Wen – Poetry in Chinese Culture

J.P. Seaton [tooltip content= “Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry (Shambhala, 2006)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]In traditional Chinese culture, poetry held a place that was unrivaled by any other talent, ability or practical accomplishment as a source of prestige, aflluence, and even political power. Literacy was a source of potency in all premodern societies, and literary prowess was and is ad mired and acknowledged as a gateway along the path of social mobility in many Western cultures (French, ltalian, German, even English). However, nowhere else has it even approached the position it held in traditional China. The reason for its preeminence there lay directly in the many pronouncements of the Master Sage, Confucius, that linked together, under the Chinese term wen, a number of things that go beyond even the most advanced conception of literacy in the West.

Wen was to be acquired by a twofold process. Fundamentally, the word refers on the one hand to decoration, that which ispplied to the outside of an object of sacred worship or of civil ritual, or to a cup, or a house, or a man or a woman. On the other hand, wen also refers to the patterns that occur and recur in nature: ripple patterns in the sand of a streambed, or the grain in the wood of a freshly cut board, always apparent in the raw wood but always more evident and more beautiful when rubbed and oiled and rubbed again, to glow with a warm sheen. So too, a man or a woman may decorate clothing, or even skin, to attract attention. So too, say the Confucians, one must rub and polish one’s natural grain: the Confucian believes that human nature is good at birth and that it may, with care, glow with a warm sheen. To accomplish wen is, finally, in the simplest terms, to accomplish the ability to communicate fully and powerfully.

To accomplish wen is, finally, in the simplest terms, to accomplish the ability to communicate fully and powerfully.

Wen includes the most advanced forms of passive literacy: reading with discemment, critically and analytically, and with a joyful appreciation of the aesthetics of the written word as well. Beyond these, wen is also active literacy at its most powerful. It is the ability to create through language, to communicate with passion and power. It includes not just the ability to argue brilliantly but also the ability to marshal beauty on the side of truth in the ultimate form of humane argument.

The five books that Confucius used in his teaching, what we call the Chinese Classics, included a poetry anthology, the Shih Ching. It is the largest of the five. These books, though they do not claim divine authority, were as influential in traditional Chinese culture as the Bible is in Christian societies or the Koran in lslamic. Using each of these boolcs, Confucius taught that literacy granted the ability to cross the barriers of both time and space through the study of history and literature. Further, he taught that self-cultivation in the arts of wen gave the honest student (or scholar, as we in the West have called the traditional Chinese gentleman who followed the Master’s injunctions) the tools to master the arts of communication.

And though a clean and clear prose style was an ideal of Confucius, poetry was the mode oi communication par excellence.  According to Confucius, the cultivated man, speaking through poetry, the most powerful literary medium, achieved Te, charisma, the almost magical power to lead the community in peace and even, when necessary, in war.

J.P. Seaton
Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry
(Shambhala, 2006)