Linda D'Argenio

In recent decades, several studies have been conducted on the social and intellectual changes affecting the Chinese elite between the second half of the Tang Dynasty (618-906) and the Song (960-1279)2. China scholars have come to consider the period following the An Lushan rebellion of 7553 as the beginning of a crisis of aristocratic culture and the declining influence of the aristocratic elite over the bureaucratic service and governance of the Empire. This process was accompanied by the gradual rise of a new elite, whose claims to power were based no longer on birthright, but on the possession of culture and the upholding of Confucian values.
Starting from the consideration that the writing of shi poetry4 was a characteristic elite activity, this article explores how the changes in the social and intellectual makeup of the elite during the transition period affected poetic writing and contributed to the development of Northern Song poetry. With the founding of the Song Dynasty, the new elite was given unprecedented authority by the polity of the founding emperors, in order to counterbalance the power of the military ranks from which the dynasty's founder had emerged. This polity contributed significantly to the development of the new elite, mainly through the reinstatement and enlargement of the exam system for the selection of officials. Between the second half of the Tang and the foundation of the Song, the elite found a new sense of identity based on the rediscovery of ru learning5 and on a shared system of cultural and ethical values. Especially influential would be the guwen ideology6 (culminating in the reform movements of the 11th century) and a form of activism geared towards the actualization of the ethical principles embodied in the Confucian textual tradition.
My research has focused on the poetry composed during the reign of the first three Song emperors, Taizu (r.960-75), Taizong (r.976-97) and Zhenzong (r.998-1022), which were the formative years of Northern Song poetry. In fact, with the reign of Emperor Renzong (1023-1063), we see the emergence of some of the best known Song poets: Mei Yaochen (1002-60), Ouyang Xiu (1007-72), Su Shunqin (1008-48), Wang Anshi (1021-86) and the young Su Shi (1037-1101). While these poets have been the objects of numerous studies, very little has been written about the genesis of early Song poetry. The early period has been often dismissed as a mere continuation of mid to late Tang poetry, lacking in originality or artistic value7. However, the dismissal of early Song poetry has threatened an understanding of the development of a Northern Song poetic style.
As a first step towards understanding the roots of Northern Song poetry, the present study examines the main traits of early poetry and its role in the literati culture of the time; it then argues that these traits anticipate some basic characteristics of later poetry.

Influence of Literati Values
Early Song poetic writing was heavily influenced by the cultural and ethical values of the intellectual elite. This belief system reflected "literati values" because it was common to a group of individuals who based their sense of identity less on class or birth considerations than on cultural sophistication. In the eyes of the government, this status made the intellectual elite virtual members of the pool from which state officials and government leaders were selected. Thus, in this context the term "literati" identifies the members of the intellectual (but not always political or socio-economic) elite of the time. The literati culture of the early Song included diverse trends ranging from the exaltation of guwen ideals (and thus of a literature that privileged the expression of the author's mind over mere literary skill) to a preference for literary refinement and ornate writing. Whatever the literary trend, culture and learning were the "conditio sine qua non" for membership in the elite.
We start by looking at the poetic activity within the court. During the first few decades following the foundation of the Song, the court made a sustained effort to be the center of literary activity.
Early emperors, most notably Taizong and Zhenzong, acted as patrons of literature and the arts. They worked to restore the cultural traditions of the empire, including ritual and etiquette, which had been disrupted by the warfare and chaos accompanying the fall of the Tang and the Five Dynasties (907-960) period8. This was seen as essential to the process of legitimizing the new dynasty. In order to show that the Song was equal to its Tang predecessor and the true inheritor of the cultural tradition, the court sponsored massive compilation projects. It published the Tang edition of the Five Classics and printed all dynastic histories in addition to several other philosophical works, encyclopedias, compendia and literary anthologies. These projects called for competent personnel, which however, was not so readily available at the dynasty's outset. Indeed, the period of war and division had disrupted the life of the elite, the traditional bearer of cultural heritage. Thus for the Song, restoring cultural brilliance to the Empire involved first and foremost a search for talented and educated individuals. This task was accomplished by reestablishing and extending the examination system to recruit officials and by "importing" men of culture and talent from the conquered kingdoms of The Five Dynasties. Both these measures would influence the development of court poetry in significant ways.
