I approach the closely interrelated topics of classical Chinese poetics and theories of language from a somewhat unconventional perspective, namely the relationship between some early texts dealing with aural and optical illusions and the reading of poetic imagery in the Confucian scholar Mao Heng's exegesis of the Book of Poems (Shijing, China's oldest collection of poetry). Polemically, I suggest that the poetics of the second centuryb.c. and its interest in metaphoricity originated in a philosophizing on the phenomenon of illusion, that is, the deceptive resemblance (si) between disparate objects, the discrepancy between appearance and actuality. Illusion, thus defined, may appear as confusing or uncanny in everyday experience (the doppelgänger, the mirage, the philanderer posing as saint, or linguistic ambiguity); yet this clash between form and content is an essential aspect of Confucian ritualism(li), observable in rules of mourning, or in the use of metaphorical poetry as ritualized discourse.

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