The Poetics of Elsewhere: The Wakan Rōeishū Beyond Japan and China

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


East Asian Languages and Literatures

First Advisor

Kamens, Edward


The Wakan rōeishū or Collection of Japanese and Chinese resonant verse is a pathbreaking, influential anthology that was compiled by the Japanese nobleman Fuji-wara Kintō in the second decade of the eleventh century. It is made up of approximately eight hundred passages of fragmentary excerpts of poetry and prose written in Chinese by both Japanese and Chinese writers (kanshibun) juxtaposed to “songs” (uta or waka) written in vernacular Japanese, organized into a quasi-encyclopedic topology. From our vantage, the Wakan rōeishū’s binary of Japanese and Chinese languages, scripts, and genres seems endued with the aura of a kind of Rosetta Stone for the enigmatic relation of Japanese and Chinese modes, but for many of its readers over the course of its one-thousand-year existence, the Wakan rōeishū has been a cosmological vehicle for imagin-ing—or gathering an image of—the wider world and its variegated abroads.My dissertation locates the anthology inside a “the poetics of elsewhere,” which dislodges the Wakan rōeishū from conceptual grids and itineraries imposed at the point of departure in order to follow the anthology where it goes. Attentive to my position as a temporally and culturally remote newcomer to a work that has enjoyed over one thou-sand years of readership, I read the Wakan rōeishū to arrive at its unattended, latent, and eventual destinations. Beyond Japan and China, the anthology reminisces about emissar-ies from northerly Parhae (Bokkai); infers a far-flung “Persia” (Hashikoku) at the preci-pice of the known world; recoils from its own distortions of the Central Asian badlands of “Tartary” (Kokoku). Later on, it captivates missionaries from distant Portugal and sees itself redeployed in advance of a twenty-first century dispute over uninhabitable rocks in the East China Sea. To explore these outlandish terrains, I read the anthology via its readerly elsewheres, diachronically triangulating my own reading of the text with those of figures who read the Wakan rōeishū before me—painters and poets in the elev-enth century, commentators and copycats in the twelfth, storytellers in the thirteenth, dramaturgs in the fourteenth, evangelists in the sixteenth, translators in the twentieth, a rightwing politician in the twenty-first, and others besides. This dissertation is divided into four chapters, each dealing with specific mo-ments in the ongoing, millennium-long itinerary that is the Wakan rōeishū. Chapter One, “The Poetics of Parhae,” explores the Wakan rōeishū’s first commentary and its preoc-cupation with emissaries from the Koreanic kingdom of Parhae, which vanished from the earth nearly a century before the anthology’s compilation. Chapter Two, “The Poet-ics of ‘Persia,’” attends to the epistemological “flotsam” and “jetsam” that washed onto Japanese shores and informed Japanese literati about a distant land called Hashikoku (“Persia”), spurring Fujiwara Mototoshi to populate his sequel to the Wakan rōeishū, The New Collection of resonant verse, with dancing Iranian bodies and prompting a pious Buddhist commentator named Eisai to interpolate a Persian quadrant of the earth on the far side of the anthology’s final topos. Chapter Three, “The Poetics of ‘Tartary’” ap-proaches portrayals of “Tartary”—the “barbaric” Inner Asian lands of the Xiongnu (or “Huns”)—as they are exaggerated in the Wakan rōeishū’s topos dedicated to the legend-ary exiled beauty Wang Zhaojun (the only named personage to become a topos in the anthology), and how this horrific description is further distorted by a later vernacular narrative and a noh performance, which dramatizes the collection’s poetry into a reflec-tion on what it means to believe in barbarism. Chapter Four, “The Poetics of Portugal” examines how the Wakan rōeishū spoke to Portuguese missionaries who visited Japan at the end of Japan’s middle ages and who decided to mechanically reproduce the antholo-gy on their Gutenberg-style printing press. In a coda, “The Poetics of Nowhere,” I con-front how Tokyo’s rightwing governor in 2011 published his own “translation” of the anthology amid an international crisis of his own making over uninhabitable rocks in the East China Sea. Collectively working as an assessment of the Wakan rōeishū’s place in premod-ern Japan and the world, the four chapters and coda of this dissertation work in support of my claim that Japanese and Chinese “resonant verse”—conceptual machinery first fully and enduringly assembled in the Wakan rōeishū—has a worlding function that con-fronts, configures, and in effect constitutes distinctly non-Japanese and non-Chinese abroads. At the same time, these essays showcase the study of elsewhere as a reorienta-tion of the disciplinary-institutional frameworks through which knowledge is inscribed about remote times, cultures, and places.

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