The Flavors of Monks’ Poetry: On a Witty Disparagement and Its Influences

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Jason Protass



This essay focuses on a humorous metaphor that appears prominently in critiques of Buddhist monks’ poetry, from the eleventh century onward. Alluding to the monastic vegetarian diet, critics leveled that monks’ poetry had “a whiff of vegetables” (cai qi 菜氣), “the flavor of cabbage and bamboo shoots” (shusun qi 蔬筍氣), or “the taste of pickled stuffing” (suanxian qi 酸餡氣) . The double meaning of qi 氣 is literally flavor or smell and by extension also refers to an individual’s literary style and character. Members of the literati largely agreed that such flavors described what was distinctive about typical monks’ poetry, and debated whether monks ought to rid their poems of vegetal qualities such as plainness and narrowly repetitive themes . Other critics argued that monks’ poetry is an acquired taste, rich with delicate poetics well worth savoring. I conclude by observing how some modern scholars have uncritically reiterated the logic of this witty disparagement, and I suggest alternative directions for further study of monks’ poetry .

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