A Constant Cascade: Ancient and Medieval Verse on the Four Waterways

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The literary representation of China’s great rivers has repeatedly been transformed by changes in religious belief and ritual. In the Book of Songs, rivers figure primarily as political boundaries and figures of separation. Though they may already play a role in religious rites, their geographical identity is paramount. However, in the “Nine Songs” of the Elegies of Chu, they appear in a new guise as sites of divine encounter and shamanistic flight. Their treatment in later works may be regarded as a peculiar synthesis of these two traditions. Once the Four Waterways were designated as the object of state ritual in the Western Han, their divine status was widely accepted, along with explicitly political ramifications. For instance, the god of the Yellow River was honored as a participant in flood control and imperial governance writ large. Meanwhile, the tradition of the epideictic fu also celebrates the awesome scale of China’s waterways, reaching a culmination not long after the fall of the Han in Guo Pu’s (286–324) “Rhapsody on the Yangzi River”. However, it is noteworthy how often the fu tradition eschews material description of rivers in favor of celebrating their numinous powers and divine inhabitants. Because of this turn towards the divine in the medieval literary tradition, it is no accident that one of the most prominent subjects of fluvial verse in the Tang is not body of water at all but rather the Sky River, or Milky Way.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number166
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Early Chinese poetry
  • Fu (rhapsody)
  • Medieval Chinese poetry
  • Milky Way
  • Rivers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies


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