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The imagery of Tang "poems on things": a semiotic approach

English title The imagery of Tang "poems on things": a semiotic approach
Applicant Behr Wolfgang
Number 163032
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Ostasiatisches Seminar Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Other languages and literature
Start/End 01.01.2016 - 30.09.2016
Approved amount 56'296.00
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Keywords (8)

yongwu shi ('poems on things'); Tang poetry; reading and writing conventions; imagery; semiotics; poetic lexicon; isotopies; literary linguistics

Lay Summary (German)

Zweifellos war die Táng-Zeit (618-907) eine Blütezeit der poetischen Produktion in China. Die sich in dieser Zeit verfestigende, durch den Rückgriff auf Zitate, Anspielungen und andere Typen von Intertextualität charakterisierte poetische Bildsprache, wurde in der Retrospektive oftmals als “klassisch” bezeichnet. Zugleich war die Figurativität des poetischen Ausdrucks in dieser Zeit in vielerlei Hinsicht durch strenge Kompositionsregeln beschränkt, denen eine semiotische Beschreibung als System ineinandergreifender semantischer Einheiten angemessen erscheint.
Lay summary

Eines der charakteristischen Merkmale der klassischen chinesischen Poesie ist ihre komplexe Bildsprache. Mit dem Aufkommen des poetischen Genres der sogenannten “Gedichte im neueren Stil” (jinti shi) während der Tang-Dynastie, das hochgradig formalisierte Kompositionsregeln bevorzugte, wurde die poetische Sprache auf vielen Ebenen zunehmend reglementiert. Im Zuge dieser Entwicklung wurden wiederkehrende lexikalische Muster des poetischen Ausdrucks ausgebildet, die sich nicht selten zu regelrechten Klischees stabilisierten. Ziel des Projektes ist es, eine strukturierte Beschreibung der dichterischen Bildsprache zu unternehmen, die anhand des Materials der “Gedichte über Dinge” (yongwu shi) ein semiotisches System der verwendeten Bilder und ihrer Kombinatorik rekonstruiert. Im Kern des Projektes steht zunächst die Beschreibung von Einzelbildern, den von ihnen evozierten “Bedeutungen” und der durch sie konstituierten semantischen Gruppen, die nicht selten als austauschbare Einheiten fungierten. Überdies wird der Gebrauch von Bildmetaphoriken in verschiedenen Kon- und Kotexten adressiert, stets unter Einbezug seiner Beeinflussing durch die vorgegebene formale (und prosodische) Struktur der “Gedichte im neueren Stil”. Vor diesem Hintergrund soll schliesslich versucht werden, die Bildsprache im jeweiligen Spannungsfeld zwischen der “konventionellen” Erfüllung von Rezeptionshaltungen und jenen “unkonventionellen” Brüchen mit den von ihnen getragenen Leseerwartungen zu analysieren, die darauf abzielen, poetische “Effekte” zu etablieren.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 02.01.2016

Lay Summary (English)

The Táng dynasty (618-907) was undoubtedly a time when poetry flourished in China. The poetic language which took final shape during this period and largely resorted to citations, allusions and different types of intertextuality was later considered to be “classical”. At the same time, its figurative language was relatively restricted and subject to numerous rules of composition, making it possible to describe it semiotically, i.e. as a system of interconnected semantic units.
Lay summary

One of the distinctive features of the Classical Chinese poetry is its complex figurative language. With the rise of the new poetic genre of “recent style poetry” (jinti shi) during the Tang dynasty, which is highly formalized and has strict rules of composition, the language used also started to grow more constrained. This led to appearance and stabilization of recurring lexical patterns used for poetic expression, which, more often than not, tended to form certain clichés. The aim of this project is to give a systematic account of the figurative language, i.e. the images used in such poetry and to describe it as a semiotic system using the material of “poems on things” (yongwu shi). The core subject is the description of separate images, their meanings and the semantical groups they form either to be used together or to become interchangeable units. Apart from that, the usage of images within poems and in different con- and cotexts will be discussed, including the influence of the formal (prosodic) structure of “recent style poetry” on it. Finally, the figurative language of “poems on things” will be analyzed in terms of fitting the clichés and corresponding to a reader’s expectations (“conventional”) or breaking the expectations to achieve a poetic effect (“unconventional”).