In the role it assigned to poetic composition the Song court emulated previous models. For example, it partially adopted the early Tang fashion of composing verses during social occasions and the use of poetic skill as a sign of membership in the elite. This fashion was derived directly from the Southern Dynasties9 (420-589) period before the Tang. During this time verse composition had been a favored aristocratic pastime, and poetic skill had been an almost exclusive talent of "well-born" people.
The early Tang model prevailed, most likely because it was favored by the court and the emperor. The traditional model of court poetry assigned to the emperor the role of arbiter of taste and coordinator of poetic activity. The ruler would oftentimes decide the composition topics and establish the rhymes that the courtiers would use. In this form, the celebrative aspect of poetic art was emphasized and verse compositions symbolically validated loyalty ties of the ministers to the throne. The early emperors' preference for this traditional model was in accordance with their chosen role of patrons of culture. It is shown also by contemporary records detailing verse exchanges at court and by the substantial presence of Southern Dynasties and early Tang poetry in the great Song anthology Wenyuan yinghua (Finest Blossoms in the Garden of Literature), in a section dedicated to "poetry composed under imperial command." However, early Song court poetry displayed other characteristics that were symptomatic of the changed times and of the influence of literati values, as well as the priorities of the scholar-official class. The language tended to avoid the excessive craft and refinement usually associated with "decadent" court poetry and "palace style10." The topics usually favored the extolment of the civil virtues of the ruler and the dynasty's cultural accomplishments over other themes and genera of earlier court poetry (such as romantic liaisons or yongwu poems)11.
Prominent literati from the Five Dynasties' conquered kingdoms, who had found employment with the new dynasty, also helped shape early court poetic writing. As the court was in dire need of educated people with literary skill, these men exercised considerable influence. First generation literati introduced a model of poetic writing that was popular at some of the Five Dynasties' courts. They used poetic activity as a means of polite social interaction among officials and as a token of belonging to the cultured elite. A careful examination of their works and thought shows that they too shared some of the era's literati values, although they did so from a markedly "court perspective." In other words, they subscribed to those ideas that had already been accepted by the ruler and the highest government officials as part of the cultural policy (such as the superiority of cultural/civil virtues over military expertise, the importance of learning as a criterion for the selection of officials, etc.), and actively helped shape that policy by taking part in most of the great compilation works sponsored by the court.
The most significant aspect of these early poets was the ideological role they assigned to poetic writing. Their view reiterated the main points of the orthodox Confucian position. This position, which traces back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D), defined poetry as the expression of an emotional reaction to the state of society12. This peculiar trait of poetic writing enabled it to become a vehicle of communication between the ruler and the people. Through the poems, the ruler could become aware of societal problems and adjust his policy to remedy them. The people could express their grievances in an indirect way that was not offensive to the ear of the sovereign. Thus, poetry worked as an important tool of political stability and contributed to social harmony.
The orthodox view of poetry's role had been resurrected during the institutional and cultural crisis of the second half of the Tang Dynasty. The poet Bai Juyi (772-846) emerged as a prominent figure in the Tang rejuvenation of this view. Bai Juyi had also authored a cycle of protest songs, which gave voice to current problems and grievances, thus giving practical application to the ancient ideal. During the early Song Dynasty, it was the first generation of court poets that ushered into the court the restored orthodoxy. As an example of the ideological role they envisioned for poetic writing, I will quote a passage from the Five Dynasties-Early Song literatus, state official and poet Xu Xuan (917-992). Xu had served under all three rulers of the kingdom of Southern Tang (937-75) whose court had been renowned for its literary activities. After the establishment of the Song and the conquest of the Southern Tang, Xu Xuan transferred to the service of the new dynasty. Here, probably due to his reputation as a man of letters, he received several appointments, among them that of Auxiliary Hanlin Academician. He contributed to many of the compilation works sponsored by the court. The following is an excerpt from his preface to the Poetry Collection of Mr. Chen:
"Poetry's purpose goes far; poetry's function is great indeed. It was that by which the early kings communicated the government's teachings and inspected the customs (of the people). Therefore there were the duties of the poetry collector and of elucidating (poetry). (Thereby) the feelings of beings reached high and the kindness of the king extended below". (Zeng: 1988, ch. 19, 378).
