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We have now had before us all the three forms of poetry commonly known to Chinese school children but we have by no means exhausted the field of poetic literature. For us, poetry and poetic literature are not the same. The latter is conventionally divided into four classes to which we should add two more, still not including the most recent arrival, the free verse. We have barely time to enumerate the six classes. The first is poetry proper, with the three forms I have described and other minor varieties.
Secondly, we have the ci (tz'u), which we may define as a song that has lost its tune and which, therefore, should be married to your chanson sans paroles. Nowadays a ci is nothing but an intricate tonal pattern to which the writer sets characters. So we got the term tian ci (t'ien tz'u), filling out a pattern. The rhyming scheme and the tonal arrangement of the longer patterns have become so complicated that the newly initiated is liable to be a bull in a china shop. Many of those patterns can be traced back to the Academies of Music of the Han and Tang Dynasties.*
* The Academy of Music was a school attached to the court but its main function was not instructional. The poets and musicians who gathered there lived on state support.
They bear very romantic and sometimes utterly nonsensical titles, indicating the foreign origin of the tunes. Buddha Dance, The Hour Glass, To Fatherland Far Away, Wine Spring, The Conquest of Tibet, Willow Twigs — these are the first half dozen patterns that greet one's eye as one turns to the earliest collection of those song fossils. The name of the pattern originally belonged to the melody. It has nothing to do with the motif of subject-matter of the poem.
The ci writers excelled in the art of impressionism, of a new skill in word painting which even the curtailed verse writers had never dreamed of. They were the makers of a polished vocabulary, delicate, nice, suggestive, but in other respects voluptuous and superficial. We shall return to this old curiosity shop of poetic diction in a subsequent lecture. Of late we have not had a ci master. We still have artisans and phrase-mongers, ever ready to "bless your birthday or praise your grave"— for cold cash. The ci is dying. The life is nearly gone from it as it is from embroidery or the carving of ivory. So let it die.
The third class of poetic literature includes our songs, or ge (ke). Folk songs both ancient and modern belong here. So also do poems written by literary men to be sung in folk melodies, and pieces set to more elaborate music by the leisurely and professional men of the academies of the medieval dynasties. This class of literature differs from poetry proper only in its musical or melodic origin. While a song can be sung, a poem is at best only chanted. The difference between a ge and a ci is even more insignificant. In the days when the ci was living, instrumental music always accompanied it, but a ge (ke) could be, and usually was, only vocal.
The last of the four conventional classes is the fu, or the descriptive poem. Mr. Waley has given you quite a glimpse of it.* The Chinese do not go in for descriptive poetry with enthusiasm. We have our biases. Very few poets have been successful with the fu, especially of late. Often it is just a heap of parallel couplets of varying lengths. It soon degenerates into rhymed prose of the most cumbersome kind, studded with words which merely inflate the dictionary. If Samuel Johnson were to visit the Chicago World's Fair and to report to some really sophisticated literary gazette, his contributions might remind us of the worst of the Han Dynasty descriptive poems. The dancing girls, of course, the jugglers and the acrobats, giants and dwarfs; and be sure to mention the monkeys and the tigers, and the big stone tortoises that carry just as immense stone monuments. People in the interior were not used to seeing such things. That was our fu.**
* The Temple, 1923.
** The poems vary tremendously in literary value. To some extent I can share Mr. Waley's enthusiasm for Si-ma Xiang-ru (Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju), d. 117 B.C."I do not think that anyone who has read Hsiang-ju's poems will blame me for not attempting to translate them. Such a glittering torrent of words has never since poured from the pen of any writer in the world. Beside him Euphues seems timid and Apuleius cold. He sports with language as a dolphin sports with the sea. Such eloquence cannot be described, much less translated." The Temple, pp.43-4.
Assuredly Si-ma Xiang-ru and all the rest could "sport" with characters, hardly with language — reminding me rather uncomfortably of the semi-precious stones on the walls of Sans Souci.
