A Little Introduction to Ancient Chinese Poetry

All ancient Chinese poetry is song, to be sung in a high-pitched voice often accompanied by musical instruments.1 And those songs most often tell about the small, ordinary things of our common life together. Chinese poetry focuses on the actual, the things of this world, the here and now. It delights in the physical. It is humanistic and full of common sense and seldom touches on the supernatural or indulges in extravagant flights of fancy or rhetoric.

2 It is remarkably accessible and although periodically ancient Chinese poetry got rarefied, effete and intellectual, some poet always came along, like T’ao Ch’ien in the 4th century A.D. and Po ChŸ-yi in poetry and Han YŸ in prose during the T’ang Dynasty to bring it back to the simplicity and directness, the plainness which is the ear mark of any classical style.

There is a radically different aesthetic, world view, operating in ancient Chinese poetry from the one that controls poetry in American today. Much of contemporary American poetry, by Ancient Chinese standards, is pretentiously philosophical and mercilessly overwritten. Ancient Chinese poetry seeks out the simplest things in life and celebrates them. It does not want to be lofty or profound. It wants to tell of life on this earth. It finds the great universal truths in the mundane. 3 Although full of the celebration of this life, it is full of sorrow also. There is no poetry anywhere so imbued with the anguish of old age, the loneliness of sad partings, the ravages of war, the other myriad tribulations in our lives. Yet, as Robert Payne points out in his Introduction to The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, this Chinese sorrow is not the final sorrow of Virgil’s Christian West which looked forward to the end of the world in some catastrophe or a resurrection outside of time. 4For the Chinese there is no life after this one, only, as the Tao Te Ching puts it, a short while as one of the ten thousand things and then a return to the undifferentiated Way. At the same time that we are only passing through, the Chinese know that the world is permanent. The sorrow in Chinese poetry is the sharp and painful sense of time and life passing, the sense of our impermanence in the larger permanence.

Because in Chinese philosophy and religion there is no idea of an afterlife, the eternal now becomes where heaven must be. As T’ao Ch’ien puts it in a poem:


The ten thousand changes follow each other
away–so why shouldn’t living be hard?

And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me

grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
a little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased

enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.5

Yet T’ao Ch’ien knows also that by noon forever will be gone.

This sense of time fleeing is the basis for Chinese poetry’s awareness of the terrible impermanence of things6 and because of this impermanence, a sharply felt regret7 for the passing of the things of this world which is why Chinese poetry is always imbued with melancholy. And because of this melancholy sense of the temporality of our lives there is in all Chinese poetry a tender pity, a universal friendliness8 regarding what we westerners would call “the human predicament.”

There is never any of the misanthropic hatred of ourselves so common in current western literature and philosophy or the hellfire and damnation pronouncements of the impending apocalypse issued daily by current religious or ecological groups.

This apocalyptic and eschatological way of seeing the world is peculiarly Judeo-Christian. In our contemporary, non or anti-Judeo-Christian intellectual society we have discarded our religiously based ideas of the end of time and the end of being, but we have kept the attitude that went with those discarded ideas, and therefore in the most sophisticated of intellectual circles one gets a disdain for any religion, but the eschatological attitudes, now detatched from the discarded religion, remain. I am talking about the fashionable gloom with which modern art of all kinds has been enamored for decades, what I like to call “chic bleak.” In place of this gloomy, cynical, post-modern, self hatred the Chinese put a sweet melancholy, a tender pity, a universal friendliness, a great sadness over our inevitable suffering as we pass through this life. As Robert Payne puts it :

There is no Christian apocalypse, no crucifixion, no final blaze of glory. [The Chinese] were more human than the Europeans, who from earliest times have hinted secretly that they were gods, or at least could become gods. And because [the Chinese] had no belief in a future world, they loved the concrete things of [this] life passionately and with a kind of abandon, and where we find glory in a dying youth on a wooden cross, they would find the same glory in a leaf, in the silence of the woods and the distant roaring of tigers. 9

They also, by the way, found glory in sex and developed elaborate sex manuals and theories of sexuality necessary for what they considered good psychic and physical health. These theories were based on the idea that it was critically important for partners to exchange the liquids of Yin essence and Yang essence on a regular basis.

