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Ancient Chinese poetry: source of aesthetic genes, cultural confidence

ZHANG XIANGRONG | 2018-03-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Wang Changling’s “On the Frontier” is praised as one of the best Tang four-line poems. With a rough description of the scenery—the solemn moon shines over the pass—readers are instantly drawn into the remote, open and vast land of the frontier. In this setting, the poet expressed complex feelings, including his deep respect for soldiers, passion for the nation, and also a hint of sarcasm aimed at the corrupted government.


Culture is the soul of a nation. As Xi Jinping said in his report to the 19th CPC National Congress, “Our country will thrive only if our culture thrives, and our nation will be strong only if our culture is strong. Without full confidence in our culture, without a rich and prosperous culture, the Chinese nation will not be able to rejuvenate itself.”

Therefore, we should cherish our cultural roots and draw on its fine traditions to demonstrate the sentiments, aesthetics and charisma of Chinese culture. Poetry, as the gem of ancient Chinese culture, is indeed the source of the nation’s spiritual strength and cultural confidence.


On nature, human life
Poetry not only contains ancient people’s reflections on human life and existence but also represents the original core ideology of human consciousness, which can be broken down into connotations of emotion and wisdom.

The Chinese nation’s earliest forms of emotion are recorded in poetry. Poetry is the comprehensive expression of mankind’s pursuit of truth, goodness, beauty and meaning, and it is also an unbiased record of the changing sentiments of Chinese descendants. In traditional Chinese culture, the soul of emotion is innocence. Here innocence is not capricious, not ignorant, but a display of true temperament, well-manifested in its emphasis on nature, family and nation.

Chinese literati in the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589) placed ziran, or naturalness, and “fields and gardens” as the ultimate pursuit of life. Ji Kang, a Taoist philosopher and poet, who was one of the most important members of the free-spirited Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, noted that effort directed at nourishing life should always be in harmony with the natural environment and must not be confused with action, which violates the principles of nature.

Where there is nature, there shall be a natural way of life. Tao Yuanming, a poet who lived during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), was explicit in his admiration of Laozi and Zhuangzi, agreeing with their view of nature. Tired of the chaotic secular world, Tao yearned for a utopia to detect the beauty of nature and truth.

Devoid of self-interest, unmoved by riches and power, completely at ease with his own nature and the natural order of things at large, one can attain freedom and in this sense, “transcendence.” Tao’s transcendence not only created a style of aesthetics that highlighted a simple and unpretentious way of life, but also started a pastoral paradigm in classical Chinese poetry. As a result, landscape and nature become a source of inspiration and comfort for Chinese scholar-officials.

The Chinese word for “wisdom” is zhihui, with zhi meaning “intelligence” while hui means “insight.” In traditional Chinese culture, the core of wisdom is gaining insight. On the outside, one shall be modest, honest and sincere, whereas on the inside, one should have a thorough mastery of the truth. That said, in both Confucianism and Taoism, the main point of view is to shape a harmonious temperament in man.

In the interaction between man and nature, there emerges a great deal of collective wisdom. For example, while Han Yuefu folk song “Jiangnan” seems to be writing about the lotus, it is an ode to the scenery south of the Yangtze River as well as the vitality of people, cooperation, love and the spirit of collectivism.

On the other hand, individual wisdom is revealed in life’s twists and turns and the ability to face hardship. For example, when Su Shi, a poet and statesman of the Song Dynasty (960-1127), was demoted to Huangzhou, he composed famous lines: “Turning my head, I see the dreary beaten track. Let me go back! Impervious to wind, rain or shine, I’ll have my will.” No matter how painful life becomes, how many bitter-sweet moments, eventually what remains crucial is how we handle life’s ups and downs.


On ‘wind’ and ‘bone’
As Liu Xie wrote in his Dragon-Carving and the Literary Mind, “Language needs ‘bone’ as the human body needs a skeleton; feeling is carried by ‘wind’ as the physical form is supported by the vital breath.” In writing, the proper and just use of language indicates the firmness of “bone,” so powerful and irreplaceable words are a must. At the same time, “wind” is the source of emotional influence, the manifestation of vitality, so that when pure “wind” flows in the lines of words, the entire work will shine.    

In the vast pool of classical Chinese poetry, poems that reflect on time and life purpose are the most representative of such “bones.” In “Though the Tortoise Lives Long,” one of his most celebrated pieces, Cao Cao, a strategist, politician and poet of the late Eastern Han Dynasty, spoke of his ambition: “A hero in his late years does not give up his lofty aspirations.” Written in the old four-character line style, this piece contains the poet’s profound ideas on life.

Drinking was an important aspect of ancient Chinese literati culture. Tang poet Li Bai once exclaimed: “I don’t care where is my hometown” after several rounds of drinks. And then hundreds of years later, Su Shi said: “where the heart feels at home is indeed my hometown.” In a short span of a lifetime, the only comfort for the wandering heart is poetry. 

At the same time, ancient Chinese scholars were keen on using objects, such as plants, birds, the sun, the moon and stars as well as household items, like fans, curtains, candles, and patterns on quilts as vehicles to convey the message of a poem or they hinted at the aforementioned objects, adding “wind” to their works.

For example, in “Ode to the Plum Blossom,” by Southern Song poet Lu You, there is no direct mention of a flower or a petal in the Chinese version, but readers could smell the fragrance. Without writing about it directly, the author instead creates a series of images that revolve around a scene of flowers blossoming. All the images in the poem work together to build up a mood and to convey a message.

On the whole, the aesthetic of traditional Chinese culture is quite contrary to that of Western philosophy. It is ironed with a signature of harmony on the outside and strength on the inside. The core of Chinese philosophy is to create an atmosphere in which the “word stops but the meaning lasts.” And in the end, poetry could demonstrate “infinite” artistic temperament, and produce the effect of “not a word, still able to do a merry.”


On love for family, nation
Love for family and nation seems to be the eternal themes of classical Chinese poetry. Both deal with the experiences–real or imagined–of life on the edge of the Chinese empire or talk about worries about the fate of the nation. There is an abundance of Chinese poems on homesickness and patriotism.

Tang poet Wang Changling wrote “On the Frontier,” “The moon still shines on mountain passes as of yore. How many guardsmen of the Great Wall are no more! If the flying general were still there in command, no hostile steeds would have dared to invade our land.” With each word, Wang showed his admiration of General Li Guang in the Han Dynasty and his own determination to safeguard the nation.

Similarly, in “Out of the Great Wall,” Tang poet Wang Zhihuan wrote: “Why should the Mongol flute complain no willows grow? Beyond the Gate of Jade no vernal wind will blow.” Being far from home is hard enough and to make it worse, there are not even willows or wind to entrust the yearning for home and family. Though they dream of returning home, these frontier soldiers shared a stronger love for the nation, so the poem is filled with sadness, solemnity and complaints, but not anger.

At the same time, there are quite a few poems devoted to describing  the hardship that people and nation endure in war. Southern Song poet Wen Tianxiang was ready to sacrifice his own life for the greater good and said the famous quote: “Since the dawn of time every one has had to die, Let the history note my death with loyalty at heart.” Before his deathbed, Lu You asked his son to not forget to tell him at his tombstone when the stoops of the emperor swept the North. As for the concerns for the welfare of the people, Tang poet Du Fu is the most representative. He composed a number of poems revealing his humanistic care for the suffering masses.

All in all, human life, inner strength, and love for family, nation, represent the aesthetic genes of classical Chinese poetry, which also composes the soul of China and the source of Chinese cultural confidence.


Zhang Xiangrong is a professor from the Center for Foreign Literature and Culture at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.

(edited by YANG XUE)