The Literary Formation of Cultural Communities in Mid-Third- Through Early Fifth-Century China
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CitationChamness, Graham. 2018. The Literary Formation of Cultural Communities in Mid-Third- Through Early Fifth-Century China. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Abstract“The Literary Formation of Cultural Communities in Mid-Third- through Early Fifth-Century China,” explores elite social gatherings and the literature produced at those gatherings at the beginning of the period of division between north and south. This largely coincides with the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420), the first southern dynasty, whose court was founded south of the Yangzi River with the help of a small group of aristocratic families after the territorial loss of the north to invading tribes. Previous scholarship tends to characterize this period as a moment in history when the cultural elite turned inwardly toward an esoteric metaphysical discourse concerned with self-discovery. While not entirely false, this view is misleading at least in the sense that it overlooks the degree to which emigre elites of the Eastern Jin turned toward each other, through their shared interest in the discourse of the "arcane" (xuan), here referring to the mystical Way that was at once spoken of by the Taoist philosophical texts preserved from antiquity and by the Buddhist sutras being translated in China from India and Central Asia, and sought to rebuild a sense of community together in the absence of their ancestral heartland. I argue that the elite social gatherings we read about in works like the Shishuo xinyu (New Account of Tales of the World) and literary writings produced at those gatherings, such as the poems composed by various participants at the famous gathering at Lanting in 353, and other social writings preserved in Buddhist anthologies and personal literary collections reveal a common trope during this period of being joined together as a community through individual absorption in a shared mystical understanding of the ineffable Way, of the great men of the past, and of the teachings of the Buddha. Being defined in some sense by not belonging to the court, the elites from this brief slice of time configure themselves into cultural communities that are markedly different from the cultural worlds of the periods that come immediately before and after, when literary output was primarily centered around the court.
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