In more recent centuries our lesser poets have cried for nothing at all. Above all they like to make women cry for them. I think I have an instinctive way of telling when tears are faked. As a college student I used to enjoy reading the works of an early nineteenth century writer until one day I found him cheating. Some of you may have seen our dwarfed plum trees. They are twisted and their artificial knars are made to look ancient. The poet bought a great many of what he called sick plum trees. He set them free, built them a sanatorium, and then out of intense sympathetic suffering wept for three days without cessation. I have not touched his works since.
One is again reminded of folk poetry. Meng Jiang Nu cried so bitterly that the Great Wall fell down and delivered to her the bones of her husband. And I like the following for a fifth century folk song:
To the same tune,
There is an artistry in sheer exaggeration which makes a joke a joke. A better sense of humor would have saved at least some of our ci writers.
I have dwelt at length on the vanity and petty weaknesses of our poets. From this I hope you can infer why we consider Du Fu our greatest poet, not Li Bai. Their immediate successors ranked them that way, not only on account of Du Fu's masterful style, but also for his loyalty and simple affection. We sympathize to some extent with Li Bai's estimate of the latter's painstaking code verse. As a friend, however, Du Fu has no equal. Like a child he tells the truth. Unlike a child he never exaggerates.
After all, we Chinese are an ethical, worldly, unimaginative people. Du Fu's poetry is the genuine Chinese poetry. Not one of our poets was very profound in a mystic sense. We do not pretend to be philosophical. We have very little of explicitly didactic poetry and what we have is fully as bad as yours. At the same time, just because our poetry is occasional — even its social message is but a momentary reaction — so very few, if any, of our poets have had a strong hold on life.
A tenacious view of life could have been taken as other-worldliness in itself. Once in a while one finds some evidence for that vague mystic longing which is not just homesickness.
This from a young poet, Liu Yong, who according to his own wishes would rather have given up «floating fame for a half-filled cup and a woman's whispered song». So «fill your cup and sing your song. Why seek floating fame?» wrote the emperor on his examination paper. The latter, as you can judge, was a Confucianist. He did not understand that our rascal could have a moral and emotional struggle of his own.
cried another Song Dynasty ci writer. Relatively speaking, the Song Dynasty was an age of religious contemplation. What little we have of philosophic poetry flourished at that time. But these quotations do not represent the general trend of thinking at any period. The poet's heaven has almost invariably been a secluded home in the country with a few friends around him, a small pension, and then good wine.
Petty bourgeoisie, all of them! Very few of them did get pensioned off though. Drifting from office to office, they always felt like exiles. As magistrates or governors they happened to be a most decent lot, efficient and tolerant. Some of them were known to be drunk most of the time, and their districts seemed to be the best governed.
In this discussion I have purposely refrained from relating the lives of our representative poets. For one thing, I do not know how to make a choice, for we have had a galaxy of queer, insignificant souls. Had I given you a series of. brief biographical sketches, you would have been choked with dates and dynasties. I promised you tittle-tattle, and I hope I have fulfilled my promise. Another writer might have introduced the topic in more solemn manner and from a totally different angle. There are no unbiased historians, still less can one expect a fair, objective gossip.
Before we leave this hackneyed subject, I might tell you something about the works of two men whom we may take to represent two totally different phases of a poet's life. The first exemplifies the common petty official type reduced to the lowest terms, and the second shoots up like a meteor, representing whatever is out of the way and out of order in Chinese poetry. All the other poets we can in a fashion distribute between these extremes.
Lu You was born in Shanying, Zhejiang, in 1125 and died in 1209. He outlived six emperors. Nothing needs to be said of his early life except that he took his degree on the merits of his ancestors. From forty-seven to sixty-three he was an official in Sichuan. After his return he was repeatedly called out to serve in small districts in nearby Zhejiang and Jiangxi. At last he was pensioned off and died at home. What a romantic life!
