Professor Lawrence Yim is an acclaimed authority on Chinese poetry of the late imperial period (Ming-Qing), with research and teaching strengths in a broad range of genres and periods. His books include The Poet-historian Qian Qianyi (Routledge, 2009), Qian Qianyi "Bingta xiaohan zayong" lunxi (A Study of Qian Qianyi's "Forty-six Miscellaneous Poems to Dispel Cold on My Sickbed") (Linking, 2012), and Qiuliu de shijie—Wang Shizhen yu Qingchu shitan ceyi (The Poetic World of Autumn Willows: Wang Shizhen and Early Qing Poetry) (HKU Press, 2013). Professor Yim is currently Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Director of the Research Centre for Classical Chinese Poetics at the same University. He was formerly Research Fellow of Academia Sinica and Professor of the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.
Professor Yim first introduced Wu Weiye (Wu Meicun, 1609–1671), a celebrated poet of the Ming-Qing dynastic transition. Wu was recognised as one of the three most famous poets of Jiangzuo. According to Professor Yim, rather than Ming yimin (遺民), "survivor" is a more suitable identity for Wu Meicun and other poets at this point of history. While yimin restricts one's identity as a loyalist to the Ming dynasty with a strong sense of national belonging, the more open concept of survivor not only includes loyalists but also the literati who chose to serve the new dynasty. Even though these survivors faced different situations, they shared many similar experiences and feelings at the time of dynastic change. Through this more open concept, Professor Yim intends to draw readers' attention to the shared life experience of the literati in different positions during the Ming-Qing dynastic transition.
Professor Yim then introduced the background of Wu Meicun's writing of "Pipa xing" (Song of the Lute): "In May of 1645, as the Hongguang court of the Southern Ming dynasty crumbled into dust, Wu Weiye took refuge with his whole family at Lake Fanqing, Changzhou. After two long, worrisome months, the Wu family returned home. In late spring of the succeeding year (Shunzhi 3, 1646), Wu wrote 'Song of the Lute'. Composed in Wu's celebrated 'Meicun Style', this narrative, lyrical and figurative poem in ballad form has been lauded as one of Wu's most important and successful poems. An engaging performance of the lute in a spring evening moved Wu to tears and to write 'Song of the Lute', which tells the sad story of the last emperor, Chongzhen, of the Ming dynasty. 'Song of the Lute' is regarded as shishi (poetic history), infused with historical trauma". Professor Yim pointed out that "the process of signification of 'Song of the Lute' is not limited to its textuality. Tracing back to the lyrical subject of the poem, we also meet the life and historical experience of the writing subject Wu Meicun and all the people Wu Meicun wrote about in the poem, which is also meaningful. In addition, Wang Shimin's (Yanke, 1592–1680) garden Nanyuan where the poem was written is another significance site". From the perspective of cultural history, Professor Yim explored the experiences of life, community and history in "Song of the Lute", reconstructing elements of significance of the poem and its expectation for readers.
Comparing the "Song of the Lute" written by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (772–846) with that by Wu Meicun, Professor Yim pointed out that both poems express the poets' feelings of being an outcast; however, Bai Juyi's feeling is linked with his being exiled by the government, but in contrast, Wu Meicun's feeling is not only linked to his personal fate, but is also deeply entangled with the fate of his country. From this perspective, Wu Meicun's poem contains at least one more layer of meaning than that of Bai Juyi.
According to Professor Yim, "people sitting in Nanyuan this evening" described in "Song of the Lute" attracts readers' attention to their relationship. Professor Yim explored the relationship between "people sitting in Nanyuan this evening" and argued that "Song of the Lute" forged a strong sense of community. He also discussed detailed features of such a community. "People sitting in Nanyuan this evening" shared similar life stories and their meeting was not just an ordinary encounter. Actually, each of them was connected to Nanyuan in different ways and their identities also correlated with each other. Through them, Wu Meicun forged a sense of community among the survivors of the fallen nation. Bai Juyi wrote in his "Song of the Lute" that "we are both ill-starred, drifting on the face of the earth; what does it matter even if we never met before". However, because of the strong sense of community among "people sitting in Nanyuan this evening", Professor Yim regarded them as "strangers that had met before they actually met". Various elements such as a sense of belonging and identification, shared history, shared participation, shared emotional connection, a common symbol system, interdependence, bonding, commitment and emotional safety all contribute to the sense of community expressed in "Song of the Lute". Both Wang Yanke's garden "Nanyuan" and Wu Meicun's garden "Meicun" were designed by Zhang Nanyuan, the garden designer in the Jiangnan region. The two gardens were near to each other. Wu Meicun must have felt very much at home in Nanyuan in that evening. Designed by the same architect, these gardens already exhibited a sense of connection and belonging. The plum blossom of both gardens is another important symbol for the community. Attracted by the fragrance of plum blossoms of Nanyuan, Wu Meicun walked into Wang Yanke's garden where he met the "people sitting in Nanyuan this evening" and listened to their life stories. Professor Yim pointed out that "living in the same village of Loudong, Wang Yanke and Wu Meicun were close neighbours and they could reach each other's garden in a short walk. Wang Yanke's Nanyuan was built by his grandfather to plant plum blossoms in a large area. Plum blossom thus gave birth to Nanyuan and remained as the most significant scene in people's memory of Nanyuan. In the case of Meicun's garden, after he bought it in Biyuan, Wu Meicun renamed it Meicun (meaning the village of plum blossom), which was famous for its Meihua shuwu (plum blossom reading room) and Meicun. What is more, Wu Weiye also called himself Meicun. We can almost see a garden flourishing with plum blossoms, and the importance of this symbol is apparent". Professor Yim described that "on one of the spring nights of 1646, the third year of the reign of Shunzhi, Meicun took a walk in the village of Loudong. Lit by the moonlight and indulging in the fragrance of plum blossom, Meicun found himself walking towards Nanyuan and it almost felt like a dream. As described in one part of 'Song of the Lute', the famous pipa performer Bai Yuru played a song for the people gathered at Nanyuan that night, retelling the story of the last 17 years of their late emperor. The performance brought out memories of the nation, the imperial court of the Ming dynasty, the emperor and his officials, as well as common people during the warring times. With great technique, the player Bai Yuru impressed the audience immensely and shook their heart".
According to Professor Yim, "people sitting in Nanyuan this evening" were all survivors of the Ming and Qing dynastic transition. After the fall of the Ming dynasty, they became yimin of the late dynasty and had to figure out their own fate in the new regime. By analysing the relationships between "people sitting in Nanyuan this evening" such as Wang Shimin, Wu Weiye, Bai Zaimei and his son Bai Yuru as well as the late imperial servant Yao Zaizhou, Professor Yim studied the interrelation between identity, memory and history, and discussed the representation of history through different identities. In the end, he hopes to reconstruct the relations between poetry and history, private history and non-official history, in addition to poetry and life history.