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Chinese Language

Introduction to Chinese Poetry

Zhong wen

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.

Quiet night thoughts

Chuang qian ming yue guang
Yi shi di shang shuang.

Ju tou wang ming yue,
Di tou si gu xiang.

Before my bed
There is bright-lit moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:

Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon
Lowering my head
I dream that I'm home.

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!

Three great Chinese poets

Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan (?340-?278 BC) was a minister in the state of Chu when it was under threat from the expanding state of Qin (whose king became the first Emperor of China, the builder of the Great Wall). When Qin invaded Chu, Qu Yuan went into exile, writing a series of poems lamenting his country's fate, and eventually drowning himself in the Milou River.

Li Bai

Li Bai (Li Po) (701-762 AD) is regarded as the more romantic of the two great Tang poets, Li Bai and Du Fu. He is remembered for his love of wine, and is said to have died whilst trying to catch the image of the moon reflected in the waters of a lake.

Du Fu

Du Fu (Tu Fu) (712-779 AD) wrote about the sufferings of the ordinary people and the horrors of war of which he had first hand experience.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 by Alison England reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 147, Page 22

See also :
Chinasage guide to poetry

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