1: “Pacing the Void” Songs in Light of Early Medieval Daoist Eschatology
Friday, March 25, 2022
9:30am – 11:00am EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 312
Capital Normal University, China
This paper examines the ways in which the imagery in the ten-poem set of “Pacing the Void” by Yu Xin (513-581), the most important poet of the sixth century, expresses Daoist notions of emptiness and end-of-the world views. I begin with a critical overview of Daoist eschatology and messianism in the early medieval period from which Yu Xin drew inspiration, and then investigate the ways in which literature and religion at their top tiers interacted at the central court. Current scholarship has been arguing for the secularization of the Daoist hymn of the same title in Yu Xin’s version and emphasizing its shift away from the Daoist ritual of “Pacing the Void.” A close reading of the set, however, shows that it draws heavily on imagery related to the end of the world as illustrated in a variety of canonical texts of Daoism. Yu Xin’s transformation of the “Pacing the Void” songs, originally a type of Daoist verse that describes the assembly of celestial beings and their ascension into the heavens, into a literary imagination of emptiness and failure in the pursuit of immortality, reflects the poet’s innovative expansion of themes and imagery of the ritual songs and artful melding of his concerns about politics at the time. The poet’s excellent command of Daoist scriptures of the Shangqing and Lingbao traditions as displayed in the poetic set calls for our re-consideration of the complex interplay between the literary and religious spheres in sixth-century China.