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

[green_message] Cultural symbols play an equally important role in Liu Zongyuan’s “River Snow,” a poems that seems to contain only literal images. Let me quote Barnstone and Chou’s beautiful translation:

A thousand mountains. Flying birds vanish.
Ten thousand paths. Human traces erased.
One boat, bamboo hat, bark cape-an old man.
Alone with his hook. Cold river. Snow.

Even with this fine interpretation, I doubt that reading the poem only imagistically would suffice to convince a student who truly understands the poem to describe, say, the hardship of an old fisherman having to make a living in bitter winter.

The fact is that the fisherman in Chinese culture is an emblem, an archetype. It can be traced back to the autobiographical poem by Qu Yuan (c. 343-278 B.c.), the first fully identifiable poet in Chinese literature. In “The Fisherman,” the loyal poet-minister, who has been wrongfully rejected and exiled by his prince, encounters a fisherman. Their brief exchange presents two contrasting approaches to the vicissitudes in life: the poet would rather die than compromise his “spotless purity” by associating himself with the dark, “muddy” world; the fisherman advises detachment from external circumstances so as to keep one’s equanimity intact. When the poet fails to heed his words, the fisherman rows off in a boat while singing this song:

When the Canglang’s waters are clear,
I can wash my hat-strings in them;
\Vhen the Canglang’s waters are muddy,
I can wash my feet in them.
(trans. David Hawkes)

If the poet-minister is an exemplar of Confucian loyalty and self-sacrifice (Qu threw himself into the Milo River and drowned), then the fisherman represents the Daoist master, who is in but not of this world. The title of the first chapter of Zhuangzi sums it up: the Daoist fisherman is unperturbed as he engages in “free and easy wandering” through the human world.
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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.