Interview with Prof. Peipei Qiu PDF Print E-mail

by Robert D. Wilson


RDW:  Thank you, Professor Qiu, for taking time from your busy schedule to be interviewed.

The hokku composed by Matsuo Basho and those he influenced is vastly different from the haiku penned today in Japan. You stated in your book, Basho and the Dao, that Basho was heavily influenced by the Daoist classic, the Zhuangzi; that "his geographical imagination" transcended the classical Japanese kigo, and was "shaped not simply by the material qualities of space," but also via "conceptions based on broader cultural, aesthetic, and philosophical frameworks," including the aesthetic of shoyoyu (carefree wandering).

In the book's Introduction you inform us that the study of the influence of Daoism on Japanese poetry is "very limited" by Japanese and Western scholars. Basho, for instance, made zoka, the Daoist term for nature's creative force, the central focus of his poetic voice.

With this stated, do you see a tie-in with the difference between the hokku written by Basho and his contemporaries and the haiku written today in Japan? Is the lack of a definitive Daoist worldview in Japanese haiku today responsible for a focus that is heavily influenced by the German-based university?

An example:

ume bloom
blue sharks appear
everywhere in the garden

Kaneko Tohta
Translated by the Konnichi Translation Group


For a while
the Flying Pope
follows Cinderella

Ban'ya Natsuishi
The Flying Pope

PQ: The depiction of nature in classical Japanese poetry is rarely naturalistic or mimetic. In fact, it is almost always encoded with cultural and symbolic implications. Since the first waka anthology, Kokinwakashû (905), the geographical imagination of Japanese poetry has been highly conventionalized. Words and images that were considered appropriate for poetry were limited to those used in the classical anthologies, and they were given fixed meanings called hon’i, which determined not only what a word or image meant, but also how it must be used. For example, according to the conventional hon’i, kawazu (frog) is a kigo of spring, although frogs can be seen in other seasons. Furthermore, the established hon’i requires that the depiction of frog must focus on its croaking, a focus that is also assigned to most of other animal images in classical poetry.

When haikai arose along with popular culture in the seventeenth century, it distinguished itself from the classical poetry with an iconoclastic spirit and the use of haigon—the everyday language and Chinese words that had not been allowed to appear in classical poetry. This development greatly expanded the scope Japanese poets could write about, but the lack of hon’i also created a problem, as the fourteen- or seventeen-syllable short verses of haikai relied heavily on a shared knowledge between the composer and the audience to complete the poetic dialogue, for which the encoded hon’i functioned to mediate intertextual associations, cultural memories, and aesthetic implications in the dialogic context. One important reason for the haikai poets’ zeal in the Daoist texts at the time was to use the Zhuangzi to reinvent the hon’i of haikai. Three major haikai schools of Bashô’s time all took the Zhuangzi as an authoritative reference for their theorization, but each used it in a different way. The Teimon school poets sought haikai’s hon’i in teaching moral values, comparing it with the metaphorical accounts of the Zhuangzi. The Danrin School saw the essence of the comic linked verse in its unrestrained style and imagination, using the Zhuangzi as a perfect model. Bashô focused on the fundamental Daoist principles and emphasized, in both his life and poetry, the spirit of carefree wandering (shôyôyû) and following zôka—natural course of creation and transformation of the universe. As we can imagine, hokku written by Bashô and his contemporaries varied, even among those who shared an interest in the Zhuangzi. Haiku written in Japan today is even more diverse, so we cannot make a generalized comparison between the hokku of Bashô’s time and haiku today. However, the fact that Bashô’s hokku is still widely read and loved today testifies to the importance of the fundamental principles on which he insisted. By following zôka, Bashô’s poetry has maintained a quality of universality and unpretentious profundity. Without this quality, a poem can only speak to a limited audience but cannot possess lasting appeal, no matter how brilliant it might be.

RDW:  How did the adaptation of Daoist beliefs influence Basho's hokku and how did said adaptation transform it into a legitimate art form?

PQ: It is hard to answer this question properly with a short paragraph, but I will try to summarize it briefly. Haikai poets’ interests in the Daoist classics had to do with the nature of haikai—its short form, unconventional approach, dialogic mode, and vernacular language. It also had to do with the Japanese tradition that placed extreme importance on classical precedents. On one hand, the haikai poets needed to depart from the classical convention to create a new popular poetry with down-to-earth language; on the other hand, they needed an authoritative classical frame of reference to legitimize the comic linked verse and to elevate it to high art. This was how many haikai masters of Bashô’s time came to Zhuangzi--a text that was not part of the waka classics but nonetheless authoritative--for reference.

Studied with both the Teimon and the Danrin masters, Bashô began to adapt Daoist ideas, such as the spirit of shôyôyû, to deepen the themes of haikai in the 1680s. This was a part of a larger haikai movement striving for profundity, but unlike other haikai masters, Bashô not only used the Daoist idea as a thematic focus of his haikai but also lived a life in the shôyôyû spirit. He saw shôyôyû as representing the quintessence of both Chinese and Japanese poetry. In 1680, he moved out of the city to Fukagawa, a rural area on the eastern bank of the Sumida River, where he lived as a hut dweller and wayfarer. A poem composed in this period shows how the Daoist ideas influenced his hokku.

Ice, a bitter taste, / just enough to moisten / the throat of the mole.

