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.