Criticism on Poetry / Shihua (Story-telling with Song and Speech)
This term has a two-fold meaning. First, it refers to any work that contains critiques or commentaries on poets, poems, schools of poetry, anecdotes about poets, and textual research. This type of work is a constituent part of scholarly inquiry into classical Chinese poetry. The tradition of offering commentaries on poetry had its origin in “The Critique of Poetry” by Zhong Rong (?-518?) of the Liang Period of the Southern Dynasties. The first somewhat complete commentary on poetry and poets was Ouyang Xiu’s Criticism of Poetry, by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) of the Northern Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty’s most renowned work of poetry commentary, which also had the greatest influence on scholars of later generations, was Canglang’s Criticism on Poetry by Yan Yu (?-1264) of the Southern Song Dynasty. After that, notes of this kind became a principal medium through which to offer commentaries on poetry and propose theories of poetry composition. The Ming and Qing dynasties boasted the largest number of works of poetry commentary. The best of such works were Desultory Remarks on Poetry from Ginger Studio by Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692) and Suiyuan Remarks on Poetry by Yuan Mei (1716-1798), both from the Qing Dynasty. During the Ming and Qing periods, Commentaries on Poetry from Past Dynasties, A Sequel to Commentaries on Poetry from Past Dynasties and Qing Dynasty Commentaries on Poetry were also published, all of which contain important works of poetry critiquing of all dynasties. Commentaries/critiques on poetry essentially shun a comprehensive and elaborate theoretical system and focus instead on articulating the critic’s personal, nuanced appreciation and evaluation of poetry. Each of them contains only a few terse remarks, airing views on finer points in poetic composition and revealing personal feelings and thoughts on rules governing artistic creation. Commentaries on poetry are themselves highly literary and deserve to be appreciated from that perspective. Such commentaries on poetry, with their distinctly Chinese cultural features, distinguish themselves from Western scholars’ obsession with systematic construction of literary theories and strictly scientific modes of expression.
Second, the term shihua may also refer to a kind of age-old art of theatrical performance that intersperse singing with narrative, and verse with prose. Rhymed verse, which normally consists of seven characters to a line, is employed for singing. Prose, on the other hand, is used as in vernacular speech. The earliest extant work of this kind is Tales of Xuanzang’s Journey to the West compiled and published during the Song and Yuan periods.
Commentaries on poetry serve to expound rules guiding the composition of poetry, detail the evolution of poetry from past to present, note the imperial court’s meritorious deeds, record anecdotes and hearsay, as well as to rectify malpractices in poetic composition. (Xu Yi: Yanzhou’s Commentaries on Poetry)
The tradition of offering commentaries on poetry is traced back to Zhong Rong’s “The Critique of Poetry.” (Zhang Xuecheng: General Principles of History)