my first Tang poetry

August 15th, 2010

So I finally made it up to the chapter in my Classical Chinese textbook introducing Tang poetry. It seems a little ridiculous that it took me so long. 10 years in China, 10 years studying the language, right from the word “go” I’ve been curious about ancient Chinese literature and philosophy, and ever since the day in Changsha in late 1999 I found a surprisingly good little bookstore, I’ve been collecting various versions of mono-, bi- and trilingual editions of various of the classics. And finally I actually sit down and learn myself something about this poetry that is supposed to represent a high-point in Chinese literature.

Of course, all of my Chinese study has been done in my spare time, which does not help. And I’ve followed the usual process of burst of solid effort and serious improvement – plateau – burst of solid effort and serious improvement – plateau. But a quick glance at my blogroll and an observation of just how sorry a state it is in will show you that probably the biggest factor holding me back has been my own natural laziness and inertia.

Anyways, this summer, as soon as all the semester’s loose ends were tied up, I sat down and studied. I head over to the office at about 10am Monday to Friday, study through till lunch time, and many afternoons I’ve gone back to the office and put in another hour or two. It’s felt good. Why the office? Less distraction, and I’m already there for those odd occasions when a prospective student comes in for an interview, further minimising disruptions. And considering the absurd heat and humidity we’ve had to suffer through this summer – aircon that is not buring through my electricity.

And why Classical Chinese? I discovered quite some time ago, through one of the more useful comments to have been left on this blog, that considering Chinese writers often throw a little Classical flourish into their writing, learning a bit of Classical would help improve my reading ability. Also, see the first paragraph where I wrote “right from the word “go” I’ve been curious about ancient Chinese literature and philosophy”, and throw into the mix that I firmly believe literature is the highest form of art, and poetry the highest form of literature (actually, come to think of it, that rarest of creatures, good literary translation, is probably about equal). My reading level has been good enough for some years now to handle modern literature (I just need to stop wasting so much time online and start picking up the books and reading them), but Classical is a whole other story, and something I need to work on. And to me it makes no sense to learn a language without exploring at least some of the literature, and there’s no point exploring the literature if you’re not going to read the classics as well as the modern stuff. I am very glad that my French education included Racine and Molière as well as Sartre, Duras and Camus. At the very least, that allows me to say, “Well, I’m not such a great fan of Molière, but that may be as much to do with a clash of teaching and learning styles between the lecturer and myself.” That’s a million times better than, “Molière? Yeah, sounds familiar….” Likewise, I’m sick and tired of only being able to say, “Yeah, I’ve heard of Li Bai. He liked his booze, didn’t he?” At least now I have actually read three of his poems in the original and have an idea that I think I do actually like the guy. I’m a long way from being able to tell you anything intelligent about Tang Poetry (or any aspect of Chinese literature), but at least I’ve made a start, and that feels good.

The textbook I’m using is 《古代汉语第一册》 from BLCU’s 对外汉语本科系列教材. It has its faults, probably the biggest of which is that it’s all Simplified (I do intend to move on to Traditional once I’ve got a grounding in the basics).  But for the most part it’s been ok. However, as much as I enjoyed the chapter introducing Tang poetry, I found it equally frustrating.

First up was that starting in the chapter before, the book really piled on the new vocab, and continued that in the Tang poetry chapter. I suddenly went from being able to complete one chapter in 2 to 2 and a half hours, to taking at least twice that long. Add in introductions to some of the technicalities of Tang poetry and a few distractions, and that Tang poetry chapter wound up taking me the better part of  2 weeks!  I’m really glad I’m not a majoring in Chinese at BLCU! Fortunately the following chapter went back to the previous vocab load (unfortunately, that was extracts from the Analects. Gah, Confucius!).

The second was that apart from the modern Chinese translations of the poems at the back of the book (which were useful, if not exactly pretty), there was no discussion of the poems themselves. There were very brief introductions of the poets, but no commentary at all on the poems included. This was especially frustrating with one poem, Bai Juyi’s 赋得古原草送别, because for some reason the imagery in that poem just doesn’t work for me. I just can’t make the connection to all this wild grass covering the ancient plain, invading the ancient road, and covering over the ruined city, and him saying goodbye to his friend. Maybe I’m just dense. Maybe it’s just one of those poems that will never work for me – I’m a big fan of Yeats, but there’s still plenty of his poems which I read, shrug, and think, meh, that’s nice, whatever, next…. At the very least, some discussion of what Bai Juyi was trying to accomplish with this particular poem would have probably helped me a lot. The modern Chinese translation at the back of the book was totally inadequate for this task.

