Although long valued as the fifth of the five normative social relations (wulun 五倫) in Confucian discourse, friendship in traditional China has only recently begun to be studied for its broader cultural significance in Chinese history. In her talk, Professor Anna Shields explores the impact of elite male friendship on the literary culture of the “mid-Tang” dynasty (780s-820s), an era of great social and cultural change and the beginning of the epochal Tang-Song transition. Friendships with fellow literati provided mid-Tang men with social capital, intellectual stimulation, and sites for literary exchange. More profoundly, some of the most influential mid-Tang writers—men such as Han Yu, Li Ao, Bai Juyi, and Yuan Zhen—also saw friendship as bridging the public and private spheres: choosing friends and celebrating them in writing became an important way for literati to publicize their intellectual commitments and even their moral values. Drawing from her book “One Who Knows Me”: Friendship and Literary Culture in Mid-Tang China (Harvard Asia Center, forthcoming 2015), Shields focuses on images of the “body” of the friend in mid-Tang poems, letters, and funerary texts, in particular examining the use of metonymy in representations of absent friends. By invoking friends metonymically—through boxes of letters, gifts of poems, the remembered sound of a voice—mid-Tang writers were able to capture the intimacy and emotional weight of their friendships without conventional sentimentality. Through this and other innovative approaches to portraying friendship, mid-Tang writers forever broadened the scope of experiences appropriate to “literary writing,” wenzhang 文章, and brought private life into greater public view.
Anna Shields received her Ph.D. from IU EALC, and she has become a leading figure in the field of medieval Chinese literature. She is a NEH fellow and the president of the Tang Studies Society. In addition to many articles, she has published a book entitled "Crafting a Collection: The Cultural Contexts and Poetic Practice of the Hua Jian Ji (Collection from among the flowers)." The book has been regarded highly because it sheds important light on the formation of the Chinese song lyric tradition. She has completed her second book, which is currently under review at Harvard Asia Center.