Now as to his writings, I have already mentioned that he handed down about eleven thousand poems. At the age of seventy-seven, while drinking underneath a flowering plum tree, he wrote in a prefatory note, «Behold, for the last sixty years I have written exactly ten thousand poems». The same monotone resounds from all his writings, year in and year out. If you do not believe that a little something can be said in a million different ways, read Lu You when he was eighteen, and read him again when eighty-five. At the age of seventy-two, he attached this note to one of his poems
On the night of June 24th 1 dreamed I was with Mr. Fan and Mr. Li in a pavilion on the river. They asked me to write a poem to commemorate our happy life by the water. I woke up when I finished it. I forgot only a few words.We do not have the slightest doubt that was actually done. The poem, by the way, happens to be one of the best in the whole collection. At least he could not have done better during his waking moments. He still had thirteen years to go, but he was surely going. Ten years later at the age of eighty-two, he wrote another explanatory note as follows:
On the night of November 27th, I sat up and put on my clothes. A spiritual fire came out of my eyelids like the rising sun. The whole room was bright. So I wrote this poem.The poor man had lived too long.
The kind of things he wrote about can be easily summarized. We may, for instance, compare his writings at fifty odd with his very last poems. At forty-eight white specks began to 125 appear on his hair and beard. At fifty-two he was totally grey. He did not realize he had more than thirty years yet to live. He was then in Sichuan, after his home the land of heart's desire. The mountain peaks and turbulent gorges of that wonderland of China did not seem to have made any lasting impression on him, as they did upon Li Bai and Du Fu. Rather was he enamored of the bamboo shoots and the big taro, the leeks of the spring and the celery cabbage of the autumn. There were fish and shrimps in any quantity and better mutton than he used to have at home. Notwithstanding, the child was sick at heart. For why was he there six thousand li away from Zhejiang unless it was for hunger? Desire for official life was with him as thin as the wings of a cicada. Far rather would he go home and play with the mist and the ripples on the water than sit there in office, sweating, signing documents.
We next meet him at home a few months before his death. In 1209 the hills of Shanying were just as green as in any other year and the streams just as fragrant with fallen petals. The tea leaves came out much earlier than usual. The old man still roamed around on donkey back, his long legs reaching to the ground. The flickering lanterns of the wine tavern shone on him as he passed by at midnight. Early in the autumn he became sick. He knew the end was coming. One hundred cash for a cloth quilt to cover his hands and feet and a thin coffin to bury him at a high point up in the valley — these had been prepared long since. But the very next day he said in regular seven-syllable lines that he still possessed a shred of life, so he planned to have another drink at the market place. That he could not have.
One of his very last poems was a most prosaic jue ju to his children.
The Tartars began to occupy North China just about the time Lu You was born. Hundreds of times in his poetry he looked northward and sighed. Once he tried to enlist. «A scholar without a scrap of use,» said he repeatedly, but he died a scholar. No other Chinese poet lived as long as he did. Not a one wrote so much. If one could dilute poetry with long years and many words, Lu You would be our Du Fu in very weak solution.
Over against this typical, uneventful life of Lu You and his monotonous poetry, stand the humorous, vernacular writings of Wang Fan Zhi, representing, as I said, whatever is unconventional in Chinese poetry. I shall translate a few verses.
Who was this wild Wang Fan Zhi? Well, we do not know for sure. In the Tang Dynasty he must have been more widely known among the common folks than either Li Bai or Bai Ju Yi. Some of his writings have been recently rediscovered in the caves at Dunhuang among large collections of vulgar literature. According to legend, a man by the name of Wang De Zi lived not far from the city of Li Yang in Henan at the beginning of the seventh century. There appeared on an apple tree in his orchard a gall as big as a peck measure. Three years later it began to rot. Wang De Zi cut it open and found in it a baby with its placenta. De Zi brought it up. At seven the child began to talk. «Who are my parents and what is my name?» were his first words. De Zi told him the truth and named him Lin Mu Fan Tian, later changed to Fan Zhi.
But the child chose his own surname. «As the Wang family brought me up, my name shall be Wang.» Immediately he wrote poetry which was full of meaning. How did he fit into our literary tradition? He did not fit at all, just like so many others – monks, sing-song girls, story tellers, vagabonds. We Chinese do not bother with freaks. We are a decent people.
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