And their literature reflects and articulates this earth bound, human, sensual vision also. The Chinese poem is much less a philosophical pronouncement, less a demonstration of the poet’s way with words, less a means for drawing attention to itself and to the author. As Burton Watson says in his Introduction to The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry:

There is less sense than in the West of a poem as possessing a life of its own apart from that of its creator, more of the poem as a form of autobiography, shedding light on the life of the poet and at the same time yielding up its full meaning only when read in the context of that life. The poem is the voice of the poet not self-consciously addressing posterity or the world at large, but speaking quietly to a few close friends, or perhaps simply musing to himself. 10

It may seem odd or contradictory for me to say that the poem is “less a means for drawing attention to itself and to the author” only a few sentences before Burton Watson says that the poem is “a form of autobiography, shedding light on the life of the poet,” but the authorial first person in a Chinese poem is uniquely different from the “I” of most modern American poems. The “I” in a Chinese poem is an “I” connected to the rest of humanity in the most basic, common and ordinary way. It is an “I” speaking out of its particular situation to be sure, but speaking always for the rest of the human community to which the poet feels deeply connected. Even when the poet bemoans his old age, as Chinese poets constantly do, the poem remains somehow wonderfully selfless. I think this selflessness comes from the profoundly physical, sensual and non-intellectual nature of Chinese poems, and from their deep connection to the traditions and history of poetry in their language. The focus of the poem always remains outside the poet and his mind, always upon the world and other people. A Chinese poet does not draw attention to himself, he does not seek his quirky, odd, unique voice. He has an almost mad desire not to be different from other poets and to see himself connected to the past, and therefore, he achieves his uniqueness easily and automatically, since it is already there. In other words the focus of the poem is never on the poet but rather on some thing or person to whom the poet is relating, on a friendship, on the parting of friends, on the peach blossom petals floating down the river, on wine, fish, old age, a cloth cap, but not on the poet.

This human and humane attitude toward our lives, this loving kindness for our predicament is not exclusively Chinese. It is in our heritage as well. Sophocles says in Antigone, “Numberless are the world’s wonders, and none more wonderful than man.” 11 On the last page of The Plague Albert Camus gives the reason for writing the book: “to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there is more to admire in men than to despise.” 12

No doubt the fashionable gloom, the post-modern, chic bleak, of the anti-religious, sophisticated intelligentsia is a reaction to the stupid, can-do, problem solving, infantilism of American optimism, but both attitudes are extreme and extremely Romantic.

The Chinese way of seeing the world and relating to it offers another, plainer alternative, one it seems to me, more human and humane, one full of tender pity, universal friendliness and great sadness. This Chinese way of seeing is at once more bluntly realistic and yet also more comforting.

Addendum to “A Little Introduction . . .”A WORD ABOUT WORDS AND SILENCE
There is in almost all of ancient Chinese poetry, and certainly in poets like T’ao Ch’ien, Po Chu-i, Wang Wei and the Sung Dynasty poet Yang Wan-li, a deep, abiding and unresolved conflict between the desire for silence and the urge to use language to make poems.

This is, I think, more of a Taoist thing than a Buddhist thing. In Bill Porter’s ROAD TO HEAVEN, he quotes one Taoist hermit as saying, “Taoists like it quiet.” Po Chu-i referred to his uncontrollable desire to write poetry–he wrote thousands of poems–as his “poetry demon” and he lamented the fact that he could never overcome his “word-karma.” So there is in much of ancient Chinese poetry a desire to get away from words, to get into silence.

The great goal, I believe, of all Taoists is to become anonymous and then to disappear altogether, which of course is exactly what the author of THE TAO TEH CHING, Lao Tzu, actually and finally did.

This urge toward silence and this understanding that in silence is where you will find enlightenment is opposed to, radically different from, what we in the Judeao-Christian tradition have grown up with.

I recently saw a program on public television about a group of rabbis who went to India to visit the Dali Lama. One of the rabbis says, “Monks like silence; Jews like to gab.” My book editor friend Mike Moore refers to Jews as “The People of The Book” which of course leads to books, millions of books.

And it’s not just Jews; it’s us Christians too. Here is the first sentence of the Gospel According to John in THE NEW TESTAMENT, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Well, you can bet a Jew/Christian wrote that. It’s, from a Taoist’s point of view, bad enough to say that the word comes even before God, but it’s really over the top to claim that the word actually IS God.

So there is this conflict in Chinese poetry between getting silent and disappearing and making poems. This topic, this motif, recurs again and again, throughout there history of Chinese poetry.

Here’s just one example, from Sung Dynasty poet, Yang Wan-li.

Don’t Read Books
Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,

leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
but if your lips constantly make a sound like an insect
chirping in autumn,
you will turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better

to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.

It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

In other words there is an enormous amount of space, emptiness, in Chinese poetry, which is to say, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas were not Chinese poets.

David Budbill

1 Payne, Robert, THE WHITE PONY: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, The John Day Company, New York, 1947, p.vii
2 Watson, Burton, THE COLUMBIA BOOK OF CHINESE POETRY: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, p.2-3
3 Payne, p. xvi-xvii
4 Payne, p, vii
5 Hinton, David, trans., The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien, Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993, p. 44.
6 Payne, p.x
7 Payne
8 Payne
9 Payne, p.xii
10 Watson, p.4
11 Sophocles, ANTIGONE, Fitts/Fitzgerald translation
12 Camus, Albert, THE PLAGUE, The Modern Library, New York, 1948, p.278