Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology

Reviewed by Mark Molloy


Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008   |   512 pages

Classical Chinese Poetry is an anthology in the old old-fashioned sense. It crams just under 3,000 years of poetry (a period that in Western Literature would span everything from Homer to Sylvia Plath) into a mere 500 pages. The text covers thirty diverse poets – almost exclusively male and born into the educated aristocracy – and includes historical backgrounding, biographical details, critical commentary, notes, definitions of key terms, supplementary essays, and a “further reading” section. Virtuosic in its editorial, scholarly and curatorial execution, if disappointingly homogeneous in its selection of poets, this volume nevertheless makes for an excellent introduction to poetry that rivals any in all of world literature.

In our earliest literatures we perceive traces of our shared origin and heredity. One reads in the following lines a melancholia and world-weariness reminiscent of the Exeter Book, and countless other early texts: “Sent off to Eastern mountains, / to war unending and no return, / I’m finally back home again, / … a lady readies for marriage, … / Her new marriage looks grand, / but what about the old one she shared with me?” Likewise, the “state” poems collected here call to mind the “epic” lines of Homer: “Our emperors brave and forceful, / nothing they will not overcome… / [our emperor] received the Mandate was due, right and due, / and its hundred blessings continue.”

Over time, with advances in agriculture, metallurgy, and with the advent of writing and mathematics, regional cultures set off on their separate, individual paths. The influence on Chinese poetry of Confucianism – concerned primarily with the proper functioning of the State and family – is uncertain, but with Taoist cosmology – a materialist, secular ontology of Being, Non-Being, and Becoming – and, later, Ch’an Buddhism, Chinese poetry enters into its maturity.

Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is a philosophical work, though in verse and with substantial poetic merit (excerpts from it are included in this anthology). Meditating on the existence and origin of the Cosmos, Lao Tzu postulated a cosmos of perpetual flux, where the opposing principles of Yin and Yang ebb and flow, guided by a sole law or “way” (Tao) which creates, sustains and determines all things. Gautama Buddha, living approximately contemporaneously – though in India – built his philosophy upon the denial of any natural law and the idea that no things “exist” but in the state of impermanence. In Orthodox Indian Buddhism perceptions itself was denied ultimate existence, but in China that notion was tempered somewhat by the influence of Taoism and its conception of the One. The emphasis thus shifts from the unreality of reality to the distorting affects of our perceptions upon the ultimately Real. Cleanse the perceptions, and one perceives the Tao of all things.

Thus one finds at the center of Chinese poetry the ideals of “the emptiness of absence,” the “mirror presencing of ten thousand things.” Both expressions attest to a poetry rooted in perception laid bare, of concrete language and imagistic clarity. Consider:

“Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,
summer’s blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.”  – Meng Hao-Jan (CE 689-740)


“In our idleness, cinnamon blossoms fall.
In night quiet, spring mountains stand
empty. Moonrise startles mountain birds:
here and there, cries in a spring gorge.” – Wang Wei (701 CE – 761)

Whereas in Western poetry and literature one symbolism and allusion are omnipresent, here there is nothing to “interpret.” As Hinton notes, these poems “turn on the sparest of images: a bird’s cry, a splinter of light on moss, an egret’s wingbeat.” Clarity and stillness are the core of these poems: the phenomenology of perception, of life, of the natural world.

A poet himself, Hinton has a poet’s ear, and has gathered here poems of exceptional merit and beauty. His commentary displays a vast scholarly and historical knowledge, not to speak of his poetic/critical erudition. Of Tu Fu, arguably the greatest of Chinese poets, Hinton writes: “poised between black despair and exquisite beauty, his was a geologic perspective, a vision of the human cast against the elemental sweep of the universe.” Or consider him writing of the experimental poetries that developed in the aftermath of the devastations of civil war, for example, he discerns a “radically new poetry of bleak introspection,” one of “intense interiority,” “phantasmagoric… nonlogical juxtapositions and imagistic fragmentation,” “hermetic ambiguity” and “quasi surreal and symbolist techniques.”

