Calligraphy and poetry

Francois Cheng [tooltip content= “Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry (Indiana Univ Press, 1982)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] It is no accident that calligraphy, which exalts the visual beauty of the ideograms, became a major art. In the practice of this art, the calligrapher seeks to rediscover the rhythm of his deepest being, and to enter into communion with the elements. Through the signifying strokes, he may completely surrender himself. Their thickness and their slenderness, their contrasting and balancing relationships, permit him tc express the multiple aspects of his own sensibility: forcefulness and tenderness, abandon and quietude, tension and harmony. In the accomplishment of the unity of each character and in the balance among them, the calligrapher, even in the act of expressing things, achieve; his own unity. These immemorial and always restrained gestures pro vide the cadence, instantaneously achieved with the strokes, which, a in a sword dance, thrusts and crosses, soars and plunges, holding meaning of its own, and adding another to that one, codified, of the word. It is appropriate, when we speak of calligraphy, to speak o meaning; its gestural and rhythmic nature must not make us forget that it works on signs. In the course of execution, the signified of the text i never completely absent from the mind and spirit of the calligrapher nor is the choice of the text either gratuitous or a matter of indifference .

The calligrapher’s preferred texts are poetic texts, poems and poetic prose. When a calligrapher begins a poem, he does not limit himself to a simple act of copying. Through his calligraphy, he attempts to revivl the entire gestural movement and imaginative power of the signs. Thi is his manner of penetrating the profound reality of each of the signs of marrying them within the uniquely physical cadence of the poem and, finally, of re-creating the poem itself. Another type of text, the sacred and no less incantatory texts of Taoism (and Buddhism), i equally attractive to the calligrapher. Here calligraphic art is seen a restoring to the signs their original magical and sacred functions. Taoist monks gauge the efficacy of a talisman (or charm) that they draw ii terms of the quality of their calligraphy, as it is that quality which assures good communication with the beyond. The Buddhist faithful believe that they may gain merit by copying canonical texts; and her too the efficacy of the result is in direct relation to the quality of the calligraphy.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.