The ABC of Chinese Poetry8 min read

Yunte Huang reviews the latest in the How to Read Chinese Literature series


It was scandalous when T. S. Eliot, circa 1928, called Ezra Pound “the inventor of Chinese poetry.” To be fair, what Eliot meant was that the man he had earlier extolled as “il miglior fabbro” (the better maker) in The Wasteland, had fashioned a version of Chinese poetry for their generation. As Eliot quickly added, “Each generation must translate for itself.”

This is not the place to quibble over Pound’s Chinese invention, a topic that has already generated enough articles, dissertations and monographs to fill a sizable library. Yet the notion that a nation’s poetry can be made elsewhere, virtually reborn in a foreign land and language, is intriguing. A quick glance at the periodic reincarnations of Chinese poetry in English, from James Legge’s Confucian Odes, to Pound’s Cathay, to Gary Snyder’s Cold Mountain, would lend a kernel of truth to Eliot’s otherwise curious claim. As Walter Benjamin famously put it, translation gives literature a new life, an afterlife. And the vital importance of Chinese poetry’s afterlife to Anglo-American literature may be encapsulated in Pound’s proclamation, “A great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations; or follows it.”

All this talk about translation, however, leaves out one significant issue: that is, how to read Chinese poetry in its own context, or better yet, in its own language and culture. Pound, whose Cantos incorporate original, untranslated materials from dozens of languages, readily conceded that “the sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.” In other words, no translation, however creative or inventive, can replace that thrilling, albeit daunting, rendezvous with the original, an encounter Antoine Berman has characterized as “the experience with the foreign.” It sounds oxymoronic to say this, but the ABC of reading Chinese poetry is to read it in its own language, in its own culture, history and context – a commonsensical yet often forgotten position that is now being reclaimed by an ambitious book series, How to Read Chinese Literature, launched by Columbia University Press and spearheaded by Zong-qi Cai, a Chinese professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Consisting of ten volumes – including five guided anthologies, four language texts and one book on literary culture – the How to Read Chinese Literature series is designed to promote the teaching and learning of premodern Chinese poetry, fiction, drama, prose and literary theory. At a time of increasing global demand for the study of all things Chinese, this series is a timely exploration of innovative ways to overcome traditional barriers for learning. The first two books, How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology and How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook, which combine cream-of-the-crop scholarship with prime selections of texts from major genres and writers, have been well received by teachers, students and general readers alike. The new installment, How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity Through the Tang, constitutes the third book of the series, and the only one devoted exclusively to the rich, fantastical, labyrinthine matrix of poetry-making in ancient China. As such, it is both a gem of fresh scholarship and a compendium of luminous insights.

It may come as no surprise to scholars well versed in Sinology, but the central thesis that emerges from this eclectic collection of essays bears repeating: poetry played a unique, indispensable role in the making of Chinese culture. Percy Shelley’s romantic hyperbole that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” would have been a shrewd ethnographic description of ancient China, if we were to delete the word “unacknowledged.” As Cai puts it in his succinct preface to the volume, poetry indeed permeated every corner and layer of Chinese society: in the public arena, poetry played a key role in diplomacy, court politics, empire building, state ideology and education; in the private sphere, poetry was used by people of different social classes “as a means of gaining entry into officialdom, creating self-identity, fostering friendship, and airing grievances.”

Obviously, poetry was ancient China’s social media. For us earthlings living at the dawn of a new millennium, bombarded by internet trolls, instant polls, bots and emojis that wobble our whims and muddle our minds, it is refreshing to learn that poetry once served those very functions of propaganda, social engineering and networking. For instance, as Wai-Yee Li demonstrates in the lead essay of the collection, fushi (chanting of poems) was an integral part of diplomatic exchanges during the Warring States period (475-221 BC), and thus kingdoms literally rose and fell by poetry. A misquote from a canonical poem might spell doom for one state, whereas a superior interpretation would give the other a justifiable cause for military conquest.

