Today is international poetry day – which reminded me of the time when I was an English teacher at a university in Kaifeng, Henan Province. My students gave me a beautiful scroll to hang on my wall. It was, they explained, a poem from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907) – a golden era in China’s history in many spheres, from culture to engineering, administration, religious freedom, education, women’s rights, cosmopolitanism. And also poetry. Around 50,000 poems have survived from the Tang period and many experts believe this to be not only the greatest era of Chinese poetry, but also China’s biggest contribution to world literature. Many people in China today know Tang poems by heart – you can watch some primary school children in Ningxia reciting a Tang poem here !
The scroll my students gave us had perhaps twenty Chinese characters, arranged in columns and written in a mesmerising, flowing hand. At the bottom, a few simple ink brush strokes evoked a branch of plum blossom. The scroll was a thing of beauty – but it also turned out to be a source of great entertainment and wonder to me. We used to ask every visitor to our house to explain what the poem meant. And their contrasting answers gave me a small insight into classical Chinese poetry.
They would say that the characters were those for “snow” “spring” “plum blossom” and so on. This much they could agree on. But when it came to explaining what the poem actually meant, the fun began. Some visitors explained it was a poem about hope and resilience in the face of adversity; others said it was about love’s losses and how to survive them while others explained that it was about the transience of life and love. Others explained it was a poem about the beauty of Nature but – and here they would be a little apologetic – as so many elements of the natural world were symbolic in Chinese culture, to a Chinese reader the poem was also packed with denser meanings, hidden to a foreign reader.
It seemed to me that the words offered by the poet were so sparse that the reader could interpret them in many ways. This ancient poem – written almost a thousand years before Shakespeare – offered a kind of space into which the reader could pour his own thoughts and obsessions. The nature-lover, the philosopher, the romantic could all take something different from the poem.
I once met a writer who described poetry as “words under pressure.” Tang dynasty poetry is certainly like that. Not only do individual words carry their heavy cargo of symbolism, but also the structure of the poems – how many characters per line; the tone of each character and so on – is strictly determined. The apparent simplicity of the words fit into a scaffolding that is actually quite rigid. Of course, those of us who can’t read classical Chinese miss all that. (And the misguided tendency of some translators to manhandle the Chinese words into an English rhyming scheme can distance us still further from the original.)
But even understanding only a fraction of what the poet intended, these Tang poems can be luminous, touching and funny. Try reading this one – Spring Dawn by the influential early Tang poet Meng Haoran where the simple English translation of the original and an attempt to show what the poet means are placed side by side. Find more Tang era poems here
I love both versions…What about you?
Spring Dawn by Meng Haoran
|Spring sleep not wake dawn
Everywhere hear cry bird
Night come wind rain sound
Flower fall know how many
I slumbered this spring morning, and missed the dawn,