The Chinese Written Character


Obviously, the phonetic-signifiers offer a great number of suggestive images for the poet, but the student of Chinese must be Warned that a phonetic-signific may be the equivalent of the false cognate of French or Spanish——a slippery character that can easily humiliate the unwary translator. Pound liked to claim that his Parisian artist friends could sight-read Chinese characters: we can only shudder to think of what Gaudier-Brzeska might have made of li ( ). It consists of a yak, an evil spirit or bogey, and three dots that represent the character for “water,” simplified to function as an element of a complex character. A wet yak? The evil bogey of the waters? Neither, since it’s not an ideograph, but rather a phonetic-signific—a weak one—pronounced “li” and having to do with water in that it means “drip.” Without a context that clearly calls for the interpretation of phonetic elements according to their meaning, such interpretation is likely to leave the translator looking drippy. But with a context—-where every possible signing element is being put to use to create a truly organic work of art—that may be another matter.

J.P. Seaton


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.