The Anxiety of Significance: A Study of Form and Meaning in Early Chinese Literary Thought

  • Author / Creator
    Cai, Zheng
  • This dissertation inquires into the relationship between form and meaning regarding literary representation, as presented in literary and critical discourses, in the vein of early Chinese literature. The concept of “significance” serves to epitomize, as “signification” does in modern semiotics, the indeterminate relationship between literary configuration of the world (form) and the spiritual freedom of man (meaning). Starting with a survey of Western ideas on the subject, this research looks into the Chinese equivalent, topically analysed within five component discourses: (1) myth, especially the mythological accounts centering on the spiritual freedom of a primordial sage—the Chinese archetype of man; (2) the shi, or the orthodox literary discourse of poetry modelled on the Classic of Poetry, the early interpretation of which came to formulate fundamental rules for poetic thinking; (3) the shuo, or the preliminary literary discourse of narrative talks, argued here to be the precursor of xiaoshuo (petty talks), the Chinese designation for prose fiction; (4) the metalinguistic notion of ming, or Names, under which the relationship between language and meaning was fruitfully debated in the classical era; and (5) the wen, a quintessential literary discourse not only referring to prosaic writing in a rhetorical and ornate style, but gradually to the supreme art of letters. In the end, this study tries to reach an eclectic synthesis of literary theories, seeing them as successive attempts to normalize the relationship between form and meaning, with the loci of significance varying with the flux of poetics and hermeneutics. The distinction between Eastern and Western literary thought, however, partly lies in that, whereas the epistemological pendulum has kept swinging between mimesis (i.e., a real and thus reliable representation) and poiesis (i.e., a false and artificial creation) in the West, Chinese literary minds have long been comfortable with the spirit of transformation—a constant différence in the workings of literary signs, as well as in the history of literary discourses.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2015
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Daniel Fried, Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, and Department of East Asian Studies
    • Zeb Raft, Department of East Asian Studies
    • Dian Li, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Arizona
    • Gary Kelly, Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, and Department of English and Film Studies
    • Victoria Ruétalo, Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies
    • Anne Commons, Department of East Asian Studies
    • Massimo Verdicchio, Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies