Ambiguity in Chinese Poetry

[green_message] Ambiguity also arises when natural syntax comes up against the expectation of symmetrical structure in paired lines. For example, the couple: “ ” (“A time so bad. even the flowers rain tears. I hate this separation, yet birds startle my heart.”). From Du Fu‘s “Gazing in Springtime,” contains an ambiguity that is often lost in translation. According to the natural syntax, an initial reading of the first half of the couplet would be “A time so bad, even the flowers rain tears.” taking the flowers as the subject of the whole line. But the second half immediately suggests a different reading. It is very clear that the poet himself was startled by birds. and the symmetrical structure strongly suggests that the subject in the first half is the same person. Thus, when we read the poem again, the first half may be read as “sad about the times. flowers make me shed tears.” This ambiguity results from two legitimate readings according to syntax or symmetry. Since it is impossible to keep two interpretations in the translation, we chose personification of the flowers to avoid making the second half of the couplet too expected. This sort of conflict between natural reading, and reading for symmetry can be found in many seemingly unambiguous lines in Chinese poetry.

Ambiguities can also be quite local and involve indeterminacy in grammar or definition of words. Two of the lines we discussed earlier from the first poem from the Book of Songs contain such ambiguity:

The last two characters can be read as “hao (1) qiu (2)“ (first tone plus second, meaning “good spouse”). But they can also be pronounced as “Imo (4) qin (z)” (fourth and second tones). ln that case the character lmo W is no longer an adjective modifying the noun qin 5$ (spouse) but rather a word meaning “love to“ (Imo [4] H‘) modifying a verb qiu ii (to marry). In that case the line indicates a man’s strong desire for the hand of a lady, and perhaps should be translated: “Full of grace is the lady. / The gentleman is obsessed with marrying her,” or “. . . seeks her hand.” Although a translation can keep just one of tl1e interpretations, the effect of reading the Chinese is that the text is wavering between readings. a door swinging open and shut.

In contemporary Chinese poetry, much of the elegant ambiguity of the classical Chinese poem is lost. This can explain why a Chinese reader‘s first reaction to classical Chinese poetry in English or in modern Chinese can be summed up in one word: “diluted.” But to leave out in translation most of the functional or connective elements of language in an attempt to re-create the intensity of the original Chinese too often yields a poem that reads like pidgin English.

Francois Cheng
Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of Tang Poetry
Indiana Univ Press, 1982


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.