The problem of defining the “imagination” has exercised a wide range of philosophical and literary writers in the west, from Coleridge on down to our day. Using this evocative and elusive term as a lens through which to examine literary—especially poetic—writing in medieval China allows us to raise questions about both our understanding of what “imagination” can imply, and our reading of some of the great works of this period in Chinese literary history.
We will devote the first part of the course to articulating such key concepts as “imagination” and “image” (along with corollary categories such as “fiction” and “reality”) as they are explored in modern and contemporary English philosophical works (along with some Chinese works, available in translation). In the second part, we will read some writings in ancient Chinese mythology and classical Chinese literary thought that, while devoid of any single term that can be directly translated as imagination, map out more-or-less clear boundaries between reality and fiction; how, we will ask, does this discourse compare with the “imagination” of western texts?
Then, at last, grappling with the aesthetic, moral, and political implications of the free expression of this psychological mode, we will then begin to look at the works of three central Tang Dynasty poets—all of whom are most often characterized as especially given to wildly non-referential writing: Li Bai, Li He, and Li Shangyin. Engaging in the intensive reading and discussion of the works of these three starkly distinct poets, in tandem with selections drawn from the polemical critical discussion their work inspired, we will interrogate the content, the function—and the “acceptable” limits—of imagination in poetry written during this important moment in the history of Chinese literature. In the end, we will give some thought to how our understanding of the permutations of the imagination has been transformed by the experience of reading these works.