Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Little Primer in Chinese Poetry

I told them I hated poetry, which was a preposterous statement given that I was standing before a British and American literature class at the Xi’an International Studies University in China, where I was the teacher and poetry was part of the curriculum.  But it was true. 

I have never really enjoyed poetry: too hard to read, too obscure, too much of a mental investment to understand the meaning.  But I soldiered on with Robert Frost’s “The Path Not Taken” (one of the few I do like) and a few others by Dickinson, Burns and Poe, but Wordsworth and Whitman I left alone.  Mid-semester I instituted a poetry exchange where I taught them an English poem, and they told me about Chinese poetry.  In the end I learned far more about poetry than they did.

From an Early Age

The Chinese are crazy about poetry.  They learn it from an early age and even have poetry parks.  One day last month I was sitting next to a large statute dedicated to some of China’s most famous poets.  Through an interpreter I asked a 9-year-old boy if he knew any poetry.  Without hesitation he recited in Chinese, not a child’s poem, but a poem by the renowned Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai.  In English it is rendered as follows:

Thoughts On a Tranquil Night

Before my bed a pool of light—
O can it be frost on the ground?
Looking up, I find the moon bright;
Bowing in homesickness I’m drowned

Li Bai Gazes at the Moon

When I asked an 11-year-old the same question, he recited a poem by Wang Zhihuan from the same period:

On the Stork Tower

The sun along the mountain bows;
The Yellow River seaward flows.
You will enjoy a grander sight
By climbing to a greater height.

Climbing to a Greater Height

And how old was he when he first learned this poem?  He was seven.  It was taught in the context of trying to achieve higher goals — “climbing to a greater height.”  Nearly every grade school child in China can recite either of these two poems.

Wanting to impress my class, I found a Tang-era poem I liked on the Internet, a long one, and as I started to recite it to them, the whole class of 80 students started to recite it along with me.  They had learned it in high school.  Poetry is part of the curriculum at every level.  They are tested on it in order to advance from one grade level to another, or as part of their college entrance exams.  Typically they are given a few lines of a poem and must fill in the rest.

The Golden Age of Chinese Poetry

For the several thousand years the Chinese poets have been writing verse, perhaps the most well-known are those who wrote during the period of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).  It is almost universally regarded as the golden era of Chinese poetry.  According to one account, this 300-year span produced almost 50,000 poems written by over 2,200 authors. 

This as a time when China was administered by a large cadre of well-educated scholars who had to pass exacting civil service examinations to gain government positions, and a mastery of poetry was part of these examinations.  Moreover, writing poetry was a favorite pastime of the Tang court. 

Du Fu

One example is Du Fu, who is called by some the “Chinese Shakespeare.”  He was a prolific poet, writing on a wide range of subjects, and nearly 1,500 of his poems have survived him.  In his early years he traveled widely throughout China before landing a secure government job, which unfortunately was later disrupted by a rebellion.  The last 15 years of his life were a time of turmoil.  He has been called the “poet historian” because his poems reflect the times in which he lived.


A contemporary of Du’s was Li Bai (quoted in the poem above) who was a little older than Du Fu and a poet “rock star.”  The two met in mid careers and even wrote poems to one another.  He received the epithet “knight errant,” translated literally as “wandering force,” because of his never-ending travel throughout China.  He too wrote about the trials of common people.  He was enormously prolific but only about 1,000 of his poems are extant today.  He is one of China’s most beloved poets and he has become one of mine too.  I particularly enjoy this poem written in seven-character quatrain:

A Reply

I dwell among green hills and someone asks me why;
My mind care free, I smile and give him no reply.
Peach petals fallen on running water pass by,
This is an earthly paradise beneath the sky.

The Structure of Classical Chinese Poetry

Like English poetry, classical Chinese poetry adhered to certain structures.  Many poems rhymed, usually with the first line rhyming with the second line and the third line with the fourth line, although this was not always true. Chinese is a tonal language with four tones: high, rising, dipping or falling.  In another form of poetry, the poet matches the tone pattern rather than make the verses rhyme.  Thus, the pattern in which the tones occur in the first line is matched in the second line, and the third with the fourth.  There are, of course, many other patterns.

Many of the poems of the Tang era were written in quatrains of four lines with either five or seven Chinese characters in each line.  An example of this is by the poet Wei Lingwu.  In Chinese, the characters look like this:


Reading from right to left and from top to bottom (the old Chinese style), first comes the title and then the poem in seven-character quatrain format.  Translated into English it reads as follows:

At Chu Zhou on the Western Stream

Where tender grasses rim the stream
And deep boughs trill with mango-birds,
On the spring flood of last night’s rain
The ferry-boat moves as though someone were polling.

Trilling Bird

Hidden Meanings

As with most poetry, a poem has more meaning if one understands the story behind it.  In this case, the author was a government official who had been demoted from the capital to a remote place called Chu Zhou.  He compares himself to “tender grasses” (or “lonely weeds” in another version) near a western stream.  Above him are mango-birds or orioles trilling or chattering, which many experts interpret as court officials who are always flattering the emperor and looking down on the people.  The next two lines paint a picture of heavy rain and a surging tide where a ferry boat would be needed to transport the court across the river, but although the boat moves there may not be anyone guiding it.  And thus Wei Yingwu writes a poem and also takes a stab at the royal court that has excluded him.  Such “between the lines” meanings by court poets were common.

Tang Court

Translating Chinese Poetry

Translating a poem from Chinese (particularly the ancient Chinese of more than a century ago) can be challenging because it cannot be done on a “word for word” basis as might be the case with the romance languages.  For example, with the Chu Zhou poem above it obviously took many more English words to convey the meaning expressed in just seven Chinese characters in each line.  Fortunately there is wide latitude in choosing which English words can be used to express the meaning of the Chinese characters.  Thusly, this same poem can be rendered this way too:

I prefer the lonely weeds grown along side the creeks;
To the oriole above, chattering in the grove.
With a downpour the night cast, over bank the spring tide cast;
Sequestered is this crossing, free is the ferry floating.(1)

Either way the loneliness of the author, his alienation from the court, and the aimlessness of the ferry remain.

At Chu Zhou

This latitude makes it easier to translate a Chinese poem that rhymed according to its own pattern into an English rhyming pattern while still retaining the meaning of the poem.  Though daunting, there is no shortage of Chinese and English-speaking scholars who have done it, often with very pleasing results.  Accordingly, on the last day of literature class I expressed my appreciation for all they had taught me about poetry and left them with this poem from the poet Xue Tao as translated by Xu Yuanchong (2)

Farewell to a Friend

Waterside reeds are covered with hoarfrost at night;
The green mountains are drowned in the cold blue moonlight.
Who says a thousand miles will separate us today?
My dream will follow you though you are far away.


Note: Material and suggestions for this article were provided by Yuan Yue (English name, Rhine) and Zhang Yuan (English name, Christine), both students at the Xi’an International Studies University. 


(1) Translated by Yuan Yue (Rhine)

(2) Xu Yuanchong, 300 Tang Poems, Peking University, 2008.

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