Dialogues in the Dark: Reinterpreting the “Tian wen” 天問

Dialogues in the Dark: Reinterpreting the “Tian wen” 天問

Nicholas Morrow Williams - Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, University of Hong Kong

Monday, March 29, 2021 - 6:30pm to 8:00pm
via Zoom See map

A great saga of scholarly debate in the Chinese tradition surrounds the “Tian wen” 天問 (Heavenly questions) poem in the Han anthology Chuci 楚辭. Because of the interrogative mode of the entire text, many of its lines lack sufficient context to be read on their own, a difficulty which, compounded by the poem’s archaic and sometimes wilfully opaque language, has given to rise to countless different readings of the poem. This study examines several key interpretations of the “Tian wen” across history, ranging from poetic responses by Jiang Yan 江淹 and Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 to scholarly interpretations in the early Qing. Past readers have dealt with inevitable lacunae in their understanding by feats of exegetical ingenuity and also by strokes of creative boldness; their interpretations of this text are ultimately only as valid as their idiosyncratic conceptions of Heaven’s intentions.

Nicholas Morrow Williams is associate professor of Chinese literature in the School of Chinese of the University of Hong Kong and editor of Tang Studies. For the past several years he has been occupied with a new translation of the Chuci (Elegies of Chu) anthology, forthcoming from Oxford World Classics, and also with a monograph on the anthology and its reception, provisionally entitled Chinese Poetry as Soul-Summoning. He is also interested in the interactions among Chinese literature, Buddhism, and philosophy in Kūkai and other writers.


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