Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Wisdom of Chinese Poetry

Indian Peaks Wilderness, my backyard
The Wisdom of Chinese Poetry
© Kenneth Cohen

Western literary critics sometimes speak about “art for art’s sake.” Poetry and other arts are valued for their technical skill, without any need to reference topics outside of art itself. That is, according to this philosophy, art need not have a moral or social purpose nor any utilitarian value. Poetry is turned into a mere exploration of craft, an interesting and skillful manipulation of words, meter, image, and, sometimes, rhyme. Or when utilitarianism creeps in, many western poems seem to be a substitute for the evening news. They express the alienation, disillusionment, and frustrations of society, and this is euphemistically called “realism.” Well, it depends how you define “real.” Daoists prefer to use poetry to inspire us to a deeper and better way of life, to reflect the deepest wisdom rather than as a narcissistic wallowing in the decrepitude of our times.

By contrast, in ancient China, art is for life’s sake. As stated in The Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing), an anthology of poems from the 10th to 7th Century BCE, Shi yan zhi.  “Poetry is the expression of the wishes of the heart and mind.” These “wishes” may take the form of social criticism and moral exhortation.  But the Daoist view is that the heart’s deepest aspirations are for contemplation, tranquility, contentment, wisdom, and understanding of one’s place in the universe. The art of reading or writing poetry is a form of cultivation (xiu yang). It is the merging of self with nature, scene (jing) with feeling (qing). Poetry pulses with the qi, the life energy of nature. It has qi yun, qi rhythm. The poet, one with nature, is qualified to write about nature. The pine tree uses the poet’s eyes to see itself and his/her pen to express itself.

As an example of art for life’s sake, look at my translation of a poem by Wang Wei (699-759), who was said to have poetry in his paintings and paintings in his poetry (hua zhong you shi, shi zhong you hua):

Not knowing the way to Xiang Ji Temple
After a few miles, enter the cloud peaks.
Past ancient trees without a trail;
In mountain depths, a temple bell?
The sound of the river swallows the great rocks;
The sun is cool amidst the green pines.
At twilight by the bend of an empty pond
In tranquil meditation, I quiet my mind.

And another by Li Bai (701-762),

You ask me how I could live in these green mountains?
No reply, just the laughter of a heart at peace.
Peach blossoms flow on the water far away--
This is a heaven and earth beyond the world of men.

How, then, does a more emotional and personal element enter the poetic realm? The best examples come from a common genre of Chinese poems, one little known in the west—the poetry of friendship. The west may be famous for romantic poetry, but China is unsurpassed in its poetry of friendship. And as in all classical Chinese poetry, the beauty of nature is still present, as though the weeping willow tree or the flickering candle also regret the parting of a beloved friend.

I offered the following translations of Du Fu (712-770) as a gifts to two dear friends, the first for philosopher and author Alan Watts (1915-1973) shortly before he died, and the second to my Chen Style Taiji Quan teacher, Gao Fu (1916-2005).

Written for Scholar Wei

We have met rarely in this life,
Journeying like two distant stars.
What sort of night shall this be,
Together, now, in the candlelight?
Does the strength of youth ever last?
The hair at our temples has already greyed,
And inquiring after old friends, half are gone--
Cries of sorrow burn in our hearts.
Who would guess that it would be twenty years
Before I would again come to visit?
When we parted, years ago, you had not yet married,
And now, quite suddenly, this line of boys and girls.
They are pleased to honor their father's friend,
Asking from where I have journeyed.

Before all questions were answered
Your children brought out the wine.
In the night rain we picked spring chives,
And steamed them with rice and millet.

You say it is getting harder and harder to meet,
So we raise our goblets, one cup becomes ten;
Ten cups and we're still not drunk--
I thank you for the depth of these old affections.
Tomorrow, separated by mountains and peaks,
We will again be lost in the boundless affairs of the world.

Seeing off Duke Yan at Fengji Station

I have seen you off this far, but here we must part,
Where the green mountains emptily return our feelings.
When will we raise our wine-cups again
Or, like last night, walk together in the moonlight?

The people of this region regret your departure,
Through three reigns, you have served them with honor.
Now I return alone to my river village
To nurture with quiet solitude the remaining years.

We live in an age of science and technology. But what good are science and technology if life is not enjoyed, if technique becomes more important than meaning and value? The poetry of ancient China is neither superfluous nor a mere pastime. It is an example of the ancient heart and soul of humanity.


  1. Dear Master Ken,

    Once again its a placer read you...because is feel you, see you and be with you in the universal spiritual communion...
    My hearth is happy just to start to read your preview explanation about Daoist poetry´s deep meaning...In this sense, is very obvious that your explanations are Daoist poetry, too...We (the readers) are receiving double benedictions...your present poetry and the ancient poetry, too
    Thanks and I hope continue "reading you..."
    Fernando Gimenez - Argentina

  2. You make such an important observation on the difference between writing, poetry or prose, for the joy of using complicated, technically interesting words, phrases and rhythms and writing to express life, beauty and inspiration. Beautifully put. Thank you Gao Laoshi. George H - Connecticut, USA

  3. It's now mid-2016, and I've just recently discovered you through "Honor the Medicine". I have no idea whether this will get to you, but it's worth a try.

    I chose this post to reply to, because your feelings about "art for art's sake" echo those of Wendell Berry, who criticized them in a vein similar to yours in the essay "Standing by Words".

    There may be another connection between you -- I'm going to guess that you know Gary Snyder, another American who's gotten deeply into oriental philosophy and spirituality. He and Berry are long-time friends, and there's a book published with the correspondence between them.

    1. I have immense respect for both Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder and know their literary works. Gary Snyder and I were both friends of Alan Watts and students of classical Chinese under Ed Schafer at UC Berkeley (though not at the same time). We have had many connections over the years and met several years ago at an ecology and writing symposium .