Chinese poetry: 3. History

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

III. History

Not only do we find in Chinese poetry a keen awareness of personal existence in time, but also a strong sense of history; after all, what is history if not the record of a nation’s collective consciousness of its own temporal existence? On the whole, Chinese poets feel towards history much in the same way as they do towards personal life: they contrast the rise and fall of dynasties with the apparently permanent features of Nature; they sigh over the futility of heroic deeds and princely endeavors; they shed tears over battles fought long ago or beauties long dead, “les neiges d’antan.” Poems expressing such sentiments are usually labeled “poems recalling antiquity” (懷古詩, huai ku shih). They differ from the so-called “poems on history” (詠史詩 yung shih shih), which generally point a moral or use some historical event as an excuse for comment on contemporary political affairs. The following Quatrain “Viewing an Ancient Site in Yueh” (越中覽古) by Li Po is a typical “poem recalling antiquity”:

After conquering Wu, the King of Yueh returned in triumph;

All his chivalrous warriors were clad in silk on coming home;

The Court ladies, like blossoms, filled the palace in spring,

Where now only a few partridges are flying about.


One could give many more examples, but perhaps one is enough, as such poems tend to express the same kind of feeling with the same kind of technique: stressing the vanity of human endeavors by contrasting the glories of the past with the ruins of today. This kind of poetry is of course by no means unique; one comes across similar examples in Western poetry. But where a Western poet might moralize about the frailty of human achievements in contrast to the eternal power of God, a Chinese poet is usually content to lament the former and leave it at that. Some agnostic European poets, however, come very close to the Chinese attitude. Shelley’s Ozymandias, for instance, would pass admirably for a “poem recalling antiquity;” so would Housman’s Wenlock Edge with its typical ending:

Today the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.



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