The Aesthetics of Non-Discrimination: Chinese Poetics and Social Critique in Huihong's Night Chats from Chilly Hut (c. 1121)
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The Aesthetics of Non-Discrimination: Chinese Poetics and Social Critique in Huihong's Night Chats from Chilly Hut (c. 1121)

  • Author(s): Babcock, Sarah Jane
  • Advisor(s): Egan, Ronald C
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation provides a comprehensive analysis of Lengzhai yehua 冷齋夜話 (Night Chats from Chilly Hut), a ten chapter miscellany (biji 筆記), by the monk Juefan Huihong 覺範惠洪 (1071-1128). My study contributes to our understanding of twelfth century Chinese cultural history in the following three ways. First, by examining Huihong’s literary miscellany in the context of the author’s monastic background, we are given access to a monk’s perspective on various aspects of literati culture, an underrepresented voice compared to that of non-monks. Second, through a close study of the earliest textual examples of concepts such as the “poetic eye” (shiyan 詩眼) as recorded by Huihong and his contemporaries, this study clarifies the process by which Buddhist terminology and ideas were adopted and aestheticized during the nascent stages of self-conscious Chinese poetry criticism in the Northern Song. Third, by examining Huihong’s approach to poetry and anecdotes on social life in Night Chats, this is the first full length study to reveal how Huihong’s Buddhist perspective of non-discrimination became an aesthetic ideal used to promote artistic creativity and critique social limitations. As an informal collection of diverse notes, accounts, recorded conversations, and humorous vignettes on literary and social topics of his day, Huihong’s Night Chats from Chilly Hut has long been familiar to Chinese literature scholars and historians and is frequently cited in pre-modern commentaries. Coming from a Buddhist monk, we might expect Buddhist dogma or monastic practices to figure largely in the text. However, the entries that comprise the collection rarely deal directly with such things as monastic renunciation or solitary contemplation. Instead, they are bursting with colorful accounts of Huihong’s literary interests and social interactions. As a result, a cursory reading misses the miscellany’s significance as a reflection of Buddhist monastic life. But as the only Northern Song Chan monk known to write a miscellany, at a time when officials were increasingly showing interest in the form, Huihong was as much making a statement about the legitimacy and contribution of monks within literati culture as he was simply recording his personal interests and observations. This dissertation approaches Huihong’s Night Chats holistically from an interdisciplinary perspective in which discussions of poetics and accounts of individuals are understood within the context of the author’s monastic identity. Through a study of Huihong’s unconventional life story followed by a close analysis of three dominant topics in his miscellany—poetics, people, and poet-monks—we see that an important indication of his monastic outlook is not the appearance of Buddhist monks nor the occasional reference to scripture or Buddhist terminology, all of which can found in miscellanies written by non-monks, but the underlying approach to social and literary criticism based in aestheticized Buddhist non-discrimination, or seeing beyond superficial distinctions.

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