New Publication: The Medieval Chinese Gāthā and Its Relationship to Poetry

Stein 5692, Dunhuang collection, British Library

Was there ever such a concept as “Buddhist poetry” in the medieval Chinese world, widely considered to be the golden age of classical Chinese poetry? My latest article, just published in T’oung Pao, is one attempt to try to answer this question. In particular, I look at the use of a Chinese character, jì 偈, over the course of about 800 years. This term was used to transcribe the Sanskrit word gāthā (“song” or “verse”), and it quickly became associated with Buddhism. To find out if gāthās ever came to be considered real “poetry” in medieval China, check out the full article here or by clicking on the image above.

My other major attempt to understand the concept of “Buddhist poetry” in medieval China can be found in my dissertation, “The Invention of Chinese Buddhist Poetry: Poet-Monks in Late Medieval China (c. 760–960 CE).” That one takes a different approach, looking at Buddhist actors rather than Buddhist genres.

I am delighted that this article has finally received the light of day. I wrote the first version of it in March 2014, presented a version of it at Stanford in April 2014, a shortened version of it at MLA in January 2016, submitted it for publication in January 2016, revised it while at London in July 2016, and saw the first proofs of it in February 2017. It’s been with me for more than three years, and represents the most thorough research I’ve done yet, aside from my dissertation. I hope that a few readers may find it useful or edifying in some way.

Abstract: This paper investigates the shifting definitions of the term gāthā (Ch. ji) over an 800-year period, from the earliest sūtratranslations into Chinese until the mid-tenth century. Although the term originally referred to the verse sections of scriptures, gāthās soon began to circulate separately, used in ritual, contemplative, and pedagogical practices. By the late sixth century, it began to mean something like “Buddhist verse.” Over the course of the Tang, gāthās came to take on the formal features of poetry, eventually becoming all but indistinguishable from elite verse. However, the word gāthā was always seen as something inferior to real poetry, and, by the late Tang, we find poet-monks belittling other monks’ didactic verses so as to distinguish their own work and avoid the taint of the word gāthā.

Résumé: Cet article explore l’évolution du sens du terme gāthā (ch. ji) sur une période s’étendant sur plus de huit cent ans, depuis les premières traductions des sūtra en chinois jusqu’au milieu du dixième siècle. Bien que ce terme désignât à l’origine les parties rimées des textes sacrés bouddhiques, les gāthās très tôt commencèrent à circuler indépendamment et à être employées dans les pratiques rituelles, contemplatives et pédagogiques. Vers la fin du sixième siècle, il devint synonyme de « poésie bouddhique ». Au cours de la dynastie des Tang, les gāthās adoptèrent les règles formelles de la poésie, si bien qu’ils devinrent quasiment identiques aux autres formes d’expression poétique des élites. Le mot gāthā cependant continua à évoquer un style inférieur à celui de la « vraie » poésie, et à la fin des Tang des moines-poètes moquèrent les vers didactiques composés par d’autres moines dans le but de distinguer leur propres compositions et de se démarquer des connotations peu flatteuses du terme gāthā.

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