The conceptual origins and aesthetic significance of "Shen" in six dynasties texts on literature and painting

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"Shen" is one of the most ubiquitous and polysemous terms in both philosophical and aesthetic discourses of premodern China. In many ways, its ubiquity has obscured its polysemy. As we frequently come across it in texts of all kinds, we become rather unmindful of its polysemous nature. We tend to see it as carrying the same nebulous import no matter where it appears. In translating it into English, therefore, we often choose the catchall term "spirit." This tendency to ignore the polysemy of "shen" is particularly conspicuous in literary and art criticism. Scholars of Chinese philosophy often seek to distinguish the meanings of "shen" in different texts, but we seldom observe similar efforts in either Chinese-language or English-language publications on traditional Chinese literary and art criticism. So it behooves us to carefully examine the neglected polysemy of "shen" in various major texts on literature and the arts. Here I propose to study the polysemy of "shen" in Six Dynasties texts on literature and painting. During the Six Dynasties, "shen" began to be used extensively in reference to all major aspects of literary and art criticism. The proliferation of the term is very notable in discussions on authorial qualities, the creative process, the ranking of literary and art works, and the principles of aesthetic judgment. What is more significant is that this term figures prominently in some of the most important tenets or theories of literature and the arts developed during the Six Dynasties. Focusing on these tenets and theories, I shall examine how leading Six Dynasties critics ingeniously adapted different notions of "shen" developed by Confucian, Legalist, Daoist, Buddhist, and other philosophical schools to theorize about different aspects of literature and painting. By investigating the conceptual origins of "shen" in given tenets or theories, I aim not only to demonstrate the ramifying aesthetic significance of this all-important term, but also to shed some new light on the tenets or theories under discussion. As these tenets and theories constitute the core of Six Dynasties aesthetics, any new interpretation of them could in turn help us to better understand the broad historical development of Six Dynasties aesthetics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationChinese aesthetics
Subtitle of host publicationThe ordering of Literature, the Arts, and the Universe in the Six Dynasties
EditorsZong-qi Cai
PublisherUniversity of Hawaii Press
Number of pages33
ISBN (Print)9780824827915
StatePublished - 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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