In the Beginning Was Observing
Shao Yong on the Sagely Self, Observing and “Poeting”
Keywords:Shao Yong, observing, structure (li), poetry, sageliness
The article explores the connection between observing, poetic creation, and sagely perception of reality, as expressed in the writings of the Song dynasty scholar, Shao Yong 邵雍 (1012–1077). Shao, most famous for his fourfold classification of all existing things, claimed that observing things according to structure (li 理) was the most direct path to cultivating the sagely state of mind. In addition to being a thinker, Shao was a prolific poet. His poetry collection, titled Striking the Earth at the Yi River (Yichuan jirangji 伊川擊壤集), contains approximately 1,500 poems written in a distinct poetic style. Basing my inquiry on the Inner Chapters on Observing Things (Guanwu neipian 觀物內篇) and on the Striking the Earth at the Yi River, two authentic works written by Shao, I describe the procedure of the “mirrored observing” (fanguan 反觀) which, as Shao claimed, allows the observer’s mind to comprehend the object of observing in its wholeness. I further concentrate on the connection between observing and poetic writing, and claim that Shao perceived these activities as mutually connected: Writing poetry assists the process of observing, while gradual development of the right perspective in observing results in a more effortless poetic creation. Both observing and poetic writing assist and sustain one’s search for sageliness. For Shao Yong, poetry was not just a medium for expressing one’s ideas, but also a sagely language enabling one to communicate with the ultimate reality, described by the term “Heaven” (tian 天).
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