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The Medieval Chinese Gāthā and Its Relationship to Poetry

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This paper investigates the shifting definitions of the term gāthā (Ch. ji) over an 800-year period, from the earliest sūtra translations into Chinese until the mid-tenth century. Although the term originally referred to the verse sections of scriptures, gāthās soon began to circulate separately, used in ritual, contemplative, and pedagogical practices. By the late sixth century, it began to mean something like “Buddhist verse.” Over the course of the Tang, gāthās came to take on the formal features of poetry, eventually becoming all but indistinguishable from elite verse. However, the word gāthā was always seen as something inferior to real poetry, and, by the late Tang, we find poet-monks belittling other monks’ didactic verses so as to distinguish their own work and avoid the taint of the word gāthā.
Cet article explore l’évolution du sens du terme gāthā (ch. ji) sur une période s’étendant sur plus de huit cent ans, depuis les premières traductions des sūtra en chinois jusqu’au milieu du dixième siècle. Bien que ce terme désignât à l’origine les parties rimées des textes sacrés bouddhiques, les gāthās très tôt commencèrent à circuler indépendamment et à être employées dans les pratiques rituelles, contemplatives et pédagogiques. Vers la fin du sixième siècle, il devint synonyme de « poésie bouddhique ». Au cours de la dynastie des Tang, les gāthās adoptèrent les règles formelles de la poésie, si bien qu’ils devinrent quasiment identiques aux autres formes d’expression poétique des élites. Le mot gāthā cependant continua à évoquer un style inférieur à celui de la « vraie » poésie, et à la fin des Tang des moines-poètes moquèrent les vers didactiques composés par d’autres moines dans le but de distinguer leur propres compositions et de se démarquer des connotations peu flatteuses du terme gāthā.

Affiliations: 1: University of California, Santa Barbara


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