Nevertheless, one cannot leave this topic of descriptive poetry without mentioning the works of Qu Yuan (Ch'u Yuan) which together with the Book of Odes have remained as the main source of all classical forms and motifs. Qu Yuan drowned himself in 295 B.C. at the age of thirty-five, but he has impressed us more deeply than any other poet who did not drown himself at seventy. Instead of translations I shall sketch for you one of my composite adolescent impressions from that Southern School of fu writers. It is a witch dance the poet is describing. The scene is set probably in the temple of the Goddess of the East Wind. I can see the flying buttresses carved with serpents and dragons, all brilliant with new gold and varnish. A young witch has come out of coma, her bewildered eyes still half sleepy, her sleeves floating dreamily. The drums and bells have stopped. All is quiet except for the slow mumbling of the oracle. You would be able to share my impressions only after struggling with the archaic language for a few years, but guang kai xi tian-men (kuang k'ai hsi t'ien-men), "the gates of Heaven are wide open", as Qu Yuan once sang.*
I must now hasten to go through the two other classes ot poetic literature which I believe should be appended to the conventional list. The first is qu (ch'u) or operatic literature. Roughly speaking, there exist three subclasses. The Northern Opera, which originated in the Song and flourished in the subsequent dynasties, embodies mainly the language of the street. The libretto is often whimsically beautiful. The Tale of the Guitar, I understand, has been translated into German but there are dozens of others equally worth translating. The Southern Opera, or more properly the Kun Shan (K'un Shan) Opera, began with the leisurely Suzhou literati in the Ming Dynasty. The two differ in local color, in the type of music and also quite significantly in vernacular expressions and mannerisms. We are not here concerned with music. So I shall pass hurriedly also the third type of opera, i.e., the Beijing Opera of the present day and its hundred and one local varieties. There is as much poetry on the Beijing stage as in your operatic literature. Like your Tales of Hoffman, a big long sigh can last half of the evening.
Finally we come to a most popular type of poetic literature which has hardly been touched by the Westerner. Perhaps they do not realize its existence, though it is right around the street comer. Even our own literary men very seldom trouble themselves with the ballad poetry of the story tellers. You have been told that China has no epic. No dead epic indeed, but there may be a great many living ones. Only, our gods and heroes take on a new set of impossible virtues. Some of the ballad or epic pieces, or whatever you prefer to call them, run into six or eight volumes, for instance, The Japanese Robe, The Pearl Pagoda, The Three Smiles. Here again we notice a great difference in temperament and in our biases. European poetry began with the epic and you have kept that tradition while we have never cared much for the crude beginnings of nascent epics. We never gave genius a chance to see the light. On the other hand, we developed our literary poetry as a totally different mode of expression.
In my limited experience I have come into touch with a variety of story tellers. As a child I used to sit in the glimmering light of bean oil lamps to hear tea-shop stories. The repetition and the refrain often put me to sleep but the twang or the three strings would wake me up. I lived near Suzhou then. Our maid servants brought us tales from the country. We were very early introduced to doubtful stories. A man and a woman got into trouble. In the third month she began to crave good things to eat, black-scaled carps stuffed with sausage dressing, and huge duck eggs from the village of Thunder Gate and the city of Jingjiang, and so on ad nauseam, always in seven-syllable lines with perfect rhymes. More recently my attention has been called to Beijing Big Drum tales. Beware of the drum girls, they are sirens. Go to Beijing, a mile or so out of the Front Gate, to a place called Heavenly Bridge where the riff-raff gather to promenade. Stop at any tent, a parasol sort of affair, or at any open air circle. The rugged and squeaky benches may be quite dirty but you can sit for the whole afternoon without paying a cent unless you want to. But you do want to. Pretty soon one of the girls will stand up. A drum stick in her left hand and a pair of castanets in her right, she begins her story in limping rhymes. The heroine will take five minutes to part her hair, another five to apply the rouge. You may be able to catch a glimpse or two of good poetry. The rest is boredom. This is the same sort of feeling, let me confess, that nullifies every attempt of mine to understand some of your time-honored narratives.
This is a formal, more or less perfunctory review of the forms of Chinese poetry. In the final reference I have introduced something of the primitive atmosphere from which both folk poetry and the poetry of the literary men took their origin. We shall next deal with folk songs.
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