On the relationship of poetry and painting in China

Jonathan Chaves [tooltip content= “Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow, White Pine Press, 2004”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] Su Tung-p’o once said of Wang Wei, the great T`ang poet and painter: “There is poetry in his painting and painting in his poetry.” This has become the standard dictum on the relationship of poetry and painting in China, a relationship that through the centuries has frequently concerned writers on both subjects.

In the West careful distinctions have long been drawn between the literary and the pictorial arts, whereas in China poetry and painting have been nearly inseparable and have been related to each other in a variety of ways. The Chinese poet and painter might well be one and the same person, Su Tung-p’o and Wang Wei being the two supreme examples of artist-writers as highly esteemed for their skills as painters as for their verse. In the West, such figures are rare. Michelangelo was a fine poet, but in neither the critical nor the popular mind does his writing equal his painting or his sculpture. Perhaps only William Blake corresponds well to the Chinese conception of the poet-painter, an artist using similar themes and images in both his poems and his paintings and even integrating poetry and painting in his illustrated books.

The practice of inscribing poems on paintings, or on special sections of paper attached to the paintings for just this purpose, was another aspect of the close relationship between poetry and painting. The poem might be written by the painter himself by a friend of his, or by a later owner or connoisseur. Often, the poem includes images which do not appear in the painting, so that while the physical beauty of the picture is enhanced by the elegance of the calligraphy in which the poem is written, the imaginary world conjured up by the painting may be further expanded by the imagery of the poem. Sometimes the poem is the work of an earlier poet, but often it is an original poem by the artist himself A perfect example is the hand scroll by the Yuan artist Wu Chen (1280-1354), showing a fisherman seated in his boat gazing into the water.

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.