The Chinese Poem: The Visible and the Invisible in Chinese Poetry

[green_message] While it is generally true that imagery is a major component of all poetry, the kind of imagery emphasized in the Chinese poem is typically nonfigurative, descriptive of nature, and juxtaposed in a nondiscursive way. Further, these traits are often attributed to an aesthetic informed by Daoist or Zen Buddhist philosophy, which supposedly espouses such a treatment of nature. If separately these characterizations are valid, it becomes problematic when they are seen as somehow intrinsically related to one another in Chinese poetry In other words, implicit in the Anglo-American perception of the Chinese poem is a particular kind of correlation between stylistics and epistemology. It is this correlation that I find questionable.

The dense juxtaposition of imagery in a Chinese poem has much to do with the economy of space prescribed by certain-albeit not all–poetic forms and the dominant Chinese convention of parallelism in classical poetry. In itsel£ juxtaposition of imagery is unrelated either to the kind of imagery used in a poem or to its philosophical underpinnings. As to the other two qualities, again I find no correlation between nonfigurative imagery and Daoist or Buddhist aesthetics in Chinese poetry It has been argued by some sinologists that the concept of metaphor is foreign to Chinese culture because it can only exist in a dualistic worldview predicated on what Pauline Yu calls a “fundamental disjunction. . .between two ontologically distinct realms, one concrete and the other abstract, one sensible and the other inaccessible to the senses.” It is as if metaphor and other such figures of speech represented an intrusion of artifice, which destroys the primeval unity of humans and the universe. Metaphor seems to have no place in a culture that believes in harmony between man and nature and noninterference of the human ego. Without going into the counterarguments that have been advanced by critics, I will turn to the poems themselves to show that this concept is, by and large, yet another myth about Chinese poetry and culture.

Wang Wei is the favorite poet of contemporary American translators mainly because of his Zen-flavored nature poems. Indeed, Wang was deeply Buddhist in his old age, and his poetry is replete with nature imagery. But his nature images often do not depict nature as such but are metaphorical, allusive, or symbolic. For instance, the red peony in the poem of the same title is clearly a personification, and the seemingly happy appearance of the peony flower – a symbol of fame and fortune in Chinese culture – is contrasted with its hidden sorrow. A standard symbol in Buddhist scriptures, the moon in Wang’s poetry often evokes Buddhist enlightenment, while the water image in his famous “Villa in Mount Zhongnan” intimates the Daoist notion of constant cyclical change. Neither Daoism nor Buddhism shuns metaphors or symbols.

In other words, what appear to be literal images in Chinese poetry may have deeper significance within the cultural context. The willow tree, to give another example, often appears in farewell poems-an important genre in Chinese poetry-because liu (“willow”) is a near homonym of the verb meaning “to [ask someone to] stay” Breaking off a willow twig when seeing someone off and waving it became a way to express the sadness of having to part with one’s friend or loved one.

Nature in Chinese poetry is imbued with symbolic meaning…

Nature in Chinese poetry is imbued with symbolic meaning, but Chinese nature poetry often includes such man-made things as the zither or the bell. The zither, which appears frequently in Wang Wei and Meng Haoran, two T’ang poets famous for their nature poetry, evokes the ancient story of Zhong Ziqi in which the musical instrument is equated with the heart and spirit of the musician. The bell is commonly associated  with a Buddhist monastery; it neither sings, nor growls, nor tinkles, but its deep , slow, reverberating sound evokes, paradoxically , quiet and serenity.

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.