Extolment and Satirical Criticism
This literary term is used in poetry to comment on a ruler’s moral character, policies, decrees, and performance, either in praise or criticism. Confucius was the first to point out that poetry could be used to vent resentment and thus established a basic function of poetry writing by emphasizing the role The Book of Songs played in voicing grievances. In the Han Dynasty, however, poetry tended to be used as a vehicle for extolling the accomplishments and virtues of rulers. In “Preface to Mao’s Version of The Book of Songs” and “Preface to On the Categories of The Book of Songs,” two influential writings on theory of poetry published during the Han Dynasty, extolment and satirical criticism was regarded as an underlying principle of poetic criticism. This principle was widely employed by poets and writers of later generations as a way of getting involved in politics and making their impact on the society. This constituted a fundamental function and an essential feature of Chinese literature.
Poems are composed to applaud the rulers to continue to do what is good by extolling their achievements and virtues, and to urge them to change the erroneous course by satirizing and criticizing their wrong doings. (Zheng Xuan: Preface to On the Categories of The Book of Songs)
To Confucian scholars in the Han Dynasty, poetry has two basic functions: extolment and satirical criticism. (Cheng Tingzuo: Qingxi Collection)
Melancholy and Resentment
Melancholy and resentment, which here refers to a sense of helplessness found in poems, is one of the 24 poetic styles summarized by Sikong Tu, a poet in the late Tang Dynasty. Faced with frustrations and tough challenges in life, or overwhelmed by the immensity of nature or major events, poets were often seized by dejection, grief, sadness, and anger, which gave rise to a “melancholy and resentment” style in poetry writing. While the style bears similarity with the genre of tragedy in Western literary tradition, it is more influenced by Taoism, often featuring a sense of resignation or stoic optimism.
Winds are howling, waves raging, and tree branches breaking. Gripped by an agonizing pain at my heart, I yearn for a spell of peace but only in vain. As time slips by, year after year, decade after decade, all the riches, fame, and splendor are but nothing. Facing moral degeneration, who will rise and salvage the world? With sword in hand, I heave a deep sigh and stare intensely at the sky. Overwhelmed with sorrow, all I can do is to watch leaves falling and hear rain beating against the moss. (Sikong Tu: Twenty-four Styles of Poetry)
After a deep sigh, he wrote a poem to admonish and comfort me, in which he expressed his indignation and resentment by making an analogy with imagery. He advised me not to begrudge tough times or be complacent when everything goes well in life. (Su Shi: A Poem in Reply to Wang Jinqing with a Preface)
Selected from Key Concepts in Chinese Thought and Culture published by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.