Part2: A history review of Chinese poetry. For video Great Chinese classic poem illustrated 古诗朗诵和讲解
As Benedetto Croce said , all history is contemporary history. This could be interpreted at least two ways. The history is closely related with today’s life , or even it is part of the life today. On the other hand, history would always be examined by today people, by today’s knowledge , thus a new view, aspect or theory toward the past history might be created. Not only archeology, physics, mathes, astronomy, biology, arts etc. , new things in daily life like social media, filming, cooking, fishing, gaming , touring etc. might give us a brand new understanding to the past or something in the past. The new recognition on the past definitely would impact today’s people more or less, in turn the history is always with us for every moment today. The bottom line, the DNA connect creatures from the very beginning till the end of world if had.
With Croce’s words, classic poems could be read and interpreted in many ways as time moving forward, also the classic poems has some level of impact on today’s people , especially the Chinese grows up with classic poem reciting. You might noticed a lot of time in the diplomatic events, the Chinese diplomats or leaders nowadays like to end up his talk with a quotation to classic poem: the classic poem get into the most serious and political field, not to say the normal life of Chinese. One example: in 1972, Chairman Mao quoted Du Fu: 射人先射马, 擒贼先擒王 to express his opinion that if China want to build diplomatic relation with the United States, better talk to the president of USA directly, rather than through other countries or other person.
Here comes my first rule of reading Chinese classic poems: 诗无达诂. It expresses the very similar idea of Croce from another angle: You can never explain or decipher a poem perfectly. In Shakespeare’s words: There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes. They are all telling the same meaning.
诗无达诂 is from a famous scholar, Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒) in Han dynasty. You can still find his famous tomb in Xi’an city east to south gate. Why Mr. Dong came up such an idea? because he was with a similar situation as we do today, but with more significance . When Han people read their classic poems 2000 years ago, the Book of Songs(诗经), they found a big variety of explanations to same poem, same sentence. That phenomena was so called 断章取义, which means take one or two sentences from a poem, use that sentences to represent your own idea that might not comply to their original meaning in the poem. Like in below story, in the period of Warring States(战国), from 春秋左氏传襄公二十七年(see quotation at very end). It depicts a diplomatic event between two kingdoms most probably with different languages: the visiting guest asked the king to let the most powerful 7 clans that under him, to recite one or two sentence from The Book of Songs, with which to tell their mind and will(以观七子之志). The guest finally deciphered from the quoted sentences that the king would soon be killed, while there is nothing related with this conclusion in the original poems. This is a very typical situation of 断章取义, the poems in the Book of Songs is interpreted per the situation per the person who deciphers. This poem decipher skill was taught to noble kids , It is a must-to-have skill in life , especially when they became a diplomat, use the Book of Songs as the middle language. Confucius pointed out the same story : 诵诗三百,授之以政,不达;使於四方,不能专对;虽多,亦奚以为? In Han dynasty, people saw too much interpretations for the Book of Songs in their history book, and argued all the time : what is the real meaning by the author when he writing it? The final decision by Mr. Dong is : stop argument, let it be, poems could never be understood perfectly.
Here comes my second rule: 诗言志, means poem tells will and feeling. 诗言志 is from 舜典, an ancient royal document might dated 4000-5000 years ago, which founded the true spirit of chinese poem. 诗言志 means poems is about willingness, desire and feeling, the oldest character of 志 is as the picture, the logogram is of two parts, one is the heart figure below, it always refers to thoughts and feelings for Chinese, the upper part is 之, which means going for. The combination , or the character 志 means something the heart likes to go for, or mind and feeling likes to pursuit. During the time from 舜典 to the Book of Songs, this rule of poem executed thoroughly.
No matter what subject in the poem : birds, animals, plants, insects, activities or stellar, it is all a indirect way to express the author’s thoughts and feelings. Keep in mind the majority authors in the Book of Songs are gentlefolks of nobles or hereditary officers. Even some is confirmed as folklore, it is still via the selection and refinement by the officers. From this angle ,the Book of Songs reflected the value and mindset of the gentlefolks , which was represented by Han scholars that poems is for 美刺, praise or blame. Clearly enough, the person that could afford of the praise and blame by all gentlefolks is the king, or the heaven(天), which is the real boss for everything on the earth, the king or emperor is just the son of heaven(天子) who behave on behalf of heaven. I could not totally agree with Han scholars, but it is very clear that the poems is closely associated with the king, the heaven, they hold the full duty to the country and people that under heaven. The poems wrote about almost everything on earth: by reflecting the status of things under or belong to heaven, as well as his own favors attached, the political attitudes of the gentlefolks was expressed euphemistically.
诗言志 has two side effects to Chinese poetry. First, talking indirectly, a basic quality for a politician as well. That is inherited from the Book of Songs, when things were related to some positive or negative feelings, finally the thing itself looks that way to Chinese. Examples in the Book of Songs: 硕鼠, 关雎, 鹿鸣, 桃夭. Till Qu Yuan(屈原)’s time, he take this to a new level by using Aroma Herb and Beauty(香草美人) to represent personality. The endeavor continued in Chinese history , to create new images or visions to a given subject, a plant, a creature, a view, a scenario in life. Sometimes, a subject was given multiple visions through the history, that makes the poem interpretation more difficult or inaccurate, it is hard to tell which vision or all the visions the author employed in a specific poem. For example, water(水), in classic Chinese means river. Most time it resemble the vision of the time passing by, sometime it refers to things that would never come back, like the river going into the sea. Sometime it is considered as the tenderness or endless of love. Again, 断章取义, or quoting to old words to express concurrent feeling and opinion is a typical way of talking indirectly, with profound connotation and efficiency.
