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Chinese Letters and Intellectual Life in Medieval Japan: The Poetry and Political Philosophy of Chūgan Engetsu


This dissertation explores the writings of the fourteenth-century poet and intellectual Chūgan Engetsu 中巌円月, a leading figure in the literary movement known to history as Gozan (“Five Mountains”) literature. In terms of modern disciplinary divisions, Gozan literature straddles the interstices of several distinct areas of study, including classical Chinese poetry and poetics, Chinese philosophy and intellectual history, Buddhology, and the broader tradition of “Sinitic” poetry and prose (kanshibun) in Japan.

Among the central contentions of this dissertation are the following: (1) that Chūgan was the most original Confucian thinker in pre-Tokugawa Japanese history, the significance of his contributions matched only by those of early-modern figures such as Ogyū Sorai, and (2) that kanshi and kanbun were creative media, not merely displays of erudition or scholastic mimicry. Chūgan’s expository writing demonstrates that the enormous multiplicity of terms and concepts animating the Chinese philosophical tradition were very much alive to premodern Japanese intellectuals, and that they were subject to thoughtful reinterpretation and application to specifically Japanese sociohistorical phenomena. No less intrepid in the realm of poetry, Chūgan candidly addressed themes such as illness, war, and poverty, and experimented with unusual Sinitic forms such as hexasyllabic quatrains and the vernacular “song lyric” or ci 詞, which though popular in China was very seldom seen in Japan.

The thematic and stylistic breadth of Chūgan’s oeuvre reveals the catholicity of Gozan literary culture and suggests directions for further research into Japanese intellectual history and Sinitic poetry during the medieval era.

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