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Lecture III — Poetic Artistry

We shall now return to the cultured poetry of the literary men. The freshness and naivete of Chinese folk poetry, especially that of the Book of Odes, may have left with some of us a sense of incompletion, of something yet to come. So one may see in a lovely child only the promise of the full bloom of a woman. Taste for poetry varies as much as taste for food, I presume. Some prefer only boiled dishes, some the highly seasoned meats at a Chinese dinner. Most of us can at least stand an occasional change.

These comparisons would be perfectly appropriate except for the fact that as we know from the lives of the Chinese poets, simplicity is not always a childlike virtue spontaneously unfolding self as does a wild morning glory. It often takes a life time for its achievement. A voluptuous young singer at last comes to appreciate the more homely virtues. Bai Ju Yi whom I referred to as one of the advocates of simple style, was during his early years, a writer of love songs, a composer of ornate ci and the author of the famous Song of Everlasting Sorrow. The greatest Chinese poets have doubtless been the most versatile. Li Bai, who in his middle age could still sing the beauty of Yang Gui Fei in profusely embellished verses, dedicated to his young friend, Wang Lun, a jue ju like this:

Mere command of uncommon imagery and the ability to spread it out in juxtaposition or panorama do not in themselves meet the Chinese standards of poetic art. Yet with the possible exception of Tao Qian, who could dispense with it almost entirely, all Chinese poets have had to resort to some form of unpretentious make-up. It works somewhat like cosmetics — very seldom highly spoken of, but that makes no difference.

You remember I referred to certain types of Chinese poetry, preeminently the ci, as word painting, a weaving of verbal material according to the principles of designing, which I believe to be inherent not only in poetry, but also in our landscape painting. This is a thesis which we cannot conveniently develop in this connection. Word painting seems to be less conventional than landscape painting. The poets enjoy a freedom made possible by the flexible structure of the classical language which I described as being kaleidoscopic. According to one of my American friends, we Chinese shuffle ideas in the same way that you shuffle cards.

The metaphor is not as impossible as it sounds, at least not with poetry. But one must play the hand after the cards are shuffled. The rules of the game must be observed. A slight change in the sequence of playing may mark the very difference between a master player and an everyday blunderer. You may recall the examples from Li Bai which I gave in the first lecture. Women like flowers filled the spring Palace, instead of Women like flowers of the spring filled the palace. The autumn moon is not only half round, it is a half disc of autumn. It is just such trivialities that I am going to elucidate in this lecture. I shall totally neglect the code verse and limit myself to the discussion of the jue ju, or curtailed verse and the ci, or songs that have lost their tunes.

The little poem in which Li Bai's imagination skipped from a triumphal entry to a flock of partridges was written under the title An Elegy to Yue . The legend of that piece has provided themes for hundreds of our most cherished poems. The two kingdoms, Wu and Yue, were separated only by the Qian Tang Jiang (Ch'ien T'ang River)  where, according to a Song (Sung) Dynasty poet:

Yue was for a time under the suzerainty of Wu. Then came Gou Jian, the King of Yue, who planned revenge. He discovered Xi Shi, the most beautiful woman of his kingdom, by the side of a stream washing her clothes. He presented her to the King of Wu, and her affected sorrow and frowning brought about the downfall of the Kingdom. At the end of twenty years, Gou Jian led his army of young lads, crossed the River and made the Kingdom of Wu a big fish pond. Li Bai wrote another curtailed verse on the same subject, an elegy to the Kingdom of Wu this time. The two are really twin poems.

Again I refer you to Mr. Obata if you prefer a more fluent translation. Mine seems to me to be more Chinese and perhaps closer to the original. In the second line you may notice Li Bai's way of characterizing the unbearably oppressive spring air that stirred him. The country folk had to sing the Song of Gathering Water Caltrops, because spring had come to the palace ruins. Out in the hills of Suzhou I once saw a small deer drinking from the very pond by the reflection of which Xi Shi was said to have dressed her hair. It was fascinating to realize that I was stepping where Li Bai once stepped. The picture is very vivid with me after all these twenty-five years and, should I not say, twenty-five centuries?

Now why have I spoken at such length on these poems in a lecture which is supposed to deal with the technique of poetry? For one thing I want to contrast these jue ju with another poem on exactly the same theme written by Xue ZhaoYun who came about two centuries later when the ci was at the height of its splendor. I hope you will thereby appreciate more fully why I called the ci writers past masters in the art of word painting.


*  We number our ci as you do your sonnets or cantos. The «Washing Stream» is, of course, the birthplace of Xi Shi.

The first line is in part a quotation from a Han Dynasty folk song. To us the poem is captivating mainly on account of the second and third lines. The grammatical structure is so deformed and distorted as to leave the interpreter completely at a loss. In fact, we do not understand at all what is meant by How many red tears wept by Suzhou. I am sure it does not refer to blood, but to rouge on the face. The third line describes Xi Shi dancing. The bewitching rhythm of the poem as a whole has also helped to make fools of us.

Now Xue Zhao Yun's works can by no means be considered the classical example of mosaic or embroidery poetry. For that, we are more likely to think of one of his predecessors, Wen Ting Yun, a friend of Li Shan Yin's, the love song writer whose intricate patterning we had occasion to discuss in the first lecture. Li and Wen, together with another poet, formed a triumvirate, advocating what we call the dainty Style of Thirty-Six, the three of them being all number twelve by birth. Wen No. 12 was one of the original ci writers, probably the most prolific in exuberant vocabulary. To translate his poetry into English would be like enumerating the shades and blends of a color print and then imagining that the list of names is the color print. Nevertheless, I shall make one attempt, this time with complete abandon, and if you fail to reconstruct any sense out of the jumble of words, the fault will be due to my fool-hardiness.

In the following arrangement the Chinese characters appear on the extreme left. The next column gives the transliteration, with the rhymes in bold and notes in italics. It is then followed by a word for word translation. In the last column I have tried to make the lines read more smoothly.

To the Tune of the Clepsidra No. 5



Merely as a portrayal of early dawn and the solitary mood it enhances, I do not believe the poem could have occupied a prominent place in Chinese literature. The bugle, the cock's crow, the lines of geese — these were already time-worn allusions in the ninth or tenth century, though I concede Wen Ting Yun utilized them very delicately. It is the bright color of the poem as a whole that makes it a remarkable piece of jewelry. The name Wen Ting Yun lives just on account of such artistry.

Refined vocabulary made the ci but soon brought about its decadence. When the more philosophical composers of the Song Dynasty took up the patterns, they were bound hand and foot and had to make the best of a bad situation. Yet I suppose there is much difference of opinion in the preference for pretty things. The line between beauty and prettiness is hard to draw. One's taste for art objects may never reach beyond the realm of embroidery, stone cutting, or interior decoration, but the best of Chinese poetry I rather think does not belong to that category. Suffice it to say that for the more recent centuries the art of c; writing has degenerated into a sort of cross-word puzzle. For patterns one turns to the pattern book; for rhymes, to the rhyme book; for dainty euphonious phrases, to one of the numerous compendia, varying in size from that of a pocket dictionary to a veritable encyclopaedia.

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