Hence, poetry was considered both a didactic and political tool. Similar views were echoed by other poets throughout the first decades of the Song and reflect the influence of ru values during this period. What is missing in Xu Xuan's poetry, as well as in that of several Five Dynasties-Song transition poets, is a focus on the poem as an instrument of social and political critique. Differently from their mid-Tang predecessors, Xu and other prominent contemporary court poets did not seem to find fault with the new establishment. As a consequence, their court compositions gravitate steadily towards a celebration of the new order. This aspect is worth some reflection. The resurgence of "Confucian values" in the second half of the Tang Dynasty, to which Song literati were the ideological heirs, had been rooted in a need to improve current conditions and to coach the government out of political and cultural crisis. The ideological climate of that period had supported the perception that membership in the elite should be based on individual morality and possession of the right kind of learning, rather than social status. Furthermore, one of the cardinal principles of Confucian political thought was that subordinates were encouraged to demonstrate with their superiors when they considered their policies unfair. Mid-Tang intellectuals had mostly subscribed to this principle and produced literary works that reflected their ethical standing. A similar view of literature would become popular again during the Song, starting from the first generation of "Song bred" civil servants. While Xu Xuan was certainly an advocate of literary education and saw poetry as a didactic and political tool, he never went so far as to use poetry as a tool of dissent.
One interpretation of this position is that Xu Xuan did not compose poems of social critique because he actually identified with the cultural and political project of the young dynasty. We have seen how Xu took an active part in almost all the great compilation works sponsored by Emperor Taizong in the first decades of Song rule. As one of the most prestigious literary figures of his time, he seems to have forcefully promoted literary competence as a criterion for the selection of officials. His view, with regard to what the cultural policy of the dynasty ought to be, thus seems to have been quite close to that of the Emperor, who patronized the literary enterprise through encyclopedic works such as the Taiping yulan (Taiping imperial reader) and Taiping guangji (extensive records of Taiping). This interpretation may explain why Xu's poetry is usually more celebratory than critical of the dynasty.
Other poems of the early Song show that the courtly style was gradually enlarging its scope to embrace themes that more accurately described the aspirations and values of the literati class. This trend is reflected in a group of compositions written in 991 to honor a piece of calligraphy engraved in stone authored by Emperor Taizong and later donated do the Hanlin Academy13. The engravings reproduced two poems dedicated by the Emperor to the Academician Recipient of Edicts, Su Yijian (958-997). The compositions were meant to show appreciation for a Record of the Hanlin compiled by Su and presented to the sovereign. The verses composed at the ensuing party to celebrate the gift, combined with exchanges of mutual appreciation between Taizong and Su Yijian, convey the impression of a successful relationship between ruler and ministers. They suggest that the emperor had been successful in creating consensus around the new dynasty by recognizing the importance of the literati and showing his understanding of ru values. The following selection illustrates this point:
Our cultured and enlightened Emperor values the literary ministers,
Sun and moon are renewed by the reward and praise of the sage's compositions.
(Wang Zhu, ?-990)
A heroic lord, lover of culture since antiquity is hard to emulate,
In favoring and valuing the literary ministers His intention is not low.
(Bi Shi'an, 938-1005)
Holding appointments they all dwell in a place of purity and distinction,
Honoring the ru together they move the sage and enlightened Lord.
Do no marvel that among the guests no one drinks,
The feeling of harmony in their hearts is naturally intoxicating.
(Su Yijian, 958-997)
If we try now to determine how successful the government was in channeling literary activity towards the center, we find a multifaceted situation that does not allow a clear-cut answer. Early rulers were certainly able to generate some consensus and an image of legitimacy for the new dynasty. In particular, Taizong and Zhenzong successfully portrayed themselves as enlightened rulers, upholders of the cultural tradition and supporters of the Confucian ideal of good government. This entailed that they keep their part of the bargain and concede a measure of intellectual and creative autonomy to the literati, in exchange for their loyalty and support. The position of the emperors vis-à-vis the literati is illustrated by court poetry. As a broad generalization, one can say that in the early Song, although poetic skill was still widely used to identify talent and to climb the political ladder, court poetry was less central to the literati's sense of identity than it had been during the Tang.
