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Why is Chinese poetry better taught than Biblical poetry in America?

September 5, 2011

Short answer:  because Chinese poetry is taught as literature, and Biblical poetry is taught as semantics.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I want to start when I was a child.  I loved to read, and eventually, my eyes came across some collections of Chinese poetry.  I have to say that I did not appreciate it.  Sure, there was the occasional poem that I could appreciate, like the wonderful (and slightly naughty) 18th century Yuan Mei (袁枚) poem quoted by Kafka in his letters to Felice Bauer:

In the Dead of Night

Bent over my book in the cold night I forgot to go to bed in time.

The perfumes of my gold embroidered quilt have evaporated already,
the fireplace is extinct.

My beautiful mistress, who hitherto has struggled to control her wrath,
snatches away the lamp,

And asks: Do you know how late it is?

yuan meiBut this poem is super-accessible and human, like so much of the poetry of Yuan Mei.  Most Chinese poetry was simply inaccessible to me – I couldn’t understand what the excitement was.

Then, as a young adult, I made a serious study of Japanese and Chinese.  And it began to come together for me.  And today I am simply in awe in the learning materials available for these languages.  A spectacular introductory volume is edited by Zong-Qi Cai (Urbana-Champaign) and published by Columbia University Press:  How to Read Chinese Poetry.

Let’s start with some of the advantages.  First, this is an unusual textbook, with chapters from seventeen different scholars (there are eighteen chapters, but Cai wrote two of them) including Robert Ashmore (Berkeley), Grace Fong (McGill), William Nienhauser (Bloomington), Wendy Swartz (Columbia), and Paula Varsano (Berkeley).  This is already an advantage, in the same way that a classic Lecutra Dantis (exposition of Dante’s hundred cantos in the Divine Comedy) compiled from multiple authors allows us to see the many different approaches to poetry.

More important, each poem is presented multiple ways – typically in Chinese characters, English translations, Romanized pronunciation (which includes when appropriate [e.g., recent-style shi poems and the end rhymes of ci poems] the entering-tone characters typical of Middle Chinese and still found in Hakka and Cantonese), as mp3 audio-files, a character-for-word transliteration, and a stress pattern (different from the tonal pattern indicated in the Romanization).

In some cases, there is more than one translation of a given poem, allowing one to see a contrast of the translator’s art – thus Sui Palace is translated by Ashmore:

Purple Spring palace halls lay locked in mist and haze;
he wanted to take the “ruined city” as a home of emperors.
The jade seal: if not because it returned to the sun’s corner,
brocade sails: they would have arrived at heaven’s bounds.
To this day, the rotting grass is without fireflies’ flash;
through all time, the drooping willows have sundown crows.
Beneath the earth, if he should meet the Latter Lord of Chen,
would it be fitting to ask again to hear “Flowers in the Rear Courtyard”?

and also by Cai:

Purple Spring’s palace halls lay locked in the twilight mist;
He wished to make the Overgrown City a home of emperors.
The jade seal: if it had not somehow become the Sun-horn’s,
Brocade sails, then, would have reached heaven’s end.
To this day the rotten grass is without fireflies’ flash,
From antiquity lie the drooping willows, with the sunset crows.
Beneath the earth, if he would run into the Latter Lord of Chen,
How could it be fitting to ask about “Rear Courtyard Flowers”?

CaiThe style of the book is not rushed, with full and careful explanation – allowing coverage of about 143 poems in 400 pages.  As Lucas Klein notes in mostly favorable review, the book does give short shrift to both translation traditions (thus, Ezra Pound is only mentioned once in the book, and Sanskrit poetics are only mentioned as semantics, and not in terms of form.)  But as an introduction, this book equips the reader – even the reader who does not have a background in Chinese language, to begin to understand Chinese poetry.

In particular, this volume recognizes that poetry is not simply about “meaning” – it is also about form, sound, and cultural interaction.  By integrating all of these elements, a foreign reader begins to sense what is going on in Chinese poetry.

If you have ever attended Italian (or any other foreign) opera, you may understand what I mean.  Even if you speak no Italian, it immediately becomes clear that sound of the words and the meter is as important as their meaning.  By presenting poems in so many different forms:  Chinese characters, Romanization, English translation, audio files, stress maps, and transliteration, the book enables the reader – no matter what her background in Chinese language, to grasp much of what is going on.

