he must downplay the importance of Anglophone and Francophone scholarship. This seems somewhat likely, especially after Owen’s reviews of Bei Dao’s poetry were lambasted by many critics as “racist” and “Orientalist.” (You can read Owen’s own recollection of the whole affair here.)

3. He does not wish to encumber the general reader with too many references, so he keeps them to a minimum. This seems somewhat reasonable, until one realizes that anyone reading the book who has no knowledge of Chinese would be baffled by the endless litany of names, dates, and insider cultural reference.

4. He wishes to give off an air of originality, to present himself as the lone, humanistic genius, devouring poems by the thousand, whence translations, judgments, facts, and anecdotes come sprouting forth fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. I doubt this is true (at least consciously), and it is the possibility I most hope not to be true.

With The Late Tang, one of the best living scholars of Chinese civilization writing in English has given us his greatest work. Every page brims with ideas and translations, something to satisfy experts and non-experts alike. While it may not be perfect, this book is damn near close, and I can only hope that my own dissertation will be able to build on, and refine, Owen’s insights in a meaningful way. Without hesitation, I recommend The Late Tang to anyone interested in poetry, in China, or in human civilization.

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