Second, 风骨 is valued the most for a poem. It is hard to explain 风骨 even in Chinese, which is wind+bone by hard translation. Below is my guesswork. 风 or wind is from the Book of Songs, the name of most important chapters 国风, the praise and blame poems. The Book of Songs was called as wind(风) for short as well. With such, wind is more of politics related to country and people. Very naturally, politics is the born duty and most concerned thing for gentlefolks, he should always keep this topic as his central interests, not to say serving the king or emperor, which is the most important area of politics of that time. Keeping topics, mindset and feeling on politics is wind.
The concept of 骨 or bone is invented at the end of Han dynasty. It tells a person’s virtual and character by his wording, or the character of his wording. The wording and his personality reflected is considered as bone. Since Han dynasty, more and more poems and articles has an author’s name on. By reading poems of a specific person, the personality of the author could be recognized. In the age of the Book of Songs, poems never had author’s name on , even with the poems considered by big names of the time. With such history background, bone concept was established and considered as the watermark of a person’s poems. The poems with bone watermark could be simple, magic, complicated, strong, calm, pleasant, positive and creative when looking, reciting or just feeling it. The rule on tones fall in the area of bone. Du Fu’s signature is 沉郁顿挫. 沉郁 refers to the poor mood, 顿挫 is praising to his excellent compliance to the rule of tones.
With 风骨 together, the poet should write to the point with true feelings, as well as show his own personality by wording. Without a strong personality on wording, or the wording does not serve the content, in other words , without bone, how can this poet/gentlefolk to carry his duty to the king and the people, how can his poem lasts in the history by his poor wording. Without extreme careness to the king, to the people, which could be reflected from the content and feelings in his poem, in other words, without wind, this poet/officer is totally unqualified to his duty, to his blue blood. There are so many arguments in Chinese history, what exactly is wind and bone, which one is more important to writing, there is not a conclusion yet. What is definite, is that the wind and bone were lost much after Tang dynasty, as poems much focused on personal feelings rather than the careness to emperor, to people, and less personality showed. The first chinese book on literary theory 文心雕龙 has a careful review on wind and bone(风骨) : 用以怊怅述情，必始乎风，沉吟铺辞，莫先于骨。故辞之待骨，如体之树骸，情之含风，犹形之包气。结言端直，则文骨成焉；意气骏爽,则文风生焉.
Rule third: 知人论世. This is the classic methodology to read and analysis a poem proposed by Mencius, still widely used in today’s Chinese middle school as the primary tool, it is the methodology employed in my video as well. 知人, know the person , know the people, which means you should know the poet background, his social status, his family, his friends, his life stories etc. It also indicated knowing the emperor, society, or the public. As far as 诗言志, the poet tries to express his feeling toward political issues, the public, the government and emperor are all key factors.
世 means 30 years of time, or a generation. 论世 means review the subjects in 30 years time frame or in multiple 30 years time. When reading a poem, know the writing time is far not enough, we should review the subject, poet and people in the period of generations. The biggest puzzle in Tang poet is Li Bai(李白), there is so many hypothesis to his ancestors, with royal blood or not? This difference might impact the interpretation of his poems. A similar situation is Li He(李贺), he is with royal blood, some unique characters in his poem might be traced down to his royalty. Yet, you still can deny this explanation, because of 诗无达诂.
Above is the three rules employed in my poem videos, it naturally limited my selection of Chinese classic poetry to Tang poetry and pre-Tang. After Tang, the wind and bone was much lost. Before Tang, the bone was still weak, yet we can take the advantage of 知人论世, review the subject in time frame of its history, getting to know where the classic Chinese poems came from, thus have a better understanding of it.
One thing should be pointed out that there are a bunch of so called Corresponding Poems(应制诗), which basically was written under request to praise the emperor, not covered in most poetry collections today, neither in my video. These poems seem following my second rule 诗言志, the poems of praising and blaming(美刺), yet they were written under request, not by own will and feelings, just like fake poems. The hermit poems, it sounds quite opposite to 诗言志, which means focusing on politics. Hermitage was practised at least as early as the time of the Book of Songs, and more importantly, it is a rational choice for aristocracy or failed politician, so it is still part of the politics, part of 诗言志. The Mountain River and Farming Field poems(山水田园诗) is derived from hermetic spirit. Confucius put it as: 道不行, 乘桴浮于海: If the law of world does not applied to today’s situation, let us get away by a boat floating on the sea.It is going hermit as well.
There are always new methodologies of reviewing or representing Chinese classic poetry, from different angles, with the latest knowledge and tools, with current mindset, as Croce put it, all classic poetry is contemporary poetry. My videos are just on the facts and history, with the 2000+ years old methodology, try my best to figure out the very original feelings expressed by those great Chinese poets, 一枝一叶总关情: Every tiny thing is always about emotion and feeling, that is true classic .
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