Now, those introductions to the poets: I was a little surprised to read of Li Bai that he was born in 今吉尔吉斯斯担的托克马克, modern-day Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. I was even more surprised to read that he was 唐代伟大的浪漫主义诗人 – a great Romantic poet of the Tang Dynasty. And that Bai Juyi and Dufu were both 唐代伟大的现实主义诗人 – great Realist poets of the Tang Dynasty. A quick scan through an interesting little book a bought ages ago and have yet to read, 《汉语外来词》 (史有为者.-北京:商务印书馆,2000 (汉语知识丛书))seems to confirm my suspicion that 主义 is one of those words re-borrowed from Japanese, as it appears on page 72 in a list of such Japanese loan words introduced in Huang Zunxian’s 《日本国志》. Now, I’m scanning that book dangerously fast, so if I’ve got that wrong, please correct me. 现实 looks to me like it may be of a similar origin, but I can’t find it scanning through any of these lists, although 浪漫主义 does appear on a similar list of words of Japanese origin on page 75. Personally, I would’ve expected 浪漫 to have come directly from a European language, but whatever. My point is I don’t understand why very modern terms, and loan words at that, and words that refer to very specific artistic and literary movements, are being used to describe Tang poets. I find it difficult to believe that Chinese has no native terms that apply specifically to the styles and movements of Tang poetry. Indeed, the fact that both Meng Haoran and Wang Wei are described as 山水田园诗人 (landscape and pastoral poets?) suggests to me that these native terms do exist.

Now, the real reason this chapter took me so long, apart from the huge amount of new vocab introduced for the 10 poems that made up the main text, and a few distractions, was that in addition to the grammar sections in the middle of each chapter, was a section entitled “诗律常识” – general knowledge of versification. This, naturally, threw in a whole lot more new vocab, slowing me down again. It started with simple introductions to two major types of poem, the 律诗, lvshi and 绝句, jueju, which was fine. But then it got into rhyme, and here’s where the problems started. It told me that the ancients divided rhyming characters into 韵部, rhyme categories, according to their ping, shang, qu, and ru tones (平声、上声、去声、入声). That’s all well and good, and I have heard these terms before, but I have never seen any explanation of what they actually mean or what any of these tones are, and the book simply doesn’t give any such explanation.

In the next section, on 平仄, tonal pattern, it complicates things further by stating that characters were divided into ping (平) and ze (仄), with ping tone characters being ping, and shang, qu, and ru tone characters being ze, ze meaning not ping. Again, no explanation of what these tones are, instead, the book informs me that in modern Chinese, the tones are now yinping (阴平), yangping (阳平), shang (上) and qu (去), with yinping and yangping being ping, and qu and shang being ze, and that the ancient ping tone was divided into the modern yinping and yangping, while the ancient ru tone has been lost, and the ru characters divided among the modern yinping, yangping, shang and qu tones. Still no explanation of what any of these tones are in the real world.

I think it would be safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Mandarin learners learn the tones as numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4, and yet this book makes absolutely no attempt to relate the yinping, yangping, shang and qu tones to tones 1, 2, 3 and 4. None at all. And so it moves into an explanation of the 4 tonal patterns in lvshi and jueju leaving me utterly mystified as to which characters may be ping and which ze. Looking through the 10 poems that form the main text and the 7 Tang and 1 Song poem in the reading practice at the end of the chapter, it seems that characters of any of the 4 numbered tones can sit in a ping position.

On the bright side, though, looking back at the section on rhyme, it does mention a book entitled 《平水新刊韵略》, which lists 106 rhymes, of which 30 are ping tone, 29 are shang tone, 30 are qu tone, and 17 are ru tone. Baidu Guoxue to the rescue? No.

And so I’m left thinking either that I’m really dumb and somehow missed some important information that was buried somewhere in this chapter, or that it has provided me not even a tenth of the knowledge I need to figure out rhyme and tonal pattern in Tang poetry. There’s no more poetry until the final chapter of the book, and that is Song Ci, with Tang and Song Ci in the reading practice, and apparently not much more information on the technicalities, judging by a quick flip through. So as much as I enjoyed studying poetry again, and getting an introduction to Chinese poetry, I’m left feeling thoroughly frustrated with the lack of information. Anybody know any good resources on Chinese poetry?

The section on 对仗 (why is it called antithesis in English?), on the other hand, was much, much clearer, and left me feeling I could work through those poems again and pick out in which lines it was employed – or at least make a start at beginning to understand how it works.

