Ambiguity in Chinese Poetry

[green_message] Ranging from general to specific, various ambiguities exist in classical Chinese poems. One of the most common is the indeterminacy of perspective. Wang Wei’s “Birds Sing in the Ravine“ is a good example:

The first character in this poem. ren (human), forces a choice in the translation. It refers to the poet himself. and yet the sense is that the speaker observes himself as well as nature from the third-person perspective. In English it is difficult to reproduce the effect of having the speaker himself in the picture yet seen from the outside. In Wang Wei’s world, human beings and nature exist in great harmony, and the poet registers activities both in nature and in himself like a monitoring camera. And yet the sensory effects in this poem require more than a camera to discern. The intoxicating sweet smell of the acacia flowers cannot be captured with lenses no matter how powerful they are. Moreover. the tiny acacia petals’ landing is rendered with such ambiguiy that it cannot he captured with a camera, either. The effect at first seems to be visual, but it is only when the first two lines collide with the last two that the reader realizes that the poet experienced the falling of the petals totally in the dark before moonrise. This realization intensifies the effect of the first two lines and clarifies the meaning of being “at rest“ the mind must he totally free either to hear the soft landing of the acacia petals on the ground or to feel their weightless impact on one’s clothes. The quietness of the night, the emptiness of the mountain, as well as peace in the mind, are all captured in the motion of the falling petals. The poet is there in the picture, and yet he observes
himself from outside. with internal and external experience combined. By contrast, the second pair of lines is purely external. The scene is loud and dramatic. even though it is only a description of a chirping bird startled by the rising moon. One can almost see the bird dart across a huge, low moon, followed by an eye-line telephoto lens tracking the intermittent sound of the bird. In a moment, after the collision of these two pairs of lines, tranquility reigns again, and the sudden movement and sound of the bird only heightens the emptiness of the mountains. What derives from this ambiguity in perspective is a new appreciation of nature through a transparent and perceptive Zen mind.

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.