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 02.01.2016

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
Prof. Dr. Paul Kroll, University of Colorado at Boulder United States of America (North America)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Prof. Dr. Ilya Utekhin, European University at St.Petersburg Russia (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Prof. Dr. Martin Kern, Princeton United States of America (North America)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
160252 The aural aesthetics of Táng poetry 01.05.2015 Project funding (Div. I-III)


An important feature of Classical Chinese poetry is its complex figurative language. Its imagery, viz. its usage of tropes, symbols and, more generally, the conventional poetic lexicon, were continuously influenced by the following factors: the creation of a poem often required reciting verses considered prominent in the tradition, of imitating the style of other poets, and of appealing to a large number of well-known historical events, anecdotes, philosophical texts, etc. These requirements eventually led to the stabilization of a number of recurring patterns in the Chinese poetic tradition. The stricter the rules of composition, the more constrained the core of reoccurring images became. After the rise of eight-line 'regulated verses' (lüshi) in jinti shi 'recent style poetry', a genre quite constrained in terms of permissible linguistic and stylistic structures, composition of a poem increasingly became a mere play with preexisting templates and patterns. The underlying idea of creativity is thus represented by a poetic corpus which displays a relatively restricted use of figurative language. Moreover, the lexicon of this corpus was highly conducive to semantic clustering, the resulting clusters in turn often being predictably interrelated, which renders them suitable for structural analysis. Research on medieval Chinese poetry often tends to be descriptive, whereas semiotic approaches to traditional prose and poetry in China typically have given priority to the study of phonological patterning, argument construction and the methods of translation so far. The present proposal aims to counterbalance this lopsidedness by putting a special emphasis on the analysis of the poetic discourse and lexicon as a semiotic "system", i.e. by targeting the interrelations between units of figurative language in separate poems, as well as parts of the shared encyclopedia of conventional imagery. Such an approach is expected to provide new insights into the techniques of writing and reading Classical Chinese poetry against and beyond the canvas of its broader sociocultural settings.The corpus of the proposed study will be focused on shi poetry of the Táng period (618-907) with its two basic forms, i.e. gutishi 'ancient style poetry', which experienced a great revival during the Táng period, and jìntishi 'recent style poetry', which rose and flourished at the same time. Both forms have a fixed number of characters per verse line and a number of rules governing the syntactic constituents in parallel lines. If compared to some other poetic forms that either have a high variability of syllabic patterns or decidedly more fuzzy rules of composition, these forms provide material more conducive to formal approaches to poetic structure and composition. Moreover, the proposal will limit itself to the discussion of yongwu shi or 'poems on things' which describe objects in the natural world and a person's immediate social environments, such as plants, animals, celestial objects, items of everyday use etc. to convey meaning and thought. While precedents of this style arguably may be traced to the Shijing and Eastern Zhou "ekphrastic" epigraphy, it was only during the Táng period that poetic activities at commonplace margins escalated the style to a substantially new quantitative and unprecedented aesthetic level.Methodologically, the corpus will be approached in a broadly semiotic framework, i.e. via a delineation of paradigmatic and syntagmatic clusters and a grouping of separate units into "isotopies", to be analyzed by their distribution, oppositions, and dominance in texts. It is hoped, that this approach will allow for a principled discussion of imagery and its functioning in the process of composition and reading. The study will thus mostly rely on now "traditional" Jakobsonian methodologies and their Russian and French structuralist extensions, but not restrict itself to any particular school, as traditional Chinese poetry is a relatively new subject for semiotics and the methods applied are bound to require substantial revisions, as the project proceeds.