This notion that sound is at the heart of poetry is a point that should be emphasized in Biblical studies.  The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible includes a full cantillation – something that you’ve immediately notice if you have ever attended a Sabbath service at a synagogue serving observant Jews.  It is hard not to be moved by the cantor’s recitation – even if you have only a limited understanding of the underlying Hebrew.  Yet most attempts at Biblical translation (or expositions of Biblical texts) ignore issues of cantillation except in those limited cases where it sheds light on the semantics of the Hebrew.  The underlying belief is that somehow all that counts is what the Bible “means” – not how it sounds.  And yet, to the Masoretic scribes, the “sound” of the Bible was so important that they devoted great energy to recording it precisely.

Think about the book that you learned from Psalms (or Job, or any other poetic book) from.  Did it include Hebrew, an English translation, a Romanization, a stress map, and linked audio files?  Don’t you think that might have aided you in learning Biblical poetry?

I wish that there were guides to Biblical poetry that were as good as Cai’s introduction to Chinese poetry.  I am not arguing here for an agnostic reading of the Bible – rather I am arguing for a reading of the Bible as true literature in addition to its religious meaning.  Doesn’t David-the-King deserve to be treated as well as Yuan Mei?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2011 2:22 am

    Well said – there is much too much emphasis on what it means (so the reader can think understanding and put the poetry at arms length rather than realize the poetry and its reach). Now – blowing my own horn – what you suggest is partly what I have been doing and more than I am able to do on my translations of the psalms ( that I have been updating over the past year almost continuously.

    Here is the partly part: on that blog I have Hebrew and English side by side, stich by stich, rarely more than 4 words at a time, usually 2 or 3, also a complete set of coloured tables derived from the recurrence of root forms in the text, also sometimes, music, and some of those times, music in Hebrew based on the te-amim according to Suzanne Haik Vantoura’s theory. Of your list, I lack the cantillation, and I have elected not to transcribe. An automated transcription algorithm could be written and I did write one, but I did consonants only and did not suppress maters or interpret the current sounds.

    But the partly aside, my hope is to hear the dialogue between father and son – both God as Father and Israel as son, and God as Father and the elect, the poet, any who fear God, and the anointed (with or without capital) as son, child, daughter, or even Son. Such a hearing is life giving not by explanation but by engagement.

  2. September 6, 2011 12:59 pm

    Bob, we have fundamentally different approaches to theology, but I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you how much I admire the way you have worked through the Psalms and made them yours.

    You know, in Jewish thought, the 613th commandment is to write a Torah (based on Deut. 31:19). There are many different ways to think about this commandment, but one aspect of it is internalizing the words of Scripture at the deepest level — “writing the song” on our hearts. It seems to me that you have moved ahead substantially and wonderfully towards that goal. I am in envy of your effort.

    (Here is a sermon on the 613th commandment which you may also enjoy.)

  3. September 6, 2011 8:13 pm

    That’s lovely – I didn’t know that was commandment #613! Thank you for pointing it out to me. A song resonates with a fundamental frequency. Approach is bound to be different since we approach from many directions and accidents. But how different are our fundaments? We listened to Glenn Gould playing the Bach suites yesterday – one hour drive each way. No one plays those frequency sequences with such precision. Somewhere there is a fundamental behind this person J.S.Bach and Gould has found it and shown it. So as the Torah of each of us is written, one may write with a rhythm that gives to another the hearing of a performance of a lifetime.

  4. September 7, 2011 1:42 pm

    Your beautiful remarks remind me of a Kabbalistic meditation that there are 600,000 different melodies (corresponding to the legendary account of the number of souls at Sinai), and that the song of Moses incorporates all of them. Perhaps when I have a chance I will give you a more precise reference.

  5. Zong-qi Cai permalink
    September 13, 2011 1:00 pm

    Dear Theophrastus,

    Thank you very much for your kind comments on my book. It is a pleasure beyond description to see one’s work appreciated by the readers one intends to serve. A companion book *How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook* is due out in a month or so. I have dedicated this book to readers like you. Please send me an email and I will forward to you more information about the workbook and other projects on Chinese poetry.
    Best wishes,
    Zong-qi Cai

  6. September 13, 2011 5:36 pm

    Zong-qi Cai: Thank you for making your book such a useful resource. I am very excited to hear about the workbook, and I will indeed be contacting you.


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