When the ci was originated in the Musical Academy of the Tang Dynasty, it served as a companion to the jue ju. For the latter has to be in five or seven-syllable lines; so it is composed of twenty or twenty-eight syllables. The ci introduced variety in the choice of patterns. It gave birth to a new artistry in suggestion and insinuation, yet there was no necessity for its language to be pompous or voluptuous. I shall cite two little pieces from one of the earlier composers, my favorite Huang-fu Song . It is out of such stuff that Chinese landscape painting is made.
The art of word painting involves certain principles which we can briefly mention. The words, first of all, must be fresh and poignant. They may soon become old, grey, and shriveled, but they must not be born that way. Sometimes a simple trick changes the whole setting. For instance, hongqiao, a red bridge, is totally impotent because we have become color adapted. But one of our poets wrote, «Spring water, crimson railed bridge», and another, «The vermilion bridge on the lake». It makes no difference what the poets actually saw. Red, crimson, vermilion, the ci writers could not have made a finer discrimination than we. The only difference is that a crimson or vermilion bridge calls one's attention to color while a red one does not. The Chinese reader is such a simple fool. When the same trick is repeated half a dozen times, it becomes a faded joke.
Surely the poet ought to know who his readers are likely to be. The references may point to an experience too much out of the way. «Thinking of you my tears will fall like molten lead», wrote a Tang Dynasty poet. The metaphor fell flat. At least our latter day plagiarists have not dared to touch it – so much the better for Li He perhaps. One has to go to the foundry before one can realize the significance of that line. But once you have seen the clear warmth that is poured out, you will never forget Li He. The same poet tells us that the bones of a sick old horse still give a bronzy sound. How many of us have heard the reverberations of solid bone? Again, «On the Heaven Street snow is like salt» . Would it not be better for some of us if the metaphor were turned clear around? The common table salt we see everyday is quite different from the dirty blackish stuff on the seashore before it is refined. In other words, our poet is not describing a clean street but a sloppy one. His sick old horse plods through oozy, grimy snow, hunting for brambles to eat. Li He was altogether a queer fellow. As thin as a scarecrow he was, so thin indeed that his mother was in constant distress, but he kept on neglecting his meals and wasting his life on striking similes. If he is not better understood, he just deserves it.
Other aspects of this art of word painting seem more indigenous to the Chinese language and will be hardly possible in another language in which syntax and inflection play a more important role. I shall try to give you a few random examples.
We celebrate our Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the first month according to the old calendar. Out of childlike homesickness one of the Song Dynasty poets composed the following:
In the original we do not have a green that caresses the oars, but a caressing-oar green. Nor is the branch beneath the door lintel, but it is a lower-than-door branch. The poet can juggle with words any way he pleases though he does not always «get away with it». When one attempts to translate Chinese poetry into English, such difficulties are met with every now and then. The American philosopher and psychologist, William James, often resorted to this makeshift of hyphenating words together to make compound qualifiers. The total impression one gets from a particular situation may easily break through the confinements of logic and grammar. Thank heaven, our poets are not in duty bound to observe so many rules.
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Lectures on Chinese Poetry
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