The Chinese Written Character

[green_message] Three types of Chinese characters constitute more than ninety-nine percent of the writing system.

The pictograph
The first type is the pictograph. The characters listed below are in a printed form that mimics the handwritten script that was stylized and standardized about twenty-two hundred years ago. From left to right, the characters below are “sun,” “moon,” “tree,” “human being,” “female,” “child” (or-—fine joke———“philosopher”), “ear,” “eye,” “mountain,” and “gate.”

I suspect that for many readers, most if not all of these characters are, even in modern printed form, visually suggestive of the things that they are the words for. If, given the squared-off shapes of modern print, that seems a shaky position, you might note that all educated Chinese in Wang Wei’s time, and most today, are also familiar with the less stylized, more clearly representational, older versions of the characters that were preserved in the scripts used both in the chop (personal seal) and in ceremonial and decora- tive calligraphy. This understanding of the printed form was reinforced, when necessary, by knowledge of the older forms.

Several hundred pictographs are commonly used in the written language, and more than a few of them are quite beautiful, even in their printed forms; but I’ve had to keep the examples to a minimum here and therefore have chosen ones, as you’ll soon see, for reasons having to do with Wang Wei’s poem. [/green_message]

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.