Text and Image in Yang Shen's Poetry on Travel

Ihor Pidhainy
None, 2007 vol. 34 pp. 130--169

This paper is an exploration of the relation of text and image as

seen through the travel poetry of the mid-Ming scholar Yang Shen (1488-1557),

who was exiled to southwest China in 1524. Text is understood to refer to the

overall work by which a ‘meaning’ or an interpretation can be produced.

Imagery refers to the representation of the outside world as captured through

words. The relationship of imagery and text is complex – sometimes imagery

reinforces the ‘meaning’ of the text; at other times, imagery works against that

meaning offering alternative readings of the work involved.

Travel writing is under examination as it is a unique genre that allows

scholars from a variety of disciplines to define it in very particularistic ways.

Travel writing can range from extremely dry non literary accounts of voyages to

highly imaginative created journeys. This allows for a flexibility of handling of

the topic, particularly as noted above in the distinction between text and image.

Chinese travel poetry, unlike its western cousin, is lyrical for the most part.

This feature of Chinese poetry strengthens the importance of the image in relation

to the text.

Four of Yang’s poems are under consideration here. In “Verses on

Bamboo Branches,” is Yang’s pre-exilic experience of traveling through the

Three Gorges on his way home to Xindu, Sichuan. He develops a familiarized

world, which captures encyclopaedically the world through the imagery. “Song

of Gratitude” is a lyrical masterpiece in two-hundred lines that recounts his

journey into exile from Beijing to Yongchang, Yunnan in 1525. The first half

of the poem deals with the familiar landscape of Eastern China which Yang

traverses in the company of his wife. The second half of the poem follows his independent route through the lesser known roads to his place of exile. Yang

records a journey that progressively displaces Han cultural norms with the wild

freedom of the peoples who inhabit the mountainous stretches of the land. This

poem is a tour de force and marks a place in the Chinese poetic tradition of a shift

from centre to periphery. “Poem on Baojing” describes a journey to a mining

outpost that straddles the Mian (Burmese) and Ming empires. Intended as a

critique of court extravagance, Yang explores the distance between Han and

indigenous cultures through images whose overtones may be characterized as

orientalist in representation. This feature of the imagery is particularly at odds

with the meaning of the poem. “Songs of Lake Dian,” is in a hybrid format that

combines travel poetry with the gazetteer, a popular genre that the elite would

create for the glory of the local place (prefecture, province, mountain, river,

temple, etc). In it, the meaning of the text is conveyed overwhelmingly through

the array of disparate images that project a Yunnan culture composed of Han

military and officials, indigenous peoples and a Daoist natural indifference to

meaning in the world. The journeys however are not presented front and centre

in this work, but rather undergird the work.