Reticence and Confession: the Poetry of Wang Wei and Li Qingzhao

Matthew Flannery

…if Wang is chiseled and succinct, Li is detailed, discursive; if Wang is reserved and formal, Li is explicit, emotional; if he is reticent, she is confessional.

The quatrains of Wang Wei (699-759) and the lyrics of Li Qingzhao (1084-1151) are close to the polar extremities of style, voice, form, and expression in the traditional poetry of China.  Despite this, they share a common theme of separation and loneliness that, if one of many topoi for Wang Wei, was something of an obsession for Li.  As a result, their works use contrasting styles to express similar feelings:  if Wang is chiseled and succinct, Li is detailed, discursive; if Wang is reserved and formal, Li is explicit, emotional; if he is reticent, she is confessional.

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was in many ways a typical scholar-bureaucrat of the literatus class that staffed the upper levels of government.  If he stands out from the average of his class, it is primarily by the important government offices he eventually held and by his superior abilities in painting, poetry, music.  He had an eremitic streak that made him, out of office, fond of spending time on his extensive estate, Wangchuan Villa.  This estate was located on the Wang Chuan (Wang River) in Lantian among the Zhongnan Shan, or Southern Mountains, not far south of the Tang dynasty’s (618-906) then secondary capital, Chang’an.  Among his most famous poems is a set of twenty quatrains (jueju), the “Wangchuan Collection,” that describe scenes on his estate.

Wang Wei wrote in several forms of poetry, but his jueju are most distinctive.  Arising in Wang’s time during the later seventh and early eighth centuries, its characters “jueju” mean “cut-off verse,” but the origin and sense of this term are disputed.  The compression of the jueju helps make it, in traditional opinion, the most difficult Chinese verse form in which to write.  In comparison to the notoriously short Japanese haiku, for example, it is longer by only three words (approximately:  haiku length is determined by a compound measure that is neither word nor purely syllable).  Moreover, structure in jueju is more complex than in haiku.  A haiku is traditionally divided into three phrases.  It commences by describing a scene or situation; this then becomes a foil for a following epiphanic revelation, an insight into the depicted situation.  The descriptive passage may take up either the first or both opening phrases of a haiku; the revelation is borne by the remainder.  Structurally, then, a haiku is scarcely more than a pair of phrases.  The first establishes a situation, the second reacts to it.  This structure lends haiku their logic:  the abbreviated immediacy of their dual statements aims at provoking a sudden awareness in readers.  By comparison, the quatrain, heavier in both structure and styling, is formally more complex, a conventional poem bound by rules of composition whose tiny length must complete a progression from beginning, middle, to end.  If haiku are remarks, jueju are novellas.

While the simplicity of a haiku’s structure may foster sudden intuitive awareness, it does not lend itself as well to other things, to such tropes as metaphor and irony, or to complex subject matter and relations of meaning.  While not substantially larger than a haiku, the jueju has a rich capacity for complexity that can freight complicated relations and levels of meaning; or treated simply, as in Wang’s “Wangchuan Collection,” it can sustain a haiku-like atmosphere.

Much of Wang Wei’s verse is lushi, or regulated verse — verse regulated, that is, by rules of prosody that present complex technical challenges to its poets.  (Many of his remaining works are gushi, or ancient verse, which need not detain us here.)  Lushi take three forms.  The jueju has four lines, while most other lushi are written in the more popular eight-line form (confusingly, also termed “lushi.”  Here, “lushi,” unqualified, is to be taken in its broad meaning).  A third form, pai lushi, or successive regulated verses, adds lines in groups of four to the eight-line lushi.  In any format, the lines of a lushi have either five or seven characters.  Thus, the structural arrangement of a lushi is a rectangular block of characters, implying a dignified, formal regularity of style.  As befits its greater length, Wang Wei used the eight-line lushi for more philosophic, discursive, or referential poetry, reserving the jueju for quieter, more evanescent expressions of personal feeling.

Wang’s efforts in jueju, appropriate to its form, are spare, concentrated, precise.  The concision of jueju promotes compact metaphoric imagery capable of achieving veiled expressions of feeling.  The jueju enabled some of the most quietly evocative writing in Chinese verse, sometimes almost inexplicably expressing emotion through indirection.  “Jueju is generally considered the ideal form for expressing a fleeting mood or capturing the essence of a landscape scene.”  (Richard Bodman and Shirleen S. Wong in William H. Nienhauser, Jr., The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, University of Indiana Press, I, 688)  Typically, these two qualities merge, with emotion conveyed by description of scene.  Thus, should a poet speak of a lonely boat, it is not the boat that is lonely.  Not every jueju is serious or employed primarily to express mood, but the model for using it this way was early set by the verses of Chen Zi’ang (656-698 or 661-702), Meng Haoran (689-740), and Wang, artists who championed simplicity of diction, indirect expression of feeling, and an avoidance of the historical-literary allusions and references more characteristic of the eight-line lushi.

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.