First, in the collections of the early poets the number of compositions written in a court context or under imperial command is quite small (although a great number of poems resulted from exchanges between court officials). This may indicate either that there was not much poetry composed at court or that the compilers of the collections (in many cases the authors themselves) did not consider court poetry the best part of the poets' work, and thus did not preserve it.
Second, several of the topics that were central in early court poetry also figure prominently in the poetry composed outside the court. In other words, the courtly style had lost some of its uniqueness and appeared to be more open to outside influences. Thus, court poetry is a good indication of the strength of literati culture in this early period.
The extolment of cultural achievements was a popular topic both inside and outside the court during the Song. For example, a series of over twenty poems written by officials of various rank celebrating the Hualin Academy of the Hu clan (based in Yuzhang, Jiangxi). This private institution apparently owned a library of ten thousand volumes and had been awarded by the emperor a tablet extolling the clan's virtues of filiality and righteousness. The clan is generally praised in the poems for successfully perpetuating the ru enterprise. The glorification of the exam system as well as exaltation of imperial policy and successful candidates was another theme typical of Song poetry of this period. This theme expressed a common concern of the scholar-officials.
Influence of literati (ru) culture was even more evident in the poetry composed outside the court. The cultural model promoted by the literati class extended to large sectors of society, even those that by their nature should have been far removed from elite concerns14. Two examples clearly illustrate the spread of this model. One is represented by poetry composed by members of the Buddhist clergy, a group that paradoxically had been criticized by Confucian-minded writers since the inception of the guwen movement during the Tang. The second reflects poetry written by members of the educated class, both those serving in some official capacity and those outside official circles. This last group included people who aspired to a career in government but had not as yet reached any official position, as well as individuals who avoided the official path, such as hermits, recluses or retired gentlemen.
The impact of ru values on the verses written by Buddhist monks is all the more remarkable because the doctrine, since its introduction in China around the 1st century A.D. opposed some of the central concerns of traditional culture15. For example, during the mid Tang Confucian revival, Confucian intellectuals criticized Buddhists for subordinating the welfare of the state to their own interests and corrupting the traditional social structure. This desire to keep Buddhism outside the political arena and to curb its economic power, survived almost intact into the Song. This however, did not prevent many Confucian-minded intellectuals, both in the Tang and Song dynasties from taking an active interest in the doctrine in their private life and having social and literary exchanges with members of the Buddhist clergy. It is a measure of the syncretic nature of Song thinking and of the influence of ru culture that several Buddhist monks also showed a strong interest in Confucian doctrine and expressed it through their prose and verse. For example the monk Zhi Yuan (976-1022) was an active supporter of ru values and in particular of guwen, the "ancient prose" style advocated by Han Yu. This style of writing, he believed, reflected the dao (moral way) of the sages, and the ethical mind. Zhi Yuan exchanged poetry with several other Buddhist monks, recluses and government officials, extolling in many compositions the cultural heroes of Confucianism: those who laid down the ancient institutions; those, like Confucius himself, who had transmitted the Classics. He stressed the possibility of reconciling Confucian and Buddhist values. The following poem can serve to illustrate his vision:
On explaining Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan16
Han Yu cleared out the Buddhists
Liu Zongyuan was a man of great humaneness
Han's and Liu's dao was the same:
How to arrive at the principle of good and evil
What one condemned, the other praised,
Both caused the Confucian way to extend.
Liu's inscription for the Caoqi17
Says Buddhists return to the purity of the ru.
Han Yu read Mozi18
Said Mozi and Confucians are close.
I know Mozi's (notion of) universal love
How could this notion be alien to Buddhism?
If one allows for Mozi one also allows for Buddhism
It is clear like looking at the high autumn sky.
Departing from each other they are also different,
(But) the source of their principle is equal.
Those born after study Han Yu
And snarl at Buddhism like dogs.
Before knowing Master Han's dao
They imitate Mater Han's resentment.
They forget the roots and compete for the branches
Now as in antiquity vainly wearying their minds.
