Archive for the ‘Chinese poetry’ Category

Chinese poetry: 1. Nature

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

The Art of Chinese Poetry: some Chinese concepts and ways of thinking and feeling

(James J. Y. Liu, 1962) Edited by Ben

No full understanding of a language is possible without some knowledge of its underlying concepts and ways of thinking and feeling, which can be revealed in the commonest expressions in the language. For instance, in Chinese, instead of saying “length,” “height,” “width,” etc. one says “long-short-ness,” “high-low-ness,” “wide-narrow-ness,” etc. which show a dualistic world-concept and a relativistic way of thinking. Furthermore, different concepts and ways of thinking and feeling, in their turn, cannot be fully understood without reference to social and cultural environments. This series of posts target a few typical themes or underlying frameworks of Chinese poetry that might be misunderstood by Western readers. As for ideas and feelings which are universal and easily understood, such as the sorrow of parting and the horror of war, they need not be discussed.

I. Nature

In Chinese poetry, as in the poetry in other languages, there abound innumerable pieces describing the beauties of Nature and expressing joy over them. Such straightforward poems need no comment. However, in the works of some Chinese poets, such as Tao Chien (陶潛, 372-427) and Wang Wei (王維, 701-761), Nature assumes a deeper significance, a significance quite different from that perceived by English “Nature poets,” notably Wordsworth.

In the first place, Nature to these Chinese poets is not a physical manifestation of its Creator, as it is to Wordsworth, but something that is what it is by virtue of itself. The Chinese term for “Nature” is tzu-jan (自然), and the Chinese mind seems content to accept Nature as a fact, without searching for a primum mobile. This concept of Nature somewhat resembles Thomas Hardy’s “Immanent Will,” but without its rather somber and gloomy associations.

From this it follows that Nature is neither benignant nor hostile to Man. Hence, Man is not conceived of as forever struggling against Nature but forming part of it. There are no Icaruses and Faustuses in Chinese poetry; instead, Man is advised to submerge his being in the infinite flux of things  and to allow his own life and death to become part of the eternal cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and re-birth that goes on in Nature. This is clearly expressed by Tao Chien in a poem entitled “Form, Shadow, and Spirit,” (神釋) in which Form represents the popular Taoist wish for the elixir of life and physical immortality, Shadow expounds the Confucian ideal of achieving immortality through great deeds and permanent fame, while Spirit expresses the poet’s own view:

Let yourself drift on the stream of Change,

Without joy and without fear.

When the end is due, let it come;      

No need to worry any more then.      


Furthermore, in the works of such poets, Nature is not viewed from a personal angle at a particular time, but as it always is. The presence of the poet is withdrawn or unobtrusively submerged in the total picture. But these Nature poets are exceptional even among the Chinese, not all of whom are able to attain to this self-less state of contemplation. Instead, they sigh over the brevity of human life as contrasted with the abiding features of Nature. Indeed, it is this contrast between the mutability and transiency of human life on the one hand and the permanence and eternal renewal of the life of Nature on the other that gives much Chinese poetry a special poignancy and endows it with a tragic sense, whereas in Western poetry, such as in Greek tragedy and Romantic poetry, it is often the conflict between Man and Nature and the frustration of Man’s efforts to overcome the limitations that Nature has set him that gives rise to tragedy. This leads us to our next point for consideration: sense of time in Chinese poetry.


Chinese poetry: 2. Time

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

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?



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?        



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.


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.

Chinese poetry: 4. Leisure

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

IV. Leisure

The word hsien (閒), here tentatively rendered as “leisure,” is sometimes also translated as “idleness.” However, when used in poetry, it carries no derogatory implications, and can mean more than just being unoccupied, but a state of mind free from worldly cares and desires and at peace with itself and with Nature. Perhaps “being in peace” is a better translation. It is one of the key words in the poetry of Wang Wei (王維), as the following couplets from some of his poems will help to show:

In silence heaven and earth are growing dusk,

My mind, with the broad stream, lies in peace.

My mind, ever peaceful, is made more so

By the clear stream that lies so calm.

The clear stream washes the tall thicket;

Carriages and horses pass by in peace.

Man in peace, cassia flowers fall;

Night quiet, spring hill is empty.

From these lines one can perceive how the poet has emptied his mind of worries and desires and identified it with the objects around him: everything, from the great river to the passing traffic and the falling flowers, seems as calm and peaceful as his own mind. There is no sense of regret at the poet’s idleness, nor there even any suggestion of sadness, as in many other Chinese poems, that the river is flowing away and never coming back and that the flowers are falling. Wang Wei has, in fact, raised hsien to the level of philosophic and aesthetic contemplation, a state of mind even higher and more positive than the kind of indolence Keats celebrated, with its rejection of Love, Ambition, and Poesy.

