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

[green_message] The poem is highly suggestive, yet it is difficult to pin down what it is about. It makes a humorous comment on human nature: we always desire that which we don’t have and are never fully content with what we do have. It also suggests that happiness is intangible, elusive, beyond human comprehension. Finally, the coexistence ofthe naive, prosaic narrator with the mysterious woman/cat points to the hidden mystery and mar- vel of everyday life.

In both form and content, “The Cat That Passes Through the V(/all” cannot be more dihferent from “the Chinese poem.” Although image still plays an important role, the construction of tone and texture, in my view, accounts more for the power of Qin’s poem. Still, in the metamorphosis of the woman/ cat we can find a distant echo of Zhuangzi’s “butterfly dream.” ]ust as the Daoist philosopher, on waking, couldn’t tell whether it was he who had dreamed of being a butterfly or the butterfly who had dreamed of being him, so the narrator in Shang Qin’s poem suspends judgment about the identity of the woman/ cat. There is an afhnity between the ancient philosopher and the modern poet in their embracing of the mystery-both the visible and the invisible-of life.

If poetry renders the invisible visible, then translation must do the same.

If poetry renders the invisible visible, then translation must do the same. Despite great challenges at the linguistic and cultural levels, Chinese poetry deserves to be represented with more poets, periods, and places of origin. Returning to Eliot, whom I quoted at the beginning of this essay, the answer to whether or not we can ever create “Chinese poetry-in-itself” is both yes and no. For a bilingual reader, the answer is probably no: a Chinese poem and its English rendition can never have exactly the same effect, whether we are speaking of the music, ambience, or associations of a poem. But it is possible, as Tony Barnstone has demonstrated, to create beautiful English equivalents. I have tried to point out that Chinese poetry-in-itself is far more varied and interesting than “the Chinese poem,” which is a modernist and postmodern American construction. It is only when we go beyond the received tradition of “the Chinese poem” that we see behind the veil into Chinese poetry-in-itself.

Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry
Michelle Yeh and N.G.D. Malmqvist, editors
Columbia University Press, 2001

Reprinted in The Poem Behind the Poem (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)


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.