The Soundscape of the Huainanzi 淮南子: Poetry, Performance, Philosophy, and Praxis in Early China

Early China 45:515-539 (2022)
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This article proposes that oral performance could be a philosophical activity in early China. The focus is on the Huainanzi, a densely rhymed philosophical treatise compiled by Liu An in the second century b.c.e. I show that the tome contains various sound-correlated poetic forms that are intended not only to enable textual performance but also, by means of aural mimesis, to encourage the intuitive understanding of its philosophical messages. Thus scholars of ancient poetry, philosophy, or intellectual history, despite being habituated to reading silently and observing disciplinary boundaries, should be attentive to these sonic patterns in order to do justice to the poetic-cum-philosophical richness and originality of this text. More importantly, I argue that these poetic forms enable readers and audiences to experience, embody, and, above all, enact the Way through textual performance. Thanks to the sound patterns of the Huainanzi, the somatic processes of aural reading and philosophical praxis can occur simultaneously. Vocalization becomes an actionable and repeatable spiritual exercise, which facilitates the intuitive understanding and internalization of philosophical values. In other words, the perennial knowing–doing gap is heroically closed by the Huainanzi. / 淮南子的文本聲景:早期中國的詩歌、表演、哲學與實踐 / 王棕琦 / 本文論證早期中國的文本表演可以是一種具創造性的哲學活動,而非只是以聲音演繹書寫文本的朗讀活動。文中首先指出《淮南子》裏跟聲音有關的詩歌形式不但有助朗誦表演,更能讓讀者直觀感悟書中哲學思想而不落言筌。而且,這些詩歌形式更讓讀者通過朗讀而實踐、內化書中所述之大道。可以說,《淮南子》對中國哲學的一大貢獻在於它將「知道」、「傳道」和「行道」三者合而為一。

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Peter Wong
Princeton University


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