Sunday, May 7, 2017

Poetry and politics in China

Burton Watson on the "public side to poetry" in China:
From early times, Confucian scholars have seen poetry as playing a vital role in the ordering of the state, functioning as a vehicle through which the officials and common people might celebrate the virtue of a just ruler or, as is more likely to be the case, decry the hardships inflicted by an unjust one. This view of poetry as a medium for social and political complaint has led to the composition of many moving and impassioned works, realistic descriptions of the griefs of the tax-burdened farmers, outcries against military conscription and the ills of war, and attacks on social injustice in its many guises. 
According to Confucian theory, the ruler was expected to welcome such complaints as expressions of loyal concern on the part of his subjects. But in an authoritarian governmental system such as that of imperial China, reasonable complaint was in practice all too often interpreted as treasonable impertinence, and countless officials found themselves summarily demoted and “exiled” to minor office in some remote province as a result of their poetic criticisms. It is a tribute to the courage and integrity of the Chinese poet-officials that, in spite of such risks, so many of them continued over the centuries to pour out their remonstrances in poetry.
The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984), pp. 4-5.

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