The Eng-Lite Program Lecture Series: Talk No 2


Topic:Essay Lyricism and How We Perform It

Lecturer:Ming-Huei Wang, Managing Editor, Taiwan Lit; Adjunct Assistant Professor, World Languages and Cultures, Iowa State University

Host:Hsin-Chin Evelyn Hsieh, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University


By Conrad C. Carl

How do we read literature? How do we read shuqing sanwen 抒情散文, the so-called lyrical essay? And why do we face difficulties when we apply conventional literary reading techniques to lyrical essays? These questions are found at the core of this talk by Min-huei Wang 王敏慧, adjunct assistant professor at the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Iowa State University and managing editor of Taiwan Lit.

The lyrical essay is a staple in Taiwan’s secondary education; it has a limited scope, making it a perfect fit for classroom discussions. While you need a few weeks to cover a whole novel in class, a piece like Beiying 《背影》 [The Sight of my Father’s Back] by Zhu Ziqing 朱自清can be finished in just one unit. Oddly enough though, the lyrical essay as a genre has yet to receive adequate academic scrutiny. Here lies the major contribution of Professor Wang’s presentation. She shows what a critical inquiry into the lyrical essay in its Taiwanese context can look like.

As a former middle school teacher, Professor Wang gathered first-hand experiences teaching lyrical essays and noticed quickly how typical approaches to literature failed to meet expectations. The critical vocabulary of New Criticism and the aesthetic modernism that shaped Taiwan’s literary criticism since the 1960s seemed insufficient for the exploration of hidden messages in texts of the fictional genres, and the identification of literary innovations and techniques like irony, ambiguity, and paradox were not criteria by which the merit of lyrical essays could be assessed. In other words, there is a necessity to develop different critical parameters.

Professor Wang’s inquiry starts with the readers’ expectations of lyrical essays. In their eyes, the writers ought to be sincere. Sincerity—this is the first crucial concept, then, that deserves critical attention. There are three layers of sincere articulation between the personality and the lyrical essay. It can refer to the genuine feeling and honest intention with which the lyrical essay is written qingzhen yizhi 情真意摯; or it can describe the form of writing that expresses feelings weiqing zaowen 為情造文; or it can assume the writing itself to be based on sincerity xiuci li qicheng 修辭立其誠. In its last sense, Professor Wang identifies a genealogy intertwined with traditional Confucius thought. The pivotal idea for Mengzi 孟子, for instance, was that as long as you are true to yourself, you will be good for society. This stresses the unity between heaven and the social, for goodness is human nature itself. That being said, the institutionalization of modern literature and the advent of the print industry play important roles in the evolution of the lyrical essay as well. The complexity of these different historical trajectories makes research about the lyrical essay so fruitful.

For the second angle of this discussion, Professor Wang establishes a theoretical framework from J. L. Austin’s performative theory to J. Culler’s theory of the lyric. Austin proposed the distinction between constative and performative utterances. While the former refers to descriptive sentences, the latter equates making utterances with doing something. In other words, not all utterances can be sufficiently understood as representative.

From utterances to the lyric specifically, Culler asserted several decades later that lyrics are reality statements. They are performative in the way that they are performances of the poets who are doing something to intervene in the world with their poems. There are three dimensions of understanding the lyrical essay as performance: first, it is the utterance of a real subject; second, it is an enactment in reality; and third, it constitutes a public discourse about meaning and value. Important to highlight the lyrical essay differs from western lyricism. The negotiation of emotions and sensibilities with its readers is one pivotal function in its general tradition. For instance, the ritualistic repetition of certain motifs, e.g., memories of parents and the negotiated filial piety within, is the manifestation of social experiences approved by its readers. Another aspect of determining the success of the performance of a lyrical essay is the transgressions of lyrical conventions, e.g., the fictionalization of lyrical essays.

Following this trajectory, Professor Wang introduces four categories—the conforming, the compromising, the reformist, and the discontented—that cover the spectrum of the lyrical essay in Taiwan. For more details in this regard, listeners and readers alike are invited to look at Professor Wang’s dissertation “Performing the Lyrical: Lyrical Essay and the Written Vernacular Mandarin Tradition in Postwar Taiwan” where she unfolds these arguments in great detail.

For this talk though, Professor Wang draws three main conclusions. In general, the lyrical essay is an understudied genre that deserves more and continued critical attention. Secondly, the lyrical essay should be understood as a performance through which the writer is doing something in the real world. And finally, the lyrical essay repeats, motivates, and generates culturally specific sensibilities. There is life in this literary form, the life that propels its writers to act and that conceals its actual conventions in the moment of consumption.

The ensuing discussion with the audience reiterates the potential of a critical engagement with the lyrical essay, with many questions waiting to be thoroughly investigated. But thanks to Professor Wang’s groundbreaking work, we now have a foundation to build this discourse upon.