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

[green_message] Perfect equilibrium between the Hsherman and the world is achieved in “River Snow” at multiple levels, Formal parallelism exists, Hrst of all, between the beginning of the first two lines: “a thousand” and “ten thousand” together form a compound word in Chinese-qianwan-which refers to all things in the world. There is also a parallel between the third and fourth lines: the first words, “one” and “alone,” are synonyms and also constitute a compound word (gudu) with the same meaning. Contrasts are found between the first and second couplets: between the concepts of all and one, between the multiplicity of heaven and earth and the singularity
of the old fisherman, between absence (of many) and presence (of one).

The verb in the last line of the original-diao, which is rendered as a noun, “hook,” in Barnstone and Chou’s translation-reads more like a transitive verb than an intransitive one. Literally, the line reads: “alone, [the old fisherman] angles [for] the cold-river snow. ” The river and the snow have merged into one, just as snow falling on the surface of the water slowly melts into, and can no longer be distinguished from, the river. Paradoxicallyg the diminutive fisherman is the center of the snow-covered universe.

Whether structurally, syntactically, or imagistically, “River Snow” achieves a perfect equilibrium that endows the solitary human figure with the same significance, the same weight, as the immensity of earth and sky. The nonintrusive yet dignified, self-sufficient presence of the fisherman illustrates well Zhuangzi’s maxim in “Discussion on Making All Things Equal” (as translated by Burton Watson): “Heaven and earth were born at the same time I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me.”

I fully agree that some Chinese poems are more translatable than others, and that culture-specific symbols and allusions don’t always come across effectively without footnotes, which should be used minimally, if at all. What I have tried to demonstrate is that the modernist paradigm of the Chinese poem as a minimalist gem of imagery-nature imagery at that tends to favor certain works of a poet over other works or to favor certain writers over others. Such favoritism hardly does justice to Wang Wei, who is more than a Zen Buddhist nature poet, and even less to Li Bo and Du Fu, generally considered by the Chinese to be the greatest poets of all time. However creative and powerful it may be, “the Chinese poem” in much contemporary English translation is a select representative of an essentialized view of Chinese language and culture. Once we decouple Chinese pictographs from poetic image, and nonfigurative nature imagery from Daoist or Buddhist aesthetics, we are better able to appreciate a broad range of Chinese poetry

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.