(Fu: 1991, vol. 3, pp. 1504-5)
Several of Zhi Yuan's poems were dedicated to the members of a group later known as the Nine Poet-Monks, which enjoyed some fame during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong. Although they were mostly known for their ascetic and landscape poetry, the Nine Monks also wrote several poems exploiting themes or language belonging to the mainstream literati poetic tradition. These included "frontier poems," a genre centered around feats of valor and hardships suffered by frontier soldiers; or the poems in the genre "huaigu," or reflections on history, in which the poet pondered about the past, typically having been inspired by a trip to a place of historical significance. Other genres employed by the Nine Monks included the "poem on things" (yongwu) and compositions using the language of erotic poetry readapted to non-erotic themes19. Again, The Nine Monks poetry shows how literati culture had seeped through to other strata of society. The following is a composition in the tradition of frontier poetry, by the monk Hui Chong:
By the Pass- Dedicated to Wang Taiwei
The flying general is (the equal of) a Piaoyao20
His military camp is already approaching the Liao.
The ice on the river is strong (enough) for the horses to cross
The snow on the Pass is thick (enough) to hide their footprints.
The left-over banners of the defeated enemy are still there
(But) the whole army with their tents is faraway.
Calls are sent out and orders are issued:
Tomorrow we'll take the Xiongnu21.
(Fu: 1991, vol. 3, 1464)
Although we do not know under what circumstances the poem was composed, mention of the northern empire of the Liao and of a military expedition suggests that it was probably written around the period of the treaty of Shanyuan (1004), when the Song army was actively engaged in controlling the Khitan forces on the northern border of the empire22.
Nowhere was the influence of literati culture and ru values more evident than in the poetry of the scholar-officials who saw themselves as active forces in shaping a new socio-political order that could embody the principles of Confucian tradition. The transition period from the Tang to the Song dynasty had been characterized by a general reaffirmation of the culture and institutions of the remote antiquity. This trend is generally defined by the term fugu, or return to antiquity, an expression that refers to an attitude of reverence and nostalgia for an idealized past. For the more radical of the Confucian intellectuals, however, this attitude translated into nothing less than a redefinition of Confucian learning based on a personal approach to the canons, unencumbered by the century-old, accumulated layers of commentaries and interpretations of the Classics. Furthermore, it was necessary that each individual strove in his everyday life to actualize the moral principles illustrated in the Classics. This had been the basic approach to the tradition of the Tang guwen movement. During the Song, this perspective reemerged in a portion of officialdom and led in time to the reform movement of the mid eleventh century23. In the present article, we are concerned with the early expressions of the guwen revival and their effect on literature, as part of the discussion of ru influences on contemporary culture. It is also important to remember that the reformation of prose as well as verse writing had been an essential part of the Confucian revival in both the Tang and the Song dynasties. One of the most articulated figures of this revival in poetry was the scholar-official Wang Yucheng (954-1001). Wang was well known for his literary abilities and precocious poetic talent, but above all, for his outspokenness in political matters. This outspokenness was reflected in his poetic output as well as in his political career, which was marked by numerous demotions. Wang was an admirer of two major Tang poets: Bai Juyi and Du Fu (712-70). At the same time he supported the guwen ideals traced by Han Yu. These three figures exercised a powerful impact on both the content and diction of his work. From Bai Juyi he derived the vision of poetry as a reflection of the state of society. We have seen how this view, ultimately originating from the Han Dynasty's interpretation of the Book of Odes, was shared by many during the early Song. However, differently from the court poets of the previous generation, Wang moved closer to Bai Juyi's position by using poetic writing as a tool of political and social critique. Bai's influence is also visible in his poetic diction, which is characteristically simple, almost colloquial, the idea being that, if poems have to function as tools of communication between lower and higher strata of society, they should be plain and easily understandable. The following poem is a good illustration of this perspective:
Of the many fruits of Jiangdong,
Olives are considered a precious wonder.
The northerner, when wine is brought,
Eating them at first knits his eyebrows.
Skin and pit are bitter and astringent,
They cross the mouth and are then discarded.
But after a while they have an after taste
That starts to feel as sweet as sugar.
What am I alluding to now?
I'm alluding to the words of a loyal minister.
