Taoist cosmology and Chinese poetry

David Hinton [tooltip content= “Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Consciousness, cosmos, and language form a unity, and in the remarkably creative act of reading a Chinese poem we participate in this unity, filling in absence with presence, empty mind there at the boundaries of its true, wordless form.

The grammatical openness is apparent in this line from Meng Hao-jan.

And though it is not unusually pictographic, we find many images in the last four characters alone: grass (stalks and root divided by ground level) above water (abbreviated form showing drops of water; full form image . from the ancient form, which shows the rippling water of a stream ; the eye image (tipped on its side in the second character) shaded by a hand (shown as the wrist and five fingers) for best vision; rain falling from the heavens image that is mysteriously seen only at your feet it (schematic picture of a foot below the formal element of a circle, showing heel to the left, toes to the right, leg above, with an ankle indicated to one side); and fire (slightly formalized as the top half of the last character, the horizontal line and above), supported by a person A (variously described as the stylized image of a person, modified slightly in this character to give its base some structural stability). These two defining characteristics of the language—empty grammar and graphic form—are reflected in the Taoist cosmology that became the conceptual framework shared by all poets in the mature written tradition.

The cosmology must have evolved together with the language during the earliest stages of human culture in China, as they share the same deep structure, and it eventually found written expression in the Tao Te Ching (c. sixth century b.c.e) and the Chuang Tzu (c. fourth century a.c.e.). Taoist thought is best described as a spiritual ecology, the central concept of which is Tao, or Way. Tao originally meant “way,” as in “path-way” or “roadway,” a meaning it has kept. But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu redefined it as a spiritual concept, using it to describe the process (hence, a way) through which all things arise and pass away.

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.