Cosmology in Chinese Poetry

[green_message] We may understand, then, the link between poetry and cosmology. We will see that the Chinese poetic language, in its structure, embodies the very laws which rule cosmology as it was conceived of in Chinese thought.This cosmology, contained in seeds in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, was formulated in a schematic but decisive form by Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. In Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way and Its Virtue,it is written:

The Tao of Origin gives birth to the One
The One gives birth to the Two
The Two gives birth to the Three
The Three produces the Ten Thousand Things
The Ten Thousand Things take Yin upon their backs
And draw Yang unto their bosoms
Harmony is born in the Void, from the Median Breath

With great simplification we can make the following commentary: The Tao of Origin is conceived of as the Supreme Void () from which emanates the One, which is none other than the primordial Breath (). This Breath engenders the Two, embodied as the two Vital Breaths, which are the Yin and the Yang. These two by their interaction engender and give life to the Ten Thousand Things. However, between the Two and the Ten Thousand Things are the Three. The Three are subject to two interpretations which are not divergent, but, rather, complementary.

According to the strictly Taoist tradition (Huai-nan-tzu, Wang Pi, Fan Ying-yiian, Wei Yuan, Kao Heng, etc.) the Three would represent the combination of the Vital Breaths (Yin-Yang) with the Chung-ch’i, “The Breath of the Median Void.” This Median Void (which comes from the Supreme Void, from which it derives its power) is necessary for the harmonious functioning of the Yin and the Yang. The Median Void is that which draws and guides the two Vital Breaths in the dynamic process of reciprocal becoming; without it the Yin and the Yang would remain static and amorphous. lt is precisely this temary relationship (Chinese thought is not dualistic but ternary: in any antinomic or complementary couple, the Median Void is the third term) which gives birth to and serves as model for the Ten Thousand Things. For the Median Void at the heart of the Yin-Yang couple resides as well at the heart of all things: inspiring them with Breath and Life, it maintains all things in their relation to the Supreme Void, thus allowing each to accede to becoming, to transformation, and to unity. Thus Chinese thought is dominated by a crossing double movement, which can be represented by two axes: a vertical axis that symbolizes the interaction between the Void and the Full (the Full, which is all Creation, comes from the Void; but the Void continues to act in the Full), and a horizontal axis that represents the interaction within the Full of the Yin and the Yang, an interaction from which all things come (including, of course, Man, who is the microcosm par excellence).

It is precisely the place of Man which characterizes the second interpretation of the number Three. According to this second point of view, one which is inspired by a fundamentally Confucian point of view from the I Ching, the Chung-yung, Hsiin Tzu, and others (but nonetheless one also taken up by the Taoists), the Three, derived from the Two (Yin-Yang), designates Heaven (Yang), Earth (Yin), and Man (who possesses the virtues of Earth and Heaven in his spirit, and the Void in his heart). Here, then, it is the privileged relationship between the Three Entities Heaven-Earth-Man which serves as the model for the Ten Thousand Things. Here man is raised to an exceptional dignity, since he participates as the third party in the work of Creation. Nor is his role in any way passive: if Heaven and Earth are endowed with will and the power of action, Man, through his feelings and emotions, and in his rapport of transformation with the other two Entities, also contributes to the process of the becoming of the Universe, a process which tends ceaselessly toward the shen, the “Divine Essence,” of which the Supreme Void is the source, or the guardian.

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.