The poems gathered here are noteworthy for their historical and political, as well as their poetic, significance. Consider the poems quoted below, which display, respectively, examples of: early female expression (or, perhaps, pornography – the sex of their author is unknown); anti-war sentiment; rage at wealth inequality; scientific prescience (in the particular case quoted below, Charles Lyell is anticipated by a thousand years); self-reflexivity about literature; and, of course, apropos today, ruminations on the end of empire:

“Tunic gathered loose and sash untied,
I put on eyebrows and go to a window.
A gauze skirt’s grace is light and airy:
if it slips open, blame a spring breeze.” – Lady Midnight song (c. 4th Century CE)

“ten million soldiers are sent away, and not one comes back alive.

I stole away, found a big rock, and hacked my arm till it broke.”  – Po Chü-I (772 CE – 846)

“Riding proud in the streets, parading
horses that glisten, lighting the dust…
imperial favorites…
they’ve eaten to their hearts’ content,
and happily drunk, their spirits well.
There’s drought south of the Yangtze:
in Ch’u-chou, people are eating people.”  – Po Chü-I (772 CE – 846)

“Wave and sand
mingling together day after day, sifting through each other
without cease: they level up mountains and seas in no time.”  – Po Chü-I (772 CE – 846)

“Done advising emperors, hair white – no one cared about
old Tu Fu, his life scattered away across rivers of the west,
chanting poems. He stood on this tower once, and now he’s
gone. Waves churn the same isolate moon. Inexhaustible
through all antiquity, this world’s great dramas just rise
and sink away. Simpleton and sage alike return in due time.
All these ice-cold thoughts, who’ll I share them with now?
In depths of night, gulls and egrets lift off sand into flight.” – Lu Yu (1125 CE -1210)

“Mist mantling cold waters, and moonlight shoreline sand,
we anchor overnight near a wine house entertaining guests.
A nation lost in ruins: knowing nothing of that grief, girls
sing “Courtyard Blossoms.” Their voices drift across the river.”- Tu Mu (803 CE – 853)

Hinton’s ear for prosody and the music of language is likewise exquisite. Consider his translation of the leading experimentalist Meng Chiao: “…Ageless teeth / cry a fury of cliffs, cascades gnawing // through these three gorges, gorges / full of jostling and snarling, snarling.”

Classical Chinese, the literary language of the educated elite, is profoundly different than anything in Western literature. First, Classical Chinese is graphic in form. Letters are not used to abstractly “spell out” words. The characters themselves, however abstractly, pictorialize the words they signify. Classical Chinese, Hinton stresses, thereby “retains direct visual connection to the empirical world.” Secondly, Classical Chinese’s grammar is kept to an extreme minimum. Hinton describes it thus: “grammatical elements are minimal in the extreme, allowing a remarkable openness and ambiguity that leaves a great deal unstated: prepositions and conjunctions are rare, leaving relationships between lines, phrases, ideas and images unclear; the distinction between singular and plural is rarely and indirectly made; there are no verb tenses, so temporal location and sequence are vague; very often the subjects, verbs and objects of verbal action are absent. In addition, words tend to have a broad range of possible connotations.”

Hinton’s critical and historical commentary throughout the volume situates the authors and poems under discussion within their socio-political environment. His history traces China’s history: from its monotheistic theocratic beginnings; through the rise of the early Shang and Chou dynasties; through the corresponding revolutionary political and philosophical upheavals of Confucianism and Taoism, and the subsequent rise of secular humanist culture; through the rise of Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy and the development of the “fields and gardens” and subsequent “rivers and mountains” landscape schools; through the T’ang Dynasty, widely considered the “pinnacle” of Chinese civilization, when “the government was admirable and the country was at peace…, the common people prospered, and the most dramatic cultural renaissance in Chinese history was under way”; from the immense heights of Wang Wei and Tu Fu through the more introspective and experimental Tang period (when Chinese poetry assumed forms akin to those of Mallarmé or Ashbery); up through the Sung Dynasty and the final flowering of classical Chinese poetry (ca. 1200 CE). Hinton’s survey of this history is condensed yet somehow also thorough.

Classical Chinese Poetry is not without its flaws. As already noted, Hinton’s anthology hews far too rigidly to the traditional canon. Nevertheless, there is much that is remarkable in what he has accomplishment here.

Mark Molloy is the Reviews Editor for MAKE.

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