Reading Chinese Poetry: Understanding Classical Works

Chinese poetry, with its rich heritage and profound depth, is a cornerstone of the nation’s literary history. Spanning over two millennia, classical Chinese poetry reflects the philosophical, cultural, and aesthetic values of various dynasties. To truly appreciate these works, one must delve into their historical context, poetic forms, and the intricate language used by the poets. For those interested in deepening their understanding, consider signing up for Chinese classes at the LC Chinese School.

Historical Context

Early Beginnings: The Book of Songs

Chinese poetry’s roots trace back to the “Shijing” or “Book of Songs” (诗经, shī jīng), a collection of 305 poems from the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). These poems cover themes from courtship to agricultural life, offering a glimpse into ancient Chinese society. The simplicity and directness of the “Shijing” contrast with the elaborate styles that developed in later periods.

Example from the Book of Songs: 《关雎》 (Guān Jū, “Ospreys”)

关关雎鸠,在河之洲。
(Guān guān jū jiū, zài hé zhī zhōu.)
窈窕淑女,君子好逑。
(Yǎo tiǎo shū nǚ, jūn zǐ hǎo qiú.)

Translation:

“Fair, fair,” cry the ospreys
On the island in the river.
Lovely is this noble lady,
A fit mate for our lord.

Vocabulary:

  • 雎鸠 (jū jiū) – ospreys
  • 河 (hé) – river
  • 洲 (zhōu) – island
  • 窈窕 (yǎo tiǎo) – lovely, graceful
  • 淑女 (shū nǚ) – noble lady
  • 君子 (jūn zǐ) – lord, gentleman
  • 好逑 (hǎo qiú) – fit mate

This poem depicts the elegance of a noble lady and has been interpreted as an allegory for a harmonious marriage.

The Tang Dynasty: The Golden Age

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) is often regarded as the golden age of Chinese poetry. Poets like Li Bai (李白, Lǐ Bái), Du Fu (杜甫, Dù Fǔ), and Wang Wei (王维, Wáng Wéi) flourished during this period, producing works that are still revered today. Tang poetry is characterized by its lyrical beauty, philosophical depth, and innovative use of form. Themes of nature, friendship, and the human condition are prevalent, reflecting the poets’ responses to the political and social upheavals of their time.

Example of Tang Poetry: 《静夜思》 (Jìng Yè Sī, “Thoughts on a Quiet Night”) by Li Bai (李白, Lǐ Bái)

床前明月光,
(Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,)
疑是地上霜。
(Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.)
举头望明月,
(Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,)
低头思故乡。
(Dī tóu sī gùxiāng.)

Translation:

Before my bed, the moonlight glows,
I suspect it is frost on the ground.
I lift my head to gaze at the bright moon,
Then lower it, thinking of my hometown.

Vocabulary:

  • 床前 (chuáng qián) – before the bed
  • 明月 (míng yuè) – bright moon
  • 地上 (dì shàng) – on the ground
  • 霜 (shuāng) – frost
  • 举头 (jǔ tóu) – lift head
  • 低头 (dī tóu) – lower head
  • 思 (sī) – think of, miss
  • 故乡 (gùxiāng) – hometown

This poem beautifully captures the poet’s longing for his hometown, using the imagery of moonlight and frost to evoke a sense of nostalgia and homesickness.

The Song Dynasty: The Era of Ci Poetry

The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) saw the rise of “ci” poetry (词, cí), a lyrical form that often explores themes of love and longing. Unlike the regulated verse forms of the Tang, “ci” poetry is more flexible in structure, allowing for greater emotional expression. Famous “ci” poets include Su Shi (苏轼, Sū Shì) and Li Qingzhao (李清照, Lǐ Qīngzhào), whose works capture the subtle nuances of human emotion.

Example of Ci Poetry: 《如梦令》 (Rú Mèng Lìng, “Like a Dream”) by Li Qingzhao (李清照, Lǐ Qīngzhào)

常记溪亭日暮,沉醉不知归路。
(Cháng jì xī tíng rì mù, chén zuì bù zhī guī lù.)
兴尽晚回舟,误入藕花深处。
(Xìng jìn wǎn huí zhōu, wù rù ǒu huā shēn chù.)
争渡,争渡,惊起一滩鸥鹭。
(Zhēng dù, zhēng dù, jīng qǐ yī tān ōu lù.)

Translation:

I often recall the pavilion by the creek at sunset,
Drunkenly, I lost my way home.
When the joy was over, I rowed back late,
By mistake, I entered deep into the lotus flowers.
Rowing, rowing,
I startled a whole flock of egrets and gulls.

Vocabulary:

  • 常记 (cháng jì) – often recall
  • 溪亭 (xī tíng) – pavilion by the creek
  • 日暮 (rì mù) – sunset
  • 沉醉 (chén zuì) – deeply drunk
  • 归路 (guī lù) – way home
  • 晚回 (wǎn huí) – late return
  • 舟 (zhōu) – boat
  • 藕花 (ǒu huā) – lotus flowers
  • 深处 (shēn chù) – deep place
  • 争渡 (zhēng dù) – rowing
  • 惊起 (jīng qǐ) – startled
  • 鸥鹭 (ōu lù) – egrets and gulls

This “ci” poem captures a moment of lost direction and the beauty of an unintended journey, evoking both the serenity of nature and the poet’s reflective state.