And because I don’t want to spend the entire post complaining about my textbook, which is generally adequate (at least, when it’s not dealing with poetry), I quite liked Cui Hao’s 黄鹤楼 and Bai Juyi’s 卖炭翁, but definitely my favourite poem of this chapter is Li Bai’s 月下独酌:








I don’t know that I want to embarass myself by even attempting a translation, but this one brought to me mind such a vivid image of a crazy old man alone in a field of flowers at night with a pot of wine, getting drunk, toasting and singing to the moon, dancing with his shadow, and having a grand old time of it. And arranging to meet the moon and his shadow next time beside the Milky Way? I love how it leaves us with a totally open and cosmic ending, as if next time he really will drink with the moon and his shadow on the shores of the Milky Way.

Well, that’s what I got from that poem. I have no idea what Chinese scholars see in it, given the glaring absence of information in the book. But that was my experience and I totally enjoyed it.

8 Responses to “my first Tang poetry”

  1. John Says:

    The footnote to the translation of Li Bai’s poem by Xu Yuanchong says

    The lonely poet thinks it happy to drink with the moon and his own shadow. His loneliness reveals his discontent with his actual life.

    From the translation, I take it that Li Bai is implying that the moon and his shadow are constant companions where others are not.

    But perhaps not everyone wanted to get drunk and write poetry.

  2. Brendan Says:

    Don’t worry about 平仄 scansion too much: it’s difficult because those tonal categories don’t exist in Mandarin (and in fact nobody really knows exactly what the 去声 in Tang Chinese would have sounded like, contour-wise), but there are only a few level/oblique patterns that poems can have.

  3. wangbo Says:

    John, Brendan, thank you both, those are precisely the kinds of notes I needed in that textbook of mine.

    Brendan, the textbook did set out four level/oblique patterns, numbered 甲、乙、丙、丁, for both penta- and heptasyllabic 律诗 and 绝句 and ran through a few examples. I noticed that they don’t always run in that order, and that there are more than a few places where a level can be swapped for an oblique, and vice-versa. But now that I know I don’t need to worry so much about 平仄, I’ll keep in mind that it exists (existed?), but otherwise I’ll just sit back and enjoy the poetry.

  4. Ji Village News Says:

    Nice work!

    Never thought of the origin of 浪漫主义 and 现实主义, perhaps some 诗词赏析 from Ming or Qing dynasties had terminologies to that effect? Or books from Taiwan and Hong Kong? I could be wrong, but it seems to me that 浪漫主义 and 现实主义 stuff is a fairly recent classification.

    If it is any consolation, you already know more of the 平仄 stuff than this native speaker. A good Chinese lit major might be able to provide more information on that.

    You might have it already, I think something like 《唐诗三百首-新注本》from 中华书局 can be interesting. Yeah, books like that won’t score points in pretentious snob department(“Everybody knows that book!”), but it might be a great starting point. We had one copy in the family growing up, and I had some cursory looks at it during high school years. I think going over some of them can provide good context and understanding when some of those lines are used in modern Chinese writing.

  5. Brendan Says:

    Another book recommendation would be David Hawkes’ Little Primer of Tu Fu, which gives per-character glosses and literal renderings of several of his poems and adds appropriate historical background. This is the book that converted me not only to liking Du Fu, but to liking him far, far more than Li Bai.

    It can be hard to find, but I have a copy here that I’ve been meaning to scan in or Xerox for a while.

  6. wangbo Says:

    Thanks for the book recommendations, guys. Mr Ji, I’d been planning on getting me a 唐诗三百首, I’ve seen it around in plenty of book shops, and my only interest is in the poetry, not the snobbery.

    Brendan, I don’t think I can reasonably encourage IPR violations considering in a couple of weeks time I am going to lecture my students about the evils of plagiarism, but if I could somehow come across a copy of that book…. Also, I’m now really curious about what converted you to Du Fu.

  7. Latoya Bridges Says:

    The footnote to the translation of Li Bai’s poem by Xu Yuanchong says The lonely poet thinks it happy to drink with the moon and his own shadow. His loneliness reveals his discontent with his actual life. From the translation, I take it that Li Bai is implying that the moon and his shadow are constant companions where others are not. But perhaps not everyone wanted to get drunk and write poetry.

  8. wangbo Says:

    Thanks, Latoya. That ties in with what John said and other things I’ve since read. But not everyone wanted to get drunk and write poetry? Well…