The Juejue Exemplified
Chen Zi’ang’s “On Yuzhou Terrace”

Matthew Flannery

Chen Zi’ang (656-698 or 661-702) was an early Tang proponent of verbal simplicity and emotional depth in verse.  He is considered the first major poet to react against gongti shi, palace style poetry, a court verse form popular in the sixth and seventh centuries.  Polished, occasional, thematically thin, the style of gongti shi ran toward the elegant, elaborate, social.  In contrast, Chen strove for verse that was at once simple in diction and deep in feeling.  Chen and his efforts slightly preceded, and soon greatly influenced, major poets of the High Tang, a period later seen as the acme of Chinese verse.

One of Chen’s best-known works, “On Yuzhou Terrace,” illustrates the new style he favored even as it illustrates the structural and expressive possibilities of the jueju (quatrain), a form of regulated verse also new in Chen’s time.

On Yuzhou Terrace

Of ancient men, none are left;
of those to come, none are seen.
I ponder the immensity of heaven and earth.
So lonely.  Sad.  Two tears fall.

Partly, jueju are expressive because compressed:  for good results, everything must count.  The typical jueju is seen as having a compact organization in which the first line introduces the theme, the second amplifies and reinforces it, and the third is the turn or transition to the fourth line’s conclusion.

Yet, Chen’s poem does more than efficiently realize the classic jueju form.  Broadly, the theme of “Yuzhou Terrace” is isolation.  Its first half describes how, confined to the present, we are separated from others, past and future.  Its second half sets the inhuman vastness of the universe against the tearful loneliness of personal experience.  Structurally, the poem is evenly divided between these parallel treatments of separation.

From another perspective, “Yuzhou Terrace” conveys isolation using the axes of our physical existence, time and space.  Its opening couplet encompasses extremes of time first by referring to men of the distant past, then by seeking men of the unknown future, thereby alluding to the enigma of the present:  the isolation of our passing instant from the rest of time.  Further developing the poem’s theme in the second couplet, Chen relies on extremes of space:  limning the reaches of the universe in line three, his focus radically contracts to a pair of teardrops in line four.  Again the poem is halved, applying equal, parallel treatment to time, then space.

The first couplet of “Yuzhou Terrace” has a special characteristic:  its meaning is double-layered.  We have noted its message of universal loneliness:  that we are trapped in a momentary — or endless — present between a barely accessible past and a blank future.  But this pair of lines had particular significance for Chen.  He pictures himself adrift between two things important to him:  the literary worlds of past and future.  We noted that Chen helped initiate a radical simplification of poetic style in reaction to the ornate verse that preceded him.  With this battle of literary styles as background, the first couplet of “Yuzhou Terrace” refers first to Chen’s separation from the ancient poets who influenced him (notably Tao Qian, 365-427) and then to his isolation from future poets, for whom he hoped his verse might one day become (and one day did) a model of simple diction.  To the universal condition of everyman’s isolation in the present, Chen adds his personal metaphor.

In making a distinction between loneliness as a universal condition and his personal separation from literary history, Chen Zi’ang adds to his small poem another binary treatment of isolation: treating it as personal versus impersonal.  By conveying in couplet one the personal and impersonal aspects of isolation using two levels of interpretation (literal and metaphorical), he introduces the spatial analog of layering into the poem.  However, conveying the duality of personal and impersonal isolation in couplet two, Chen employs the temporal analog of successive lines:  the impersonal loneliness of the universe in line three is followed by the tears of personal loneliness in line four.  In all, Chen expresses personal and impersonal isolation using a spatial model in the first couplet (layered meanings), then with a temporal model in the second couplet (successive lines).

What is more, in using physical analogies (past and future men; universe and tears) to depict isolation as compared to his treatment of isolation as personal versus impersonal, Chen Zi’ang reverses spatial and temporal modes.  That is, although his poem presents the physical analogues of isolation first in temporal and then spatial terms, it expresses personal versus impersonal isolation in spatial and then temporal terms.  This creates a crisscross symmetry of spatial and temporal treatments that complicates as it further unifies the structure of “Yuzhou Terrace.”

“Yuzhou Terrace” is principally structured by the large-scale features outlined above, but it also employs other, usually more local, poetic devices.  One example is the parallel syntax of couplet one.  The identical grammar in each of its lines helps ensure that this couplet’s phrasing is compact and tightly organized.  Alone, this is unremarkable, but when Chen abandons parallel syntax in couplet two, his poem proceeds from tightly structured syntax in the first couplet to more flexible syntax in the second.  This change is important because it reflects the more colorful writing, greater emotional openness, more picturesque imagery of the latter couplet.  In other words, as the subject matter of “Yuzhou Terrace” becomes increasingly various and active, so does its grammar.  Another literary play is found in the last line, where “So lonely.  Sad.” lacks a subject.  The resulting ambiguity of reference allows this passage to refer back to the universe in line three; and to the author; and to everyone.

To return to its large-scale organization, “On Yuzhou Terrace” is knit together by a complex network of relations that are variously parallel, successive, layered.  Extremes of time, extremes of space, time versus space, and personal versus impersonal are played out as relations centering on isolation, separation, loneliness.  These relations — packed into the tautly progressive structure of a tiny but complete poem possessing a fully-developed sequence of beginning, middle, and end — illustrate the dense complexity possible in this small form even as they warn us of the difficulties of mastering it.  And yet, despite its compression and complexity, this work’s simple vocabulary and gentle diction flow without effort.  One reads its lines with ease even as its thoughts range from the dim past to a dimmer future, from cosmic expanse to a pair of tears, from private loneliness to its universal condition, in a span of twenty words.