Introduction to Chinese Poetry
If you are only just starting to learn Chinese, classical Chinese poetry can seem totally inaccessible. Sometimes the vocabulary is 'old fashioned' or 'poetic' in style; often phrases are so compact and economical that it is difficult to decipher the meaning; and, not least, a full appreciation of a poem and all its associations requires a deep knowledge of Chinese literature and history. However, with help even a beginner can get to know some Chinese poems and benefit greatly, not only by learning new vocabulary and characters, but by becoming acquainted with one of the richest and most beautiful of Chinese literary forms.
A good poem to start off with is Jing Ye Si (Quiet Night Thoughts) by Li Bai (Li Po). This well-known poem can be found in the Penguin collection of Li Bai's and Du Fu (Tu Fu)'s poetry translated by Arthur Cooper, the poem - along with his translation - is rendered below.
Ideally you should get hold of a recording of the poem by a native speaker, so that you can hear the sound of the words and phrasing of the lines before they read it. If you focus on listening first, they will be more likely to notice and appreciate the special cadences and rhythms used when Chinese poetry is recited- quite different from the sound of ordinary conversational Chinese. Then study the text, in both pinyin and Chinese characters, and play the recording again so you can try following the text as you listen.
Next you will need to go through the poem line by line: you may recognise simple words such as yue (moon), but you may want to know the translations of less common words. It is interesting to draw attention to the formation of some of the characters - the sun and moon radicals together forming ming; the word for bright; the appearance of the earth radical tu in di (ground); the rain radical yu in shuang (frost) and so on. As well as learning new words and studying characters there are also one or two grammar points you can bring out: for example, in chuang qian and di shang, you have illustrations of the Chinese preposition following its noun (unlike English).
In Chinese culture the moon, especially the full autumn moon, very often symbolises family reunion and celebration. The use of light and weather words - here 'moonlight' and 'frost'- are very visually evocative: although the language is simple, it is easy to imagine the poet lying on his bed in the moonlit room.
Try to memorise the poem, using the recording of a native speaker as a model. It is an achievement to know some Chinese poetry by heart - and you will never again be at a loss when asked to perform at a Chinese gathering!
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 by Alison England reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 147, Page 22See also :
Copyright © SACU 1965-2016. If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.