Cosmology in Chinese Poetry

[green_message] Void-Full, Yin-Yang, and Heaven-Earth-Man thus constitute the three relational and hierarchical axes around which Chinese cosmology is organized. Poetic language, which proposes to explore the mystery of the Universe by means of signs, has not neglected to structure itself, on its different levels, along these three axes. Accordingly, on the lexical level, analyzed . . . is displayed the subtle play between the empty (Void) words and the full; on the syntactic level, treated in chapter 2, the dialectical interplay of Yin and Yang takes place, notably in the form of parallelism; and finally, on the symbolic level . . . metaphorical images, through transfer of meaning and the implied circular movement between subject and object, fully exploit the ternary relationship Man-Earth-Heaven. It is evident that this poetic language, having taken to itself the basic dynamic of Chinese thought, thus represents the semiotic order par excellence and serves as a model for all the other signifying practices of the Chinese domain.

On the subject of this poetic language, which, as we have said, puts fully into play the relationship Man-Earth-Heaven, we may go on to specify: if the metaphorical expressions primarily develop the Man-Earth relationship, as attested by the traditional critical term Ch’ing-ching (human feelings-natural wonders), there is, nonetheless, a third term, Heaven, which embodies a sort of language “Beyond language” toward which Chinese poetry has always tended. In other words, the privileged Man-Earth link is never allowed to become a closed circuit, it must end in something else, something open. Chinese rhetoricians have always sought to formulate this something else, this “Beyond language,” symbolized by the word Heaven. Ssu-K’ung T’u, of the T’ang, declares that the ultimate goal of poetry is to attain “the Image beyond images, the Landscape beyond landscapes” . Ssu k’ung-T’u, of the Sung, says, for his part, that, “Among the great poets of the T’ang, the highest place is always given to the ineffable spirit. Like antelope horns which blend with tree branches in the forest, their verses devote little preoccupation to observation or analysis. They possess a radiant transparency which can never be discerned. Sound which vibrates in the air, color which shimmers like a mirage, the moon reflecting in the water, the face looking out of the mirror: such is the appearance of their poetry, a poetry of limited words, yet of meaning always extending Beyond.”

Hsieh Chen, of the Ming, reiterates that, “in all poetry the landscape is the intermediary, the feeling is the matrix. A poem is bom of the combination of the two. But the art of poetry ought to aim at touching the Ten Thousand Things on the basis of few words; its supreme spirit is the Limitless, moved by the primordial Breath.”

This passage shows clearly the ardor with which Chinese poets worked to attain the realization of the infinite communion among things, and, through the realization of this communion, toward the attainment of the mystery of Origin. It is not in the least surprising, then, that the poetry of Tu Fu should have been called a “Heaven-sharpened sword” or that of Li Po a “song from beyond Heaven” 

Francois Cheng
Chinese Poetic Writing: With an Anthology of T’ang Poetry

(Indiana University 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.