Chinese poetry: 6. Love

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

VI. Love

Some Western translators have over-emphasized the importance of friendship between men in Chinese poetry and correspondingly underestimated that of love between man and woman. True, there are many Chinese poems by men professing affection for other men in terms which would bring serious embarrassment if not public prosecution to an English poet; true also that in old China, where marriages were arranged by the parents, a man’s needs for sympathy, understanding, and affection often found their answer in another man; nevertheless, many men did feel true love for women, if not always for their wives, and there is a great deal of love poetry in Chinese. “The Book of Poetry” (詩經) is full of outspoken love songs; so are anthologies of folk songs of the Han and the Six Dynasties. Nor did love poetry diminish in later periods: it abounds in the works of such Tang and Sung poets as Li Shang-yin (李商隱), Wen Ting-yun (溫庭筠), Liu Yung (柳永), Huang Ting-chien (黃庭堅), and a host of others, not to mention the Yuan and Ming dramatic poets. In short, love is a theme as inevitable in Chinese poetry as it is in Western poetry, but where the Chinese conception of love seems to differ from the European one (or at least the Romantic European one) is that the former does not exalt love as something absolute that frees the person in love from all moral responsibilities. Nor is it usually regarded as an outward sign of spiritual union, as it is in some of the Metaphysical Poets. The Chinese attitude towards love is sensible and realistic: love is given its proper place in life as an essential and valuable experience but not elevated above everything else. Chinese poetry sings of love in its manifold phases: the thrill of the first encounter, the yearning for the loved one, the torment of uncertainty, the ecstasy of fulfillment, the agony of separation, the humiliation and bitterness of being deserted, the final despair of bereavement. Love in Chinese poetry can be serious or light-hearted, tender or passionate, even frankly erotic at times, but seldom, if ever, Platonic. Most aspects of love found their expression in a great poetic drama “Romance of the Western Chamber” (西廂記, Hsi Hsiang Chi), but since no snippets can do it justice, I shall refrain from quoting from this masterpiece but content myself with giving two more lyrics by Wen Ting-yun to the tune “Keng Lou Tzu.”

A golden pin on her hair,

Pink and white her face,

She came to meet me for a moment among the flowers.

“You understand my feelings–”

“I’m grateful for your pity–”

Heaven alone can witness this love of ours!

The incense burnt to ashes,

The candle dissolved in tears:

These are what our hearts are like, yours and mine!

My pillow lying smooth,

My silk coverlet cold,

I wake up when the night is almost gone.






An incense-burner of jade,

A red candle in tears:         

Why do they reflect autumn thoughts in the painted room?

Her eyebrows losing their color,       

Her cloudy hair disheveled,

Her pillow and quilt grow cold in the lengthy night.       

Upon the wu-tung trees     

The midnight rain is beating,     

Indifferent to the bitter sorrow of parted lovers.     

Leaf after leaf, drop after drop–

They fall on the empty steps till break of day. 








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