Want to really annoy a Harvard professor? Just tell Comparative Literature Professor Stephen Owen that Western tradition is individualistic while Chinese tradition is collective.
“I thought I’ve told people for 20 years this is not true, and it keeps coming back,” he says with a sigh of exasperation. “The notion that in China somehow the person is defined purely as part of the social community, in collective terms –this commonplace is absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who studies Chinese poetry.”
Owen makes this observation in lecture 11, of the Harvard course China: Traditions and Transformations (website), where he introduces classical Chinese lyric poetry beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 9) and continuing through the Tang Dynasty (618–907). In this special guest lecture he talks about how poetry became an integral part of the lives of China’s elite: they went to poetry parties, composed poems to greet each other and say goodbye, and wish each other a happy birthday. While most of the everyday poems that survive are quite mediocre , the master lyric poets created poems of great beauty. Owen reads example poems, showing how masters of Chinese lyric poetry expressed their rich inner lives, and even laughed at themselves and their society.
These poems still live in Chinese culture today. Chinese schoolchildren often memorize classic lyric poems, and Owen notes that visiting Chinese scholars often ask him to name his favorite poems.
Owen concludes, “In studying Chinese culture, the progress of ideas is important, and huge social and economic changes, and the alternation of dynasties. But Chinese poetry reminds us that life is also lived in the particular as well as in the large. … Chinese poetry gives the necessary balance that makes it fully human.”