The Art and Politics in East
Asia Workshop


Poetry in Action:

The Narrativity of Oracular Poems in Southeast China’s Divination

Xueting Liu

Ph.D. Candidate


Friday, May 22
3:00-5:00 p.m.

Judd 313


To describe JinBang as a village of poetry might invite severe challenges if the concept of poetry is restricted to
elegant classical Chinese regulated verse or free verse rich in “literariness”. This southeastern Chinese village situates in southern Fujian, with tea industry as the 9000 residents’ main means of life. 20% villagers are illiterate according to the official statistics, and the fact that most of the villagers older than 30 speak only local dialect makes the classical Chinese poetry recitable only by the school children. Yet poetry in its broader definition, i.e. verse, is present in every household and at every street corner. JinBang villagers listen to the poetry read as lines in local drama including puppet theater, Xiang opera and Ge Zai opera; they receive temple oracles in form of poems in the village temple Xing Yi Dian; and poems and poetic images are even the source of lottery number guessing. Closely bounded with their idea of fate and history, the reading of poems remains a crucial position both in JinBang village life and in individual villager’s life history and calls for the reader’s reflexive understanding and creativity in
discovering the hidden meanings in texts and the hidden possibilities in the life history of the characters that poems depict.

In this paper, I will discuss the narrativity of temple oracular poems in JinBang and the temple divination
practice (Chou Chien) as its context, because as the intersection of poetic text and the concept of fate, the oracular poems sheds light on an understanding of the framework the villagers employ in viewing their life crises and historical events. There being no easy, formulaic solution to either the problem that the petitioner faces or the problem of interpretation that the diviner faces, divination in JinBang is an action against closure more than a calculation of determined fate. As an exercise of human agency based on the agency of words, Chou Chien stresses
on here and now more than why and how, whereas it also calls attention to a reinterpretation of history. Taking Chou Chien as a generative meaning-making and meaning grounding process both on the petitioner’s and the diviner’s sides, I follow a Bahktinian approach in describing the multivocality of oracular poems and the interactive process of selection and communication, and in taking Chou Chien as a responsive and communicative action. Emphasizing on the intertextuality of oracular poems, I will discuss the mosaic of quotations in poems and how the readers view the poems in reference of local drama. In the end, I will turn to a modern practice of lottery number guessing which employs a similar technique of text interpretation.

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