Poetic Forms and Structures

Jueju and Lüshi

During the Tang Dynasty, two primary forms of regulated verse emerged: “jueju” (绝句, juéjù) and “lüshi” (律诗, lǜshī). “Jueju” consists of four lines with either five or seven characters per line, while “lüshi” is an eight-line poem with similar character constraints. Both forms follow strict tonal patterns and parallelism, requiring meticulous craftsmanship from the poet.

Example of Jueju (五言绝句, wǔ yán juéjù): 《登鹳雀楼》 (Dēng Guàn Què Lóu, “Climbing the Stork Tower”) by Wang Zhihuan (王之涣, Wáng Zhīhuàn)

白日依山尽,
(Bái rì yī shān jìn,)
黄河入海流。
(Huáng hé rù hǎi liú.)
欲穷千里目,
(Yù qióng qiān lǐ mù,)
更上一层楼。
(Gèng shàng yī céng lóu.)

Translation:

The white sun sets behind the mountains,
The Yellow River flows into the sea.
To see a thousand miles further,
Go up one more floor.

Vocabulary:

  • 白日 (bái rì) – white sun
  • 依 (yī) – lean on, depend
  • 山尽 (shān jìn) – mountains end
  • 黄河 (Huáng hé) – Yellow River
  • 入海 (rù hǎi) – enter the sea
  • 流 (liú) – flow
  • 欲 (yù) – desire
  • 穷 (qióng) – exhaust, reach
  • 千里目 (qiān lǐ mù) – thousand-mile view
  • 更 (gèng) – further
  • 一层楼 (yī céng lóu) – one more floor

Ci Poetry

“Ci” poetry, prominent in the Song Dynasty, is set to musical tunes and varies in length and structure. Each “ci” poem corresponds to a specific tune, with a prescribed pattern of tones and rhymes. This form allowed poets to experiment with rhythm and melody, adding a musical quality to their verses.

Example of Ci Poetry (词, cí): 《声声慢》 (Shēng Shēng Màn, “Slow, Slow Tune”) by Li Qingzhao (李清照, Lǐ Qīngzhào)

寻寻觅觅,冷冷清清,
(Xún xún mì mì, lěng lěng qīng qīng,)
凄凄惨惨戚戚。
(Qī qī cǎn cǎn qī qī.)
乍暖还寒时候,最难将息。
(Zhà nuǎn hái hán shíhòu, zuì nán jiāng xī.)
三杯两盏淡酒,怎敌他晚来风急?
(Sān bēi liǎng zhǎn dàn jiǔ, zěn dí tā wǎn lái fēng jí?)
雁过也,正伤心,却是旧时相识。
(Yàn guò yě, zhèng shāng xīn, què shì jiù shí xiāngshí.)

Translation:

Searching and seeking, cold and desolate,
Mournful and melancholy.
At the time of sudden warmth and chill, hardest to bear.
Three cups, two bowls of light wine, how to withstand the late night wind?
Even the passing geese, so heart-wrenching, remind me of old acquaintances.

Vocabulary:

  • 寻寻觅觅 (xún xún mì mì) – searching and seeking
  • 冷冷清清 (lěng lěng qīng qīng) – cold and desolate
  • 凄凄惨惨戚戚 (qī qī cǎn cǎn qī qī) – mournful and melancholy
  • 乍暖还寒 (zhà nuǎn hái hán) – sudden warmth and chill
  • 最难 (zuì nán) – hardest
  • 将息 (jiāng xī) – to bear
  • 三杯两盏 (sān bēi liǎng zhǎn) – three cups, two bowls
  • 淡酒 (dàn jiǔ) – light wine
  • 晚来风急 (wǎn lái fēng jí) – late night wind
  • 雁过 (yàn guò) – passing geese
  • 旧时相识 (jiù shí xiāngshí) – old acquaintances

This “ci” poem captures the poignant feelings of nostalgia and sadness, reflecting the poet’s deep emotional state.

Appreciating Chinese Poetry Today

Translations and Interpretations

Reading classical Chinese poetry in translation can be challenging due to the language’s complexity and the cultural context embedded in the texts. However, good translations strive to capture the essence and beauty of the original works. Annotated editions can provide valuable insights, helping readers navigate the cultural and historical references.

Contemporary Relevance

Despite their ancient origins, classical Chinese poems continue to resonate today. Their exploration of universal themes such as nature, love, and human suffering transcends time and cultural boundaries. Contemporary readers can find solace, inspiration, and wisdom in these timeless works.

Engaging with the Original Texts

For those interested in a deeper understanding, learning classical Chinese can be a rewarding endeavor. Engaging with the original texts allows readers to appreciate the nuances of language, tone, and form that are often lost in translation. Various resources, including online courses and scholarly works, can aid in this pursuit. Consider enrolling in Chinese classes at the LC Chinese School to deepen your understanding and appreciation of Chinese poetry.

Conclusion

Reading classical Chinese poetry is a journey into the heart of China’s literary and cultural heritage. By understanding the historical context, poetic forms, language, and themes, readers can unlock the profound beauty and wisdom embedded in these works. Whether approached through translations or original texts, the timeless allure of Chinese poetry offers a rich and rewarding experience for all who venture into its depths.

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