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A New Reading of an Early Medieval Riddle

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“Utterly Wonderful, Lovely Words”?

image of T'oung Pao

In the history of Chinese literary riddles, one work marks an aesthetic milestone and yet still causes uncertainty with regard to its context, syntactical structure, and meaning. Composed sometime between the mid-second to early fourth centuries in southeastern China, this riddle is a “postscript” to a stele inscription that relates how a fourteen-year-old Maiden Cao 曹娥 (d. 143) sacrificed her life by jumping into a river to search for the body of her drowned father. The “question” and “answer” of the riddle have been deciphered and construed in early sources, but are only treated there as a self-descriptive comment, without a larger context. After a brief survey of different kinds of riddle texts, this essay applies current theories about riddle composition to the text in question, also making use of relevant but overlooked historical and geographical information. A new reading of the riddle is ventured, in which it is seen to epitomize in enigmatically refined language the tragic act of Ms. Cao.
 Une œuvre marque un jalon dans l’histoire des charades littéraires tout en continuant d’être source d’incertitudes quant à son contexte, sa structure syntactique et sa signification. Composée entre le milieu du second et le début du quatrième siècle dans le Sud-Est de la Chine, cette charade sert de post-scriptum à une inscription sur stèle relatant comment la jeune Cao (morte en 143), âgée de 14 ans, sacrifia sa vie en se précipitant dans une rivière à la recherche du corps de son père noyé. La “question” et la “réponse” de la charade ont été déchiffrées et analysées dans des sources anciennes, mais seulement sous la forme de com­mentaires autonomes, sans faire appel au contexte. Ayant brièvement passé en revue les différents types de charades, le présent essai applique au texte en question les théories actuelles sur la composition des charades, tout en faisant appel à des données historiques et géographiques jusqu’à présent négligées. Une nouvelle lecture de la charade est proposée, à travers laquelle on voit que le texte illustre à la perfection, et dans une langue aussi raffinée qu’énigmatique, l’acte tragique de la jeune Cao.

Affiliations: 1: Hong Kong Baptist University


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