Chinese poetry: 2. Time

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry
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II. Time

Most Chinese poetry displays a keen awareness of time, and expresses regret over its irretrievable passing. Of course, Western poets are sensitive to time too, but few of them seem to be as obsessed by it as Chinese poets generally are. Moreover, a Chinese poem often gives more clear and precise indications of the season and the time of day than a Western poem normally does. There are hundreds of Chinese poems lamenting the fading away of spring, grieving over the coming of autumn, or dreading the approach of old age. The falling of spring petals, the withering of autumn leaves, the glimmering of the last rays of the setting sun—all these invariably remind the sensitive Chinese poet of “Time’s winged chariot” and arouse apprehensions of the passing away of his own youth and the onset of old age and death. A naïve expression of such feelings is the famous “Song of the Autumn Wind” (秋風辭) by the Emperor Wu of Han (漢武帝, 157-87 B.C.):

The autumn wind rises, scattering white clouds in the sky;

The grass and trees turn yellow and shed their leaves, the wild geese southward fly.

But the orchids retain their beauty, the chrysanthemums their fragrance yet:

How they remind me of the lovely lady whom I cannot forget!

Upon the Fen River our ships their sails unfold–

Our ships that float mid-stream, rousing waves white and bold.

To the sound of flutes and drums the boatmen sing as the oars they hold.

Having reached the summit of joy, I feel sorrows untold:

How long will youth endure, and how could one help growing old?

秋風起兮白雲飛,草木黃落兮雁南歸。蘭有秀兮菊有芳,懷佳人兮不能忘。

汎樓船兮濟汾河,橫中流兮揚素波。簫鼓鳴兮發櫂歌,歡樂極兮哀情多。少壯幾時兮奈老何!

A more sophisticated expression of regret over the passage of time is the following lyric written to the tune “Huan Hsi Sha” (浣溪沙, Washing Brook Sand) by the poetess Li Ching-chao (李清照, 1081?-cir.1150) This poem has also been attributed to Chou Pang-yen (周邦彥), but the author is inclined to assign it to the poetess Li Ching-chao, as the sentiments and sensibility shown in the poem seem particularly feminine.

All over the roof hangs the blue sunny sky;

Before the door, the fragrant herbs adjoining the horizon lie.     

O do not ascend to the top of the staircase high!  

The new shoots have grown into bamboos beneath the steps;   

The fallen flowers have all gone into the swallows’ nests nearby.      

How can one bear to hear beyond the woods the cuckoo’s cry?        

樓上晴天碧四垂,樓前芳草接天涯,勸君莫上最高樓。

新筍看坐堂下竹,落花都上燕巢泥,忍聽林表杜鵑啼。

Here, both the emotions and the way they are expressed are subtle. In the first stanza, the luxuriant growth of the fragrant herbs that extend as far as the horizon gives the first hint at the passing away of spring. At the same time, it also suggests longing for an absent lover, through its contextual association with two lines form the Songs of Chu: “The young nobleman is wandering abroad and will not return; the fragrant herbs are again flourishing.” That is why in the next line the poetess warns herself not to ascend the staircase to look afar, for even if she could see as far as the horizon, all she would find would be the fragrant herbs but no traces of the young man. In the second stanza, the suggestion that spring is passing away is followed up by the maturity of the bamboo shoots, the use of the fallen flowers by the swallows to fortify their nests, and the cry of the cuckoo. All these help to deepen the note of wistfulness, already present in the first stanza, by suggesting that the youth and beauty of the poetess would also fade away like spring. Furthermore, the cuckoo is associated with unhappy love because of the legend that an ancient emperor of Shu, Emperor Wang, fell in love with the wife of one of his ministers and was metamorphosed into this bird after his death. Finally, the cry of the cuckoo is supposed to sound like the words Pu ju kuei (不如歸去, Better return home), and thus becomes here a plea on behalf of the poetess to the absent wanderer.

Poems like the above two might seem to Western readers to express little more than sentimental self-pity, but they become more understandable, if not justified, when one remembers that most Chinese intellectuals feel no assurance of immortality. The true Taoists seek a return to the infinite flux of the life of Nature rather than personal survival; the Buddhists aim at a cessation of all consciousness; the Confucians have little to say about life after death. (The Confucian insistence on ancestral worship does not necessarily imply a belief in life after death, for this is meant as an outward sign of remembrance and is often practiced as a moral obligation rather than as religious observance.) Poets who were unable to find solace in Taoism or Buddhism and to resign themselves calmly to the fate of all common mortals can but lament the passing of time and dread the approach of the inevitable end. Yet, paradoxically enough, just because this life is finite and brief, it seems all the more precious and worth living. While bemoaning the transiency of life, Chinese poets are at the same time determined to make the best of it while it lasts. This attitude may partly account for the extraordinary sensibility to, and minute observation of, Nature, such shown in the last quoted poem.

 

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