Kôrinagaku / ensoganodo o / uruoseri

This verse seems to be a humorous sketch of the rural life, but the use of an unusual Chinese word, enso (mole), calls the reader’s attention to its hon’i signification. This enso, used in the hokku as a haigon, is in fact from the first chapter of the Zhuangzi. In the account the legendary Chinese ruler Yao wants to cede his empire to a recluse named Xü You, but Xü declines, saying:

You are ruling all under heaven and everything is already in order. If I were to take your place now, would I be doing it for the name? A name is subordinate to the reality. Would I be a subordinate? A wren nests in the forest using no more than a branch. A mole drinks from the river taking no more than a bellyful. Please return and forget about this, my lord. I have no use with all that under heaven.

With this intertextual reference, we can see that Bashô uses the enso metaphorically to imply his preference for simplicity and spiritual freedom; this hon’i is made possible only through its connection with the Zhuangzi. In this way, Bashô uses the Daoist classic to create novel hon’i of haigon based on an intertextual structure bridging his hokku with the aesthete-recluse tradition celebrated by the Daoist tradition.

After having successfully reinvented the hon’i of haikai with the Zhuangzi-inspired themes, images, and diction, Bashô became increasingly concerned that the heavy conceptual emphasis in haikai composition might damage the vitality of the popular comic poetry, and so in his late years he attempted to break away from the conceptually charged heavy tendency by emphasizing “lightness” (karumi) and spontaneity. During this period, the Daoist ideas were widely applied in his teaching of haikai composition.

RDW:  Basho was implicit in his teaching that one must follow zoka and return to zoka if one wants to compose hokku that can be considered art and taken seriously.What was zoka in Basho's mindset? It originated in China, yet Japanese poets and prose writers were well known for mimetic adaptations of Chinese literature. As you pointed out, "Many notions of Daoist teaching have blended with Confucian and Buddhist concepts" . . .  this being further complicated by the infusion of indigenous Japanese thoughts and cultural memory. Please elucidate.

PQ: The two characters used in the word zôka are read zaohua in Chinese. The term zaohau appeared in early Daoist texts as a key term designating both the working of the Dao—the natural way in which all phenomena come into being and transform, and the product of the Dao—the myriad things and beings that have been brought into existence by the creative force of the Dao. Later zaohua came to be used in Buddhist, Confucian, and literary texts. In traditional Chinese literary criticism and art theories, the term is used widely to suggest a supreme aesthetic quality characterized by naturalness and spontaneity, as seen either in the process of an artistic creation or in the outcome of such a creative process. This usage of zaohua can be found in many Chinese handbooks on poem composition and literary writing, such as Guwen zhenbao (True treasures of ancient literature) and Yuan ji huo fa shixue quanshu (Practical knacks and workable methods: An encyclopedia of poetics). Evidence shows that these Chinese handbooks were introduced to Japan during the medieval period and read by writers and poets of Bashô’s time. I think that more than anything else, the prominent use of zaohua in Chinese literary theories influenced Bashô’s use of zôkai n his writing and teaching of haikai. He borrowed the concept of zôka not as a specific religious or philosophical belief but as an aesthetic ideal.

RDW:  As a follow-up question, can hokku as Basho envisioned it, be composed today without the utilization of Daoist-influenced aesthetics?

PQ: Bashô left little in writing about his haikai theory, but he made a very strong statement in Oi no kobumi (Essays in my pannier, ca. 1690), calling for those who pursue art to follow zôka. He writes:

There was one fundamental principle in the waka of Saigyô, the renga of Sôgi, the paintings of Sesshû, and the tea ceremony of Rikyû: those who pursue art follow zôka and have the four seasons as their companion, hence nothing they see is not a flower (hana) and nothing they imagine is not the moon (tsuki). If one sees no flower, he is the same as a barbarian; if one has no moon in mind, he is no different from the birds and the beasts. Go beyond the barbarians and depart from animals; follow zôka and return to zôka.

In Japanese poetry “hana,” which is translated as “flower” above, refers specifically to cherry blossom, and “hana” and “tsuki” (the moon) are often used together to mean beauty and superb aesthetic qualities. By saying that “those who pursue art follow zôka and have the four seasons as their companion, hence nothing they see is not a flower (hana) and nothing they imagine is not the moon (tsuki),” Bashô has made following zôka a prerequisite for artists and the precondition of artistic sensibility. By following zôka Bashô calls all artists to enter the natural course of the universe and being one with it, and he sees this as the fundamental principle guiding the act of artistic creation. Whether one considers this imperative put forth by Bashôa Daoist-influenced aesthetic position, we have to agree that his imperative contains a universal truth.



Professor Peipei Qiu

Peipei Qiu earned her MA in Japanese Studies at Peking University and her MPhil and PhD in Japanese literature at Columbia University. She joined the Vassar faculty in 1994 after teaching for two years at the College at Lincoln Center, Fordham University. Qiu's works in English, Japanese, and Chinese have been published in the United States, Japan, and China. Her current research and teaching interests include comparative studies of Japanese and Chinese poetry, women in Chinese and Japanese literature, and Japanese language pedagogy. She is the recipient of a number of honors and grants, including The Mellon Foundation Grant, The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship, Columbia University President's Fellowship, The Japan Foundation Dissertation Research Fellowship, Suntory Japanese Studies Fellowship, and The Japan Foundation Fellowship for professional researchers.