The upright way offends the lord's ear,
He is driven away exiled to the edge of the sky.
When the world is in chaos one longs for his words,
But it's too late for regret and to be able to go back.
I send these words to the poems collector:
Do not make light of the poem about olives!
(Wang: 1969, 62)
Du Fu's impact on Wang Yucheng's poetry is detectable in his inclination towards realism and the use of poetry to document events witnessed by the poet. For example, the experience of exile is described in detail and with intense personal tones in several compositions, such as the one translated below:
Cold Food Festival
This year we've spend the Cold Food fest in Shangzhou
In the mountains the landscape was lovely.
The children searched for flowers to capture butterflies,
Everyone fastened swings to the tree branches.
The suburbs and plain, green at dawn, started to be crossed by rain
On lanes and paths in spring shades at first fires and smoke were banned24.
The Vice-commissioner is relaxed and does not worry:
He has money for wine and still there is money for a tombstone.
(Wang: 1969, 107)
Finally, the impact of guwen ideals, although less obvious in his verse compositions than his prose writings, is nevertheless clearly perceivable. If one combines Wang's practice of poetic writing and his official career, one can see the practical application of the idea that the Confucian-minded official ought to understand for himself and practice in his life the moral values conveyed in the Classics. This implies sometimes entering into conflict with the policy-makers and denouncing social injustice. In Wang's own words: "While thoroughly preying on the people, he still manages the position of Remonstrance Official./ if one does not utter a single outspoken word, how can he be a honest official?/ If one does not write a single word of criticism, how can he be a good historian25?" (Wang: 1969, 39-40).
Intellectual and creative autonomy
The foregoing discussion of Wang Yucheng brings to the fore a second major trait of early Song poetic writing. The poetry of this early period reflects more and more the claims to intellectual and creative autonomy on the part of the literati elite. This trait was not always present in Song poetry. We have seen how the poets of the first generation were quite content with extolling the government's achievements and its cultural policy. However, with the second generation of scholar-officials, those who were born and matured under Song rule, there seems to have been a shift towards a more critical attitude. It is possible that the expansion of the exam system for the recruitment of officials played a role in this shift. The examinations allowed the entrance into the bureaucracy of a larger number of individuals from diverse social backgrounds, granting a measure of equality in the selection mechanism. The Song examination system was characterized since its inception by the adoption of measures to guarantee the fairness of grading as well as the participation of individuals coming from disparate social backgrounds and geographical areas (Lee: 1985, 139-60). As the candidates were selected on the basis of their abilities and learning, the examinations likely fostered a sense of self-confidence and intellectual independence, because the successful candidates were not immediately dependent on recognition from the court. A degree of social diversity (and consequently diversification of perspectives) and the notion that one was serving because of his own merits appear thus reasonably linked to the belief that one should be entitled to express his views. The time-honored idea that poetry reflected an emotional response to the state of society and the established conviction in Confucian-minded literati, that the upright official should express his opinion, even when this might not be in agreement with that of the ruler, thus found a fertile ground of development in the climate of the time. Wang Yucheng is again a fitting example of this new development. In both his verse compositions and prose writings on the role of literature (wen), Wang stressed the function of literary writings as expression of the author's mind. This function of self-expression was premised on the condition that the mind had reached the proper moral development, that is, unity with dao, the moral way. Literature became the expression of the ethical mind. But this attainment differed from simple didacticism, because it was mediated by personal experience and had to result in original writings, not in the mere imitation of ancient models. Wang Yucheng's views thus placed the responsibility for the form and content of literary works on the writer only, implicitly denying to the emperor and the court the right to dictate what literature should be like. In this sense, his position was clearly associated with that of guwen writers and their claim to authority and autonomy based on possession of learning and moral stature. In the early Song, however, one did not need to be a partisan of the "ancient literature" model to claim intellectual and creative autonomy. In fact, a very instructive example of this claim is provided by a group of poets whose literary model was very different form the one promoted by supporters of "antiquity" and the court alike. Around the year 1008, the Hanlin Academician Yang Yi and a group of court literati compiled a collection of poetry that would soon become a literary case. The collection, entitled Xikun chouchangji, or Collection of Poetry Exchanges from the West Kunlun Mountains, put together poems of various kind having as common denominator the fact of belonging to the genre of "exchange poetry." This was a genre with a long history in the Chinese tradition, which included