While reading the introduction to Poems of the Great Masters translated by Red Pine, I was happy to find out that the Chinese character for the word “poetry” is composed of two characters – one character meaning “language” and the other meaning “from the heart.” I found out that poetry was considered the greatest art form in China especially during the Golden Age of Poetry. (Things went a little haywire during the cultural revolution when they replaced poetry with propaganda.) The original Chinese anthology, Poems of the Great Masters, was mandatory for all school children, but about half a century ago they took it out of the schools. They even changed the meaning of the word “poetry” slightly to mean “language of the administrative court." Then it changed to mean “language of the temple.” However, the true meaning of the Chinese character for “poetry” is “language of the heart.” The character only changed slightly to become a calligraphic shorthand. The change in meaning was due to Chinese propaganda.
As I read the poems from Poems of the Great Masters, it became clearer and clearer to me why poetry was banned and why this anthology, with poems dating back thousands of years, was banned. Even in ancient times, poets spoke out against oppression and injustice. Poets were banished, even in ancient times, when they opposed the Court. This shows the power of words and the fear of authority against this power. Though time and place may change, but the struggles of human experience remain the same.
In this collection of well-crafted poems in traditional Chinese poetic forms chueh-chu (detached quatrains) and lu-shih (regulated verse), poets reveal a seemingly unending thread of resistance and struggle for freedom and humanity and appreciation for beauty and wisdom of nature. As the translator of the book notes, the word for poetry in Chinese “shih” means “language of the heart.” “Thus, since the dawn of Chinese civilization 5,000 years ago, it has been the function of poetry to express this innermost square-inch of the Chinese heart.”
The poems in the collection are sparse ranging from four to eight lines in either the chueh-chu (4-line form) or the lu-shih (8 line form). The poems in the book are organized according to the seasons beginning with Spring and ending in Winter. Throughout the book there are references to the Censor, the Imperial Entourage, the Imperial Banquet, the Secretary. Many of the poets lived in recluse either due to banishment or by choice. All the poems in the book also have references to nature – flowers, night, spring, wind, the sea, etc. while describing a scene.
Following are a description and analysis of two of the traditional Chinese poetic forms used by poets in the book. The chueh-chu is a four line poem in shih (poetry). According to Britannica online encyclopedia, chueh-chu is “An outgrowth of the lüshi, it is a four-line poem, each line of which consists of five or seven words. It omits either the first four lines, the last four lines, the first two and the last two lines, or the middle four lines of the lüshi. Thus, it retains the tonal quality of the lüshi, but the antithetical structure is optional.” However, because the poems are translated into English, the lines and syllables/number of words will vary in the English version of both poetic forms. In Chinese, each character is one syllable. The rhyme pattern is also gone in translation.
The following is a poem in the chueh-chu form by Tu Mu who is considered a master of the form:
Silver lantern autumn light chills her painted screen
she swats at passing fireflies with her small silk fan
at night the streets of Heaven look as cool as water
lying down she gazes at the Weaving Maid and Herdboy stars
Another example is a poem by Meng Hao-Jan:
Sleeping in spring oblivious of dawn
everywhere I hear birds
after the wind and rain last night
I wonder how many petals fell
The chueh-chu is a lyrical form, enlarging the visual and emotional impact of a single moment or scene.
Lu-shih consists of eight lines usually of 5 to 7 characters each with required end-rhymes and complex tonal arrangements. This verse form also consists of a scheme of parallel lines for at least two of the couplets, each line is usually end-stopped.
Following is an example of a poem in lu-shih form by Tu Fu:
A clear river winds around the village
All summer long village life is peaceful
Swallows in the rafters come and go at will
Seagulls on the water visit friends and kin
My wife draws a chessboard on a piece of paper
My children make fishhooks out of sewing needles
Thankfully an old friend shares his office rice
What else does this poor body need
The lu-shih reminds me of a sonnet with its strict rhyme scheme, syllable pattern, “turn” or “volta,” and qualities of a song. In the above lu-shih, there are multiple events or images, not necessarily happening in chronological order. The different events and images at play could all be happening at the same time creating a harmonic effect.
Chinese poets from over 5,000 years ago used two major poetic forms, chueh-chu and lu-shih, and were able to create vastly different poems on varying subject matters of great imagery, depth, and craftsmanship. However, similar threads remain such as the influence of the simple beauty of nature and its mysteries in making sense of the human experience.