The scent of poetry : a preliminary reading of Xiangguan shuo by Qian Qianyi
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The thesis focuses on an innovative view of poetry of the late Ming poet and literary historian Qian Qianyi (1582–1664). It consists of close analysis and loose translation of Qian’s two essays on olfactory poetics. The stigma of Qian’s disloyalty to the Ming dynasty prevented sufficient scholarly research into his works before the end of the Qing era. There is still a scholarly lacuna of Qian’s literary works, particularly his prose texts, the vast majority of which remain unstudied. This thesis is thus a modest attempt to have a more comprehensive understanding of the controversial poet and the particular role literature can play in certain historical moments. Qian claims that good poetry is redolent with virtue and that one appreciates poetry not with one’s eyes, but by way of one’s nose. Critical examination I will discuss how Qian’s idiosyncratic view of poetry allowed him to express his mixed emotions about the Ming-Qing dynastic transition. Qian’s call to read and appreciate poetry not visually but olfcatorily was a concept referred to xiangguan, or “scent viewing.” This term derived primarily from the Buddhist notion of “nose-consciousness.” On the one hand, Qian Qianyi builds on the Buddhist notion of “nose-consciousness” and proposes “scent-viewing” as the capstone of his innovative view of poetry. On the other hand, he applies the narratives of qi (“breath”) and wei (“flavor”) in classical Chinese literary discourse, and merges them with Buddhist allusions to “scent” to construct the poetics of “scent-viewing.” In this way, Qian Qianyi carves up xiangguan poetics as a rhetorical medium to navigate contemporary literary and historical discourse. Qian Qianyi’s synesthetic poetics lies at the intersection of late Ming aesthetics, literary and religious values, and a traumatized personal experience, all of which are filtered through the memory of the poet with a problematic historical image, and presented in the two essays composed for a specific rhetorical and dialectic purpose. The notion of xiangguan reflects Qian’s effort to adjust to a new dynasty as much as it presents us a new perspective from which to examine the multiple roles poetry plays during a critical historical junture such as the Ming-Qing transition.