However, in the works of some other Chinese poets, hsien has no such philosophic import. Rather, it signifies a nonchalant, listless, and wistful state of mind that resembles ennui. For instance, in the following lyric to the tune “Tieh Luan Hua”(蝶戀花) by Feng Yen-ssu (馮延巳), “idle feeling” (閒情, hsien ching) has nothing to do with philosophic contemplation:

Who says that this idle feeling has long been left aside?

Whenever spring comes, my melancholy returns as before.        


Every day, before the flowers, I’m ill with too much drinking,      

Yet dare I refuse to let my image in the mirror grow thin?


O You green grass by the river and willows on the dam,     

Pray tell me: why does new sorrow arise with each year?


Alone on a little bridge I stand, my sleeves filled with wind;        

The new moon rises above the woods and everyone else is gone.     


Some commentators would have us believe that this poem is allegorical, that the poet, who was Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Southern Tang, was worried about his country. This seems to me too far-fetched. Indeed, Chinese critics are only too apt to impose an allegorical interpretation on any poem. Let us take the poem simply as a lyric: the poet is troubled with a nameless, groundless, “idle feeling” a feeling of ennui, of languor, of a “deuil sans raison.” To drown it, he is drinking himself to death (or so he thinks). Yet he takes a masochistic pleasure in pining away like this (and who can blame him for enjoying such a pleasant way of pining away?) and he even considers it a moral obligation to do so (“ dare I refuse?”). This sophisticated emotional attitude, so reminiscent of late 19th century European decadence, is revealed in a language no less sophisticated. Notice, among other things, how the poet speaks of letting his image in the mirror grow thin, instead of himself. This kind of poetry seeks to capture subtle and elusive moods and to explore complex and indefinable emotions which could only exist in a highly cultured, aristocratic, and (yes!) leisured milieu. Here, hsien has all the social and cultural implications of “leisure” as in “a lady of leisure.” At the same time, it is tinged with gentle melancholy, which makes it different from the frivolity of “idle singers of an empty day.”


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.


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. 






Chinese poetry: 7. Rapture with wine

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

VII.  Rapture with wine

Again, as every reader of Chinese poetry must be aware, there are constant references in it to drinking and becoming “tsuei” (醉), which is usually translated as “drunk,” though actually it carries rather different implications and associations. The word does not imply gross sensual enjoyment, nor does it suggest hilarity and conviviality, as do many European drinking songs. The character tsuei 醉 consists of a pictogram for a wine-jar 酉 and a phonetic tsu卒, which by itself means “finish” or “reach the limit.” According to the “Shuo Wen Jie Zi” (說文解字), a philological work of about A.D. 100 and the cornerstone of Chinese etymology, the phonetic here is also significant, and the whole composite character is explained as meaning “everyone reaching the limit of his capacity without offending propriety.” Even if we do not accept this explanation, it still remains true that in poetry tsuei does not mean quite the same thing as “drunk,” “intoxicated,” or “inebriated,” but rather means being mentally carried away from one’s normal preoccupations. Of course these English words can also be used metaphorically: one can be “drunk with success” or “intoxicated with beauty,” but when used by themselves they do not have the same feeling as tsuei. I therefore prefer not to use any of these words but to translate tsuei as “rapt with wine.”

In saying the above I am not suggesting that the Chinese never get drunk. Whether Chinese people get drunk or not in real life is one thing; what the Chinese poets mean when they write that they are tsuei is quite another. Being tsuei in Chinese poetry is largely a matter of convention, and it would be as wise to take literally a Chinese poet’s professed “drunkenness” as to accept at their face value an Elizabethan sonneteer’s complaints of his mistress’s cruelty. This convention goes back at least as far as “The Fisherman” (漁父), a piece in the anthology The Songs of Chu (楚辭), formerly attributed to Chu Yuan (屈原) but probably a forgery of the first century B.C. In this, the poet complains, “The whole world is drunk, but I alone am sober.” (世人皆醉我獨醒) Later poets like Liu Ling (劉伶) inverted the positions of the poet and of the world and from one’s personal emotions. In one of his famous poems on drinking, Tao Chien expresses very clearly this escapist attitude.

 Two travelers there are, often seen together,

Yet they have widely different tastes.

One, a scholar, is often rapt with wine,

The other, a plain man, sober all the year.

The rapt and the sober laugh at each other,

And neither would listen to what the other says.

How foolish is he so rigid and proper!

The haughty one is the wiser of the two.

Take my advice, you that are flushed with wine,

When the sun sets, light your candles up!

In a similar vein, Li Po writes:

 Living in this world is a great dream,

Why exert oneself to shorten one’s life?

That is why I’m rapt with wine all day

And lie happily by the front pillars of the hall.

Waking up, I look at the courtyard:

A single bird is singing among the flowers.

Pray tell me, bird, what day is this?

The oriole keeps singing in the spring breeze.

Moved by this scene, I wish to sigh,

But pour out another cup of wine instead.

I sing aloud to wait for the bright moon;

My song over, all my feelings are gone.

Are these the boisterous songs of habitual of drunkards?