Ambiguity in Chinese Poetry

[green_message] Ranging from general to specific, various ambiguities exist in classical Chinese poems. One of the most common is the indeterminacy of perspective. Wang Wei’s “Birds Sing in the Ravine“ is a good example:

The first character in this poem. ? ren (human), forces a choice in the translation. It refers to the poet himself. and yet the sense is that the speaker observes himself as well as nature from the third-person perspective. In English it is difficult to reproduce the effect of having the speaker himself in the picture yet seen from the outside. In Wang Wei’s world, human beings and nature exist in great harmony, and the poet registers activities both in nature and in himself like a monitoring camera. And yet the sensory effects in this poem require more than a camera to discern. The intoxicating sweet smell of the acacia flowers cannot be captured with lenses no matter how powerful they are. Moreover. the tiny acacia petals’ landing is rendered with such ambiguiy that it cannot he captured with a camera, either. The effect at first seems to be visual, but it is only when the ?rst two lines collide with the last two that the reader realizes that the poet experienced the falling of the petals totally in the dark before moonrise. This realization intensifies the effect of the first two lines and clarifies the meaning of being “at rest“ the mind must he totally free either to hear the soft landing of the acacia petals on the ground or to feel their weightless impact on one’s clothes. The quietness of the night, the emptiness of the mountain, as well as peace in the mind, are all captured in the motion of the falling petals. The poet is there in the picture, and yet he observes
himself from outside. with internal and external experience combined. By contrast, the second pair of lines is purely external. The scene is loud and dramatic. even though it is only a description of a chirping bird startled by the rising moon. One can almost see the bird dart across a huge, low moon, followed by an eye-line telephoto lens tracking the intermittent sound of the bird. In a moment, after the collision of these two pairs of lines, tranquility reigns again, and the sudden movement and sound of the bird only heightens the emptiness of the mountains. What derives from this ambiguity in perspective is a new appreciation of nature through a transparent and perceptive Zen mind.