In the case of Cao Cao (155-220 AD), the sagacious warlord turned shrewd sovereign of the Three Kingdoms era also proved to be a highly accomplished poet, just like Chairman Mao in the modern era. The idiosyncratic style of Cao’s poetry, with its “air and bone,” allows the sovereign’s ego and personality to overflow, more or less in the manner of today’s tweets being some braggadocio politician’s unfiltered reactions to world affairs. From meter to Twitter, from rhyme to Instagram, humanity has come a long way, but Marshall McLuhan’s adage “the medium is the message” rings true for ancient China as well as our present time.

In addition to serving the state (serve is, after all, an anagram of verse), poetry is also woven deep into the fabric of Chinese life. Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BCE), the first known Chinese poet, allegedly drowned himself in a river after a fall from official grace. As Stephen Owen argues in his meticulously researched essay, Qu Yuan turned out to be the brainchild of three prominent Han readers, who for various reasons created a composite cultural icon. In other words, the first great poetic persona produced by the Chinese literary tradition is myth made history. Regardless, Qu Yuan lives on, his legacy kept alive by the celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival on May 5th every lunar year (typically June or July) – the Chinese Cinco de Mayo, when people enjoy zongzi, rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves as ritualized fodder for the drowned poet.

But nothing exemplifies the depth of poetry’s reach into Chinese life better than the civil service exam, the keju. A system of annual degree examinations first established in the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and abolished only in 1905, the keju was for centuries the main method of selecting candidates for government posts. Before its format would ossify into the infamous eight-legged essays, the exam included poetic composition as a key component. As Manling Luo puts it in her essay on Tang keju, “An educated man, not necessarily from a family of wealth and power, could in theory rely on his poetic talent alone to earn his entry into officialdom.” It was such a dream of upward mobility that had motivated generations of Chinese men to turn to poetry, thus giving the term “poetically-inspired” a special Chinese flavor.

By contrast, Chinese women suffered a very different kind of relationship to poetry. In fact, as Maija Bell Samei points out in her brilliant essay, a woman’s poetic talent was often construed as a harbinger of a disreputable fate. Denied opportunities for education, let alone taking part in keju, some women did learn to read and write, and some even managed to break into a field monopolized by men and became highly accomplished poets, albeit at a cost beyond imagination. Samei presents four case studies from the Tang Dynasty, all women poets who rose to fame, some ghostwriting for their patrons. But they were all betrayed by their talents, their faces tattooed or heads rolling to the ground.

In addition to nuanced examinations of gender, Cai’s edited volume also contains plenty of essays that address poetry as a shaping force of Chinese life in myriad other ways, including Li Bai (Li Po) as the “immortal poet,” a patron-saint of wine and swordsmanship; Du Fu as the poet-historian, who stood witness to wartime sufferings; Tao Qian as the poet-recluse, who had a lasting influence on Chinese utopian urges; Wang Wei as the Buddhist poet and Han Shan (Cold Mountain) as the Zen poet – both spiritual gurus for the hippie generation in Anglo-America; and Li He as the emblematic cursed poet, who died at the age of 26, as did John Keats. Then there are the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove, those legendary beatniks of ancient China, who lived lives of defiance and self-abandon and some of whom, like the women poets, paid the ultimate price for their challenges to tradition and norms.

These abundant facets and variant motifs will resonate profoundly with English readers, whether they have arrived at Chinese poetry via Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, Gary Snyder or Red Pine. More importantly, this impressive ensemble of essays, while illustrating the complex interplay between poetical text and world which has made possible the unique poetic culture that is China, also provides an important corrective to the Anglo-American tradition of reading Chinese poetry, in Cai’s words, “as a purely intellectual and aesthetic exercise,” divorced from language learning, culture and context. As such, this book – in fact, the entire series – will be a game changer. ∎

Zong-qi Cai, ed. How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity Through the Tang (Columbia University Press, February 2018). Header image via Wikimedia Commons.