many sub genera and enjoyed wide popularity during the Song. In the present case the term exchange poetry referred to the practice of getting together to compose poems on a shared topic. At the time of the Xikunji's composition, its authors were engaged in the compilation of an important state-sponsored project, a compendium of political texts and essays titled Cefu yuangui. The Xikunji included poems on a variety of topics. As stated by Yang Yi in his preface to the collection, many were inspired by the extensive reading of works from antiquity that its authors had to carry out for the compilation of the Cefu yuangui. Thus, poems on historical events form a substantial part of the collection. Yang Yi was the most prominent poet of the group and authored over one fourth of the 250 compositions comprising the Xikunji. For reasons of space my discussion of this work will therefore center on him. The first thing that ought to be said about this collection is that it propounded a poetic style rather different from the one popular at the time of its publication. Contemporary poets tended to use a plain and simple language, mostly in imitation of the Tang poet Bai Juyi; the court itself promoted in poetry a plain diction that lent itself to a more celebrative or didactic use. Yang and his cohorts resurrected the erudite and intensively allusive language that had characterized court poetry during the division period previous to the Tang. It was a model of refined literature that presupposed a vast and thorough learning if the reader was to make sense of the intricate web of allusions permeating the texts26. Given the erudite character of the poems in the collection, it is impossible here to delve into the details of all the literary influences detectable in the compositions. It suffices to say that, while the Xikunji was greatly admired and imitated by a number of lettered men, it soon became the object of harsh criticism on the part of the emperor and group of powerful court officials. Complaints were directed primarily against the topic and language of one specific group of poems, which narrated the reverse of fortune of an imperial favorite. The compositions, titled Xuanqu, were set in an undefined past and were replete with references to historical events and previous works, shrouded in a language almost incomprehensible for the uninitiated. They were criticized mainly for their language, which was branded as "frivolous and decadent." However, Song historical records signal that some also saw in the compositions a concealed criticism of the Emperor27. One of the major historical works from the Song so describes the court's reaction to the publication of the Xuanqu poems:
"In the jisi day of the first month of Spring of the second year of Dazhong Xianfu (1009), the Vice Censor-in-Chief Wang Sizong said: 'The Hanlin Academician Yang Yi, the Drafting Official Qian Weiyan and the Sub-editor of the Imperial Archives Liu Yun in their matched poems Xuanqu describe events relative to imperial concubines from previous ages concerning facts that are frivolous and decadent'. [The Emperor] then called upon to influence and urge scholars so that: 'From now on, if someone writes compositions that are frivolous and decadent and that do not honor the classical models, they should be severely punished. Regarding the printing of literary collections, I order the Transportation Commissioner to select an official within the Ministry to carefully examine them" (Li: 1979, 1589).
Interestingly, ever since the publication of the collection and its indictment on the part of the Emperor, subsequent critics have followed these early judgments. While the whole of the collection has been often condemned as "decadent poetry," the historical compositions, especially those on emperors of the past, have been read as veiled criticism of early Song court politics. This kind of reading, although not always adequately grounded, has found support in the contemporary accounts relative to Yang Yi's personality and political views. A precocious genius and a literary figure of great influence at court, Yang had in fact been occasionally openly critical of the imperial policy. Yang also had a reputation for being rather uncompromising when he perceived a lack of correctness in political matters. For the purpose of the present discussion, the relevant aspect is that Yang appears to have put forward the same claims to intellectual and creative autonomy that we have observed in Wang Yucheng. For example, the passage quoted above clearly shows the Emperor's partiality for a literary model closer to the orthodox classical standards. Other contemporary records also demonstrate that Zhenzong preferred an "even and bland" poetic diction28. This did not deter Yang Yi from becoming the main proponent of literary refinement in his own time. Furthermore, whether or not Yang's historical poems were actually meant to criticize the imperial policy, they certainly show an acute awareness of the complex relation between poets and central power and of the risks involved in such relationship29. The fact that Yang was able to promote the kind of erudite and allusive verse illustrated by the Xikunji, at a time when the court's cultural directives went in a different direction; that he was willing to stick to his own ideas (even when these conflicted with the position of the Emperor and other powerful officials) is ample proof of his intellectual and creative autonomy. Wang Yucheng and Yang Yi's cases further show that a demand for autonomy was a trait common to many scholar-official during the early Song and that this trait was independent from the literary model one advocated, although it is reflected in the scholar-officials' poetic production.
