Chinese Poetry: New life in old classics

A smattering of Chinese poetry will please both Sinophiles and the casual reader

The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry. Edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. Random House; 512 pages; $15.

对酒不觉暝

落花盈我衣

醉起步溪月

鸟远人亦稀

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,

Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.

Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,

Birds are far off, people too are few.

Li Bai (701-762 AD), widely considered the greatest of all Chinese poets, had an unfortunate end. While rafting on a serene lake in a drunken stupor, he spotted the water’s reflection of the Moon and reached out to grab it, only to topple in and drown without a soul nearby. That he died in such a lonely predicament is ironic, for Mr. Li had no shortage of friends and admirers, in either his own time or the present. His contemporaries, many of whom rank highly in the annals of Chinese literature themselves, adored him, as do the millions of Chinese who have since read and memorized his works. Truthfully, I know of no Li Bai reader who does not fall in love with this joyful, wandering bard as he poignantly voices his inner meditations:

天长路远魂飞苦

梦魂不到关山难

The sky is long, the road is far, bitter flies my spirit;

The spirit I dream can’t get through, the mountain pass is hard.

Mr. Li, of course, is today read not only in his own country, but in the English-speaking world as well. Thousands of Westerners have devoured his works along with those of the other Chinese masters, and readers who explore them find – in their economic expression and quaint motifs – an uncanny resemblance to modern verse. No wonder Ezra Pound and the Beat writers looked east, to the world of Wang Wei and others, when they developed their own unconventional styles. Nonetheless Chinese poetry has never enjoyed a wide audience in the West; its readers have always consisted of a small province of Sinophiles or curious intellectuals, never the public at large. Our Eastern fellows have outdone us in this regard. Despite the fact that many Chinese can quote Shakespeare with enthusiasm, Occidentals would merely puzzle if handed a poem by Du Fu.

Hence the awkwardly titled Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry. Written as a comprehensive, yet accessible, introductory, the volume should help to dismiss the cloud of ignorance on the subject. Compiled by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, both noted poets in their own right, the book’ historical range spans from the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 BC) to the present day, and includes selections from great artists such as Du Fu, Wang Wei, Bei Dao, and, of course, Mr. Li. The authors have also added lesser-known passages and versifiers. That a work such as the ancient Book of Songs, as important to Chinese verse as the Book of Psalms is to our own, should appear is reason enough for praise.

The Westerner will no doubt scoff at the idea of Chinese producing the soothing sounds needed for poetry. Anyone who has heard the spiraling tones of Mandarin speakers in conversation or the droning of Chinatown merchants as they hawk their goods would have reason to be skeptical. And indeed, to the uninitiated, Chinese is not a subtle tongue. Its vocabulary is full of choking consonants and gaping vowels.  It can’t endow the speaker with any seductive power, as French or Spanish seem to do whenever romance is the subject (Quieres caminar bajo la luz de la luna, mi amor?), and it can’t drive home a beat in the same way a good iambic line can (He hath brought many captives home to Rome / Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill: / Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?). Most of all, it can’t match the Latinate languages for their syllabic breadth; there is a satisfaction in the long pronouncement of interconnectedness that is missing from, say, guanxi.

But at bottom this is all rather silly. We demonstrate in such ramblings the snootiness of Westerners rather than the poverty of the Chinese language. Even if, from an objective standpoint, we could call the sounds of Chinese violent and unpleasant to hear, the argument against its artistic merits still wouldn’t wash. Consider that the trumpet is, by nature, a boisterous instrument, but in the hands of Miles Davis its obnoxious voice is smoothed into a flowing melody; a native Chinese reading carefully crafted words will accomplish as much. And true, Du Fu could never mimic the drumming rhythm of the Elizabethan line, but neither could Mr. Shakespeare and his friends weave words together in the lovely sing-song patterns of shi (classical form). When positioned by a skilled writer, the tones of each word jangle together like the chords of a piano. To call it noisy or cacophonous is wrongheaded; as surely as English varies in its dress, so does Chinese, and anyone who probes its literary canon will find a varied medium – a place of soaring highs, whispering lows, and everything in between.

To that end, Mr. Barnstone and Mr. Chou are capable cicerones. They do well in explaining the mechanics of Chinese verse to those without a grounding in the language, and the historical commentary is also enlightening. Admittedly, because they seek to convey literal meaning, the translations are not the finest to be found in English. Better renderings have imbued them with the rhythm and rhyme of our own poetry, in order to replicate the pace and excitement of the originals. If the authors and their fellow translators had attempted as much, the pleasure of reading could have been multiplied.

But this is by the by. The authors have assembled a delightful introduction to the world of Chinese poetry, one which any reader devoid of linguistic prejudice should enjoy. Mr. Li, I think, would approve.

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