Kay Duffy

Assistant Professor of Premodern Sinitic Poetry, University of British Columbia
Faculty Adviser: Anna Shields

The Third Day of the Third Month in Early Medieval Chinese Texts: Literary Composition as Ritualized Practice


During the tumultuous period between the breakdown of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) and the establishment of the Tang (618 – 907), the spring festival of purification celebrated on the third day of the third lunar month became closely associated with ritualized performances of poetic composition. This dissertation investigates the transformation of this riverside festival into a prominent court celebration. I show that the invocation of springtime splendor and shared cultural touchstones in poems composed for these occasions facilitated the constitution of communal bonds among elites during this era of fraught uncertainty. Moreover, the circulation of these poems and the prefaces that accompanied them testified to the existence of mutual bonds of support between ruler and courtier at a time when imperial legitimacy was contested and unstable. In focusing my analysis on the festival of the third day of the third month, I cut across genres, settings, and contexts to examine the production of meaning in early medieval China. Chapter One surveys sources of early medieval literary texts on the festival, demonstrating the key role of Tang editors in shaping the corpus of writing through which the festival is understood today. Chapter Two highlights the suspension of hierarchical boundaries and the production of horizontal relationships in depictions of the festival in fu. The third chapter investigates the relocation of spring lustration festivities from the banks of the river to the enclosed spaces of the imperial park, as reflected in third century court poems. The fourth chapter explores the paratextual functions of literary prefaces, revealing their role in constructing the meaning of literary gatherings. Finally, the fifth chapter compares the production of literary texts on the festival across genres at the courts of the Qi and the Liang, highlighting the role of the emperor and imperial princes as patrons, composers, and critics of literary writing. My dissertation not only elucidates the importance of this festival in early medieval China, it highlights the ritual dimensions of literary gatherings and contributes to a broader conversation about the role of ritual in courts and the role of courts in promoting cultural ideals.