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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 7 - Romanticism  


The Chinese Lyric

Although Western readers influenced by Romantic notions such as Wordsworth's identify the lyric impulse with spontaneity and personal need, short poetry in China has had as much to do with society as it has with the life of the poet. To be able to write such poetry was a mark of status; the literati, or scholar-bureaucrats, learned the craft to qualify for government employment, since civil service examinations in China at various times required the ability to compose lyric poetry according to a well defined set of rules.

Traditional Chinese society, then, has always placed a high premium on poetry; beyond diplomatic skill, poetry also was considered a social grace, at least among the elite. A guest for dinner, for example, might be expected to produce a poem before being served; when leaving, the visitor might post a poem on the wall as a way of thanking his host.

China never produced large-scale epic poems like Homer's, long verse narratives that describe the feats of warriors and the intrigues of gods. Instead, Chinese literature has tended to focus on daily life and has served, as indicated above, as a vehicle for greeting friends and showing intellectual credentials. Chinese literature also has provided a discreet medium for airing political concerns. These many uses for the lyric emphasize that in China, literature is not separate from culture; significantly, the same Chinese word is used to designate a huge cluster of related concepts, including culture, literature, letters, ornaments, and so on.

The lyric format that all educated people mastered bears study. Even in translation, some characteristics of the genre stand out. In place of the similes and metaphors of Western poetry, for example, comparisons in Chinese poetry are indicated more subtly, through juxtaposition rather than explicit connections. Natural images may be assumed to imply much about the speaker's general situation that would not be overtly uttered. Because the structure of Chinese makes it possible to omit subjects in sentences and obscures clear tense designations, past, present, and future events, as well as a variety of motivating factors, can all be read into the same phrase. Such extreme ambiguity would be difficult to evoke in most Western languages, and moreover, would be unintelligible in heterogeneous cultures such as ours. However, since the Chinese share the same homogeneous and unbroken intellectual tradition and therefore understand the same references, it becomes possible to say something that will be generally understood by not saying it.

In the hands of a skilled scholar-poet, then, a formally correct poem can also be the subtle cry of a troubled individual. The greatest Chinese poets have been able to infuse socially correct public discourse with profound emotional content, knowing that their audience will sift through their delicate, apparently impersonal references to objective phenomena and discover in them profound statements of personal emotion.

In the same way that readers of English poetry probably think first of the Renaissance and the Romantic era when they think of lyric poems, Chinese readers are likely to identify the historical period known as the High T'ang (712-762) as the time of the greatest lyric writing. These fifty years represent the acme of a widespread poetic creativity which flourished during the long rule of the T'ang Dynasty, from A.D. 618 to 907.

Tu Fu (712-770), one of the finest Chinese poets, did not achieve a government post until he reached the age of 43, in the year 755. This was an inauspicious year to begin a career, since the capital of the T'ang regime was in turmoil at the time. Perhaps his failure to secure an official job until he did indicates that Tu Fu had difficulty ingratiating himself with people in power. We know that he criticized the excesses of the emperor, on the one hand, while on the other, he did not support the rebel armies who led a revolt against the emperor. Whatever the precise reasons may have been, Tu Fu spent the latter part of his life effectively exiled from his native surroundings. It is worth noting that the information we have about Tu Fu, and indeed about all the poets who wrote a thousand or more years ago, derives from close study of their poems. In the Chinese tradition, in other words, poetry is trusted as a reliable record of real experience; in Western literature, poetry primarily is perceived as imaginative fiction.

The following poem, written in March 757, when Tu Fu was imprisoned for a time by the rebels, shows how he unites his personal situation with his distress at the political chaos all around him and his desire for the return of peace.

Spring Prospect

The nation shattered, hills and streams remain.
The city in spring, grass and trees deep:
feeling the times, flowers draw tears;
hating separation, birds alarm the heart.
Beacon fires three months running,
a letter from home worth ten thousand in gold--
white hairs, fewer for the scratching,
soon too few to hold a hairpin up.

Questions for Discussion

  1. "Spring Prospect" (known in other translations as "Spring Gaze") demonstrates the way Chinese regulated verse depends on parallelism rather than on explicit comparison. How many examples of parallel phrasing can you find in these eight lines?
  2. How is the natural world used to comment on the speaker's feelings? Under what circumstances does grass grow "deep"? How does this simple statement of fact hint at the desolation of the city? Look at the phrase "flowers draw tears." Is this a reference to dew on petals? What else can the image suggest as well?
  3. Why would beacon fires be lit? How does this piece of information let us know that a war has been in progress?
  4. Even without personal pronouns, this lyric conveys a keen impression of an individual's plight. Show how precisely observed details make this possible.