In the Chinese tradition, poetry writing had been a characteristic activity of the educated elite, largely practiced by members of the bureaucracy. As such, it also reflected the quality of the relationship between the elite and imperial power. Changes in the composition of the elite and the way it related to central authority thus could not fail to be reflected in poetry. The peculiar historical and political circumstances prevailing at the outset of the Song put members of the educated elite in a unique position of privilege and relative independence. Three factors are likely to have contributed to this situation: 1) the allegiance between the emperor and the scholar-officials, with which the dynasty's founder tried to counterbalance the power of the military group that had put him on the throne. This gave the scholar-officials unprecedented leverage. It also caused the court to widely adopt the literati ideology. 2) The reestablishment and enlargement of the examination system. This was the single most important means of securing literati loyalty and support. The widening of the elite's social spectrum also helped fostering a sense of involvement of officials and perspective officials, with the dynasty's cultural policy, institutions and production of ideas. 3) The development of printing technologies. This afforded better means for the average individual to acquire learning and thus, at least in theory, to enter the competition for positions in the officialdom30. Printing also effectively contributed to the rise of literacy and to the spreading of literati culture, through the publication of literary works.
Consequently, early Song poetry is marked by the strong influence of literati culture and values. Although the literary models advocated by members of the elite may have varied, poets seem to have shared the idea that their learning and or moral stature gave them authority to choose the more adequate model to express themselves. The concept of creative autonomy was possibly the most lasting legacy of early Song poets to those of the following generation. Poetic art, which during the Tang had been the imperial art par excellence, put under imperial patronage and even used to judge the proficiency of candidates for office, became during the Northern Song increasingly disengaged from the court's directives.
Finally, a few words should be spent on those traits of early Song poetry, which anticipated the verses of the following generation. One such trait is the plainness and colloquialism of early Song poetic language. These characteristics, common to much of the early poetry, were taken over and developed by later poets, becoming in time distinguishing features of well known poets like Mei Yaochen. The simplicity and roughness of his poetic language were perceived as "ancient," because in contrast with the refined diction of "decadent" poetry. Mei and his friend Ouyang Xiu used the term pingdan, even and bland, to define the kind of poetic diction that, although the result of painstaking work, had a quality of naturalness. However, it may be useful to remember that this term was already used by earlier poets to describe verses that were in harmony with the ancient orthodox model. Likewise, it is important to remember that Mei Yaochen and Ouyang Xiu, who are accredited by many critics with the creation of the new, distinctively Song style of poetry, were in fact influenced to a certain extent by the work of their predecessors. Thus Wang Yucheng's blend of Bai Juyi's protest verse and Du Fu's realism had a definite impact on Mei's verse, as did his introduction in poetry of topics that had been so far considered too low to be treated in verse compositions (Chaves: 1976). Wang's ideological and creative influence is also visible in Ouyang Xiu. Ouyang wrote some compositions imitating the older poet and, as one of the main spokesmen for the guwen inspired reform movement of the mid 11th century, he recognized Wang Yucheng as a forerunner of the Song Confucian revival31.
Yang Yi's poetry represents an opposite poetic model favoring refined and overly crafted diction, which developed in part also as a reaction to the excessive simplicity and plainness of much of the early poetry. The accusations of decadence moved against Yang and the poets of his circle were reiterated by several poets in the following generation. This, however, should not obscure the contributions provided by Yang's style to later poetry. In fact, the style of the poets in Ouyang Xiu's circle (Ouyang, Mei Yaochen, Su Shunqin) resulted largely from an attempt to strike a balance between the extremes of these two early styles. Thus, some traits later regarded as characteristic of Song poetry, such as its fondness for learning and allusions and a certain "philosophical" bent, can be traced back in part to the synthesis of the early styles effected by the poets of later generations.

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