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

[green_message] In translating the poem, it is important to duplicate the author’s prosaism and wordiness because these are central to its theme and effect. As is typical in Shang Qin, the narrator is an ordinary man, one who is not very smart or articulate and is somewhat naive. He narrates a personal experience in a straightforward manner, never bothering to figure out what it means. Through this character, the poet creates a discrepancy between the matter-of-fact tone of the reminiscence and the surrealistic details, between the literal surface narrative and the depths beneath.

In a low-key, chatty way, the narrator tells us of the supernatural feats of which the woman is capable: she can fetch the moon and emit cool air from her body. Her emotions, however, are all too human, as indicated by her abrupt departure after hearing the narrator’s innocent remark about happiness. With the same matter-of-factness, the narrator describes the mysterious cat, which seems to take the place of the absent woman.

The identification between the woman and the cat is intimated throughout the poem, first by the blurring ofthe references to “she” in the Hrst and second stanzas. The woman and the cat also share such attributes as individuality, aloofness, sultriness, and long, sharp nails or claws. At the end, both the cat and the woman are invisible to the narrator. Although the cat replaces the woman chronologically as well as psychologically, the narrator never actually sees the cat, which only visits him during the night, supposedly when he is asleep. Like the absent woman, the cat exists only in his dreams: she is real and unreal at the same time.

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.