The Quince is a song with a chorus, the most usual Western type.
This is a song of the fishing folks. A more naive expression of gratitude for bounteous hospitality one cannot find anywhere else in Chinese literature. That was the folk way. Imagine that we can sit down by the seashore, partake of their common meal and join them in their happy chorus. The repeat of the chorus in immediate succession is a very peculiar form, suggesting an action song. Those of you who happen to know life in a present day fishing village will probably read between lines poverty, hardship, and the monotony of sand and sea.
* A clan famous for feminine beauty.
** Another clan famous for feminine beauty.
Heng Men is a soup ol sheer content, the preeminent virtue as well as the stupefying malady of the common people. Some of you will heartily appreciate the sentiment expressed in the first stanza. The rest will forever remain an Oriental mystery to you. You notice here the simple folk song passes over to that type of poetry which you call the lyric. The repeat still appears in the last two stanzas.
This lyric I consider to be one of the most beautiful gems in the whole history of Chinese literature. He who understands this song understands the simplicity of Chinese womanhood and the solidarity of our homes and nation. To the Westerner, the Chinese housewife often appears unimaginative, homely, even dumb. The beauty of the poem lies in its very dumbness. But what a contrast this silent courage presents to exaggerated stolidity as it is described for you in some of your novels dealing with Chinese rural life! We cannot blame your writers who are not born of Chinese women. They have tried to be fair in their realism. They feel sympathy, to be sure, and a sort of kind attachment, but nothing of that sentiment to which poems like the above are dedicated.
The motif and technique of this representative lyric resembles that of Western love songs so much as to make any comment superfluous. In fact, the scene might just as well be laid in the Alps or the Scotch Highlands. The writer could have been Robert Bums, except that he was born at least twenty-five centuries ahead of time.
Finally, let me introduce a few examples in which the Chinese folk song gradually passes over into the descriptive poem of more recent times and into the common ballad. Shuo Ren is a poem of very loose structure. The author was unsophisticated. He had not acquired the elaborate technique of the later fu writers. It reads somewhat like the Song of Songs. It has no reference to the cedars of Mt. Lebanon, though. He who lives on the soil finds the soil pretty good stuff for poetry. I translate only the second stanza.
The freshness of spring and the naivete of a young child, these are exactly the delicate touches that we no longer find in our conventional poetry. Women are nowadays compared to flowers. What flowers? Just the ordinary flowers, you know. Li Bai did that and so did all the rest. Our mediocre writers can portray a woman for you in gigantic passages which mean exactly nothing. Features that make the fish sink to the bottom for shame and the flying goose drop down for sheer astonishment, a countenance at which the moon hides its face and the flowers fold their petals , , what sort of a thing is that? The forehead of the dragonfly, a neck that twists and twines like a white larva on the tree - how ridiculous, how impossible are such metaphors for the city poet or the court singer! I wonder how many of our poets have looked at a dragonfly at close range. With her husband away from home, the aristocratic lady in one of the often quoted Tang Dynasty poems did not know what to do with herself. So she counted one by one blossoms in her deserted garden when an unsuspecting dragonfly alighted on her jade hair pin. Xing dao zhong ting shu hua duo; qing ting fei shang yu sao tou, is a very delicate suggestion, better than a whole passage of sobs and tears. But that daring dragonfly you see only with your mind's eye at a remote distance. Again, for one reason or another, the eyebrows of a silk moth caught the fancy of the later generations. The metaphor was copied a hundred thousand times over until it lost all color. Then, beginning from the Tang Dynasty, a different kind of eyebrows became popular in poetry - mountainlike eyebrows, shan yang mei, the gentle curves one sees in Chinese landscape sketches, the modem Chinese eyebrows after undergoing the attention of tweezers. But the mountains fade away in twilight when folk poetry goes to sleep.
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Lectures on Chinese Poetry
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