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Cratylus Sinensis: An Interdisciplinary and Comparative Study of the Han Dynasty Rhapsody and Graeco-Roman Poetics

Researcher: Martin Svensson Ekström

In early Han Dynasty China—second century B.C.—the fu 賦 (or Rhapsody) became the most prestigious form of literature, not least through the close ties between some of the foremost fu-poets, such as Sima Xiangru, and the imperial court. Although the term ‘literature’ is inherently problematic, especially when applied to early China (Svensson Ekström 2006), the fu is by all standards highly literary: dense, self-reflecting and contrived, with many references to earlier texts. In contrast to the earlier, rather more expressionistic poetic genres, the fu-poets cultivated an ornate style in which natural sceneries, objects and people were represented in extraordinary detail. To this end, the poets explored the Chinese lexicon for obscure and obsolete characters, or crafted wholly new characters, with which to represent the external world, and this resulted in long, baroque poems that abound with near-synonyms, and that are highly laborious to read, and to translate.

The present project explores the fu as a meeting point between several artistic and philological discourses and practices. The fu is quite obviously a hybrid of poetry, literary exegesis, and lexicography. But the main hypothesis of this project is that the fu also employs techniques borrowed from cartography, painting, landscaping and the plastic arts, not merely from earlier poetic genres. In other words, the fashioning of a new vocabulary of Chinese characters is not merely linguistic in nature but also an endeavour intimately related to visual art, in that it aims at an exact representation of the poet’s vision.

It is thus the project’s aim to explore the interstices between verbal and visual art in fu-poetry, between the lexicography of the fu-poets and the theory and practice of landscaping, between detailed poetic descriptions of the Han empire and cartography. Committed to the question of intermediality, the project is fundamentally interdisciplinary. The characteristics of the paintings discovered in Han Dynasty tombs during the past three decades, but also our increasing understanding of how the tombs themselves were formed as replicas of the houses of the living, and how the imperial gardens were construed as miniature representations of the Han Empire – these are all questions of direct relevance for a deeper understanding of the fu and its origins in older and contemporary poetic and artistic practices.

At the same time, the project is fundamentally comparative. The ideal of verisimilitude in the fu, and the languages philosophy implicit therein, makes this genre very favorable for comparisons (mutually enlightening, not dichotomizing or excluding) with Greek and Roman theories on the mimetic arts, and with Greek and Roman poetry itself.

Sidansvarig: Gunhild Vidén|Sidan uppdaterades: 2015-06-25

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