Chinese poetry: 5. Nostalgia

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

V. Nostalgia

No one, who has read any amount of Chinese poetry, even in translation, can fail to notice the abundance of poems on nostalgia. Chinese poets seem to be perpetually bewailing their exile and longing to return home. This again may seem sentimental to Western readers, but one should remember the vastness of China, the difficulties of communication that existed, the sharp contrast between the highly cultured life in the main cities and the harsh conditions in the remote regions of the country, and the importance of the family in traditional Chinese society with the consequent deep attachment to the ancestral home. Moreover, being an agricultural people and a nation of landlubbers, the Chinese as a whole are noticeably lacking in Wanderlust. It is not surprising, therefore, that nostalgia should have become a constant, and hence conventional, theme in Chinese poetry. Once it became a conventional theme, it was only natural that some poets and poetasters should have written nostalgic verse with little justification, when they were living only a hundred miles or so from home and under extremely comfortable circumstances. However, the existence of conventionally nostalgic verse in Chinese does not invalidate poems that express homesickness genuinely felt.

It would be easy to give many examples of poems on this theme. Numerous lines come readily to mind, such as Li Po’s well-known

Raising my head, I look at the bright moon;

Bending my head, I think of my old home.       


To make it more interesting, I will give as examples not straight-forward expressions of homesickness, but one poem which expresses such emotion indirectly, and another which contrasts nostalgia with the pleasures of the moment. The first poem is written to the tune “Keng Lou Tzu,” (更漏子) by Wen Ting-yun (溫庭筠).

The tower stands by the river,

The moon shines on the sea,

Upon the city-wall a horn is sobbing soft.

The willows wave on the dam,

The islands are dim with mist,

Two lines of traveling wild geese fly apart.

By the Hsi-ling road

Passes the homeward sail:

It is the time when flowers and herbs begin to fade.

The silver candle exhausted,

The Jade Rope hanging low,

From the village comes the cock’s crow.

In this lyric the feeling of nostalgia is brought out by means of imagery and associations rather than direct statement. In the first stanza, the sad blowing of the horn in line 3 suggests a solitary guard at some frontier city; the willows in line 4 are associated with parting; the wild geese in line 6 are often used as a symbol of distant journey and exile. In the second stanza, the ship carrying someone else home contrasts with the poet’s own homelessness; the fading of the flowers and herbs adds to the mood of sadness by indicating the passing away of spring; and in the last three lines the burnt-out candle, the low hanging stars (the Jade Rope being the name of a constellation), and the cock’s crow at dawn all suggest a sleepless night.

The second example is the lyric to the tune “Pu-sa Man” (菩薩蠻) by Wei Chuang (韋莊). The verse translation is as follows:

Everyone is full of praise for the beauty of the South;

What can I do but end my days an exile in the South?

The spring river is bluer than the sky;

As it rains, in a painted barge I lie.


Bright as the moon is she who serves the wine;

Like frost or frozen snow her white wrists shine.

I’m not old yet: let me not depart!

For going home will surely break my heart!


The poet, it should be explained, had escaped from his native district near the capital Chang-an (長安) in North China during the Rebellion of Huang Chao (黃巢之亂) and was now living in the South, i.e., south of the Yangtze River (揚子江/長江), a part of the country renowned for its natural beauty and its lovely maidens. While longing to go home, the poet was at the same time enchanted by the scenery and the girl “bright as the moon” before him. His conflicting emotions thus create a tension which underlies the otherwise simple and straightforward poem.




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