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The Limitations of Chinese Literature

Written by: Arthur Waley

Those who wish to assure themselves that they will lose nothing by ignoring Chinese literature, often ask the question: “Have the Chinese a Homer, an Aeschylus, a Shakespeare or Tolstoy?” The answer must be that China has no epic and no dramatic literature of importance. The novel exists and has merits, but never became the instrument of great writers.

Her philosophic literature knows no mean between the traditionalism of Confucius and the nihilism of Chuang-tzu. In mind, as in body, the Chinese were for the most part torpid mainlanders. Their thoughts set out on no strange quests and adventures, just as their ships discovered no new continents. To most Europeans the momentary flash of Athenian questioning will seem worth more than all the centuries of Chinese assent.

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Yet we must recognize that for thousands of years the Chinese maintained a level of rationality and tolerance that the West might well envy. They had no Index, no Inquisition, no Holy Wars. Superstition has indeed played its part among them; but it has never, as in Europe, been perpetually dominant. It follows from the limitations of Chinese thought that the literature of the country should excel in reflection rather than in speculation. That this is particularly true of its poetry will be gauged from the present volume. In the poems of Po Chü-i no close reasoning or philosophic subtlety will be discovered; but a power of candid reflection and self-analysis which has not been rivalled in the West.

Turning from thought to emotion, the most conspicuous feature of European poetry is its pre-occupation with love. This is apparent not only in actual “love-poems,” but in all poetry where the personality of the writer is in any way obtruded. The poet tends to exhibit himself in a romantic light; in fact, to recommend himself as a lover.

The Chinese poet has a tendency different but analogous. He recommends himself not as a lover, but as a friend. He poses as a person of infinite leisure (which is what we should most like our friends to possess) and free from worldly ambitions (which constitute the greatest bars to friendship). He would have us think of him as a boon companion, a great drinker of wine, who will not disgrace a social gathering by quitting it sober.

To the European poet the relation between man and woman is a thing of supreme importance and mystery. To the Chinese, it is something commonplace, obvious—a need of the body, not a satisfaction of the emotions. These he reserves entirely for friendship.

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Accordingly we find that while our poets tend to lay stress on physical courage and other qualities which normal women admire, Po Chü-i is not ashamed to write such a poem as “Alarm at entering the Gorges.” Our poets imagine themselves very much as Art has portrayed them—bare-headed and wild-eyed, with shirts unbuttoned at the neck as though they feared that a seizure of emotion might at any minute suffocate them. The Chinese poet introduces himself as a timid recluse, “Reading the Book of Changes at the Northern Window,” playing chess with a Taoist priest, or practising caligraphy with an occasional visitor. If “With a Portrait of the Author” had been the rule in the Chinese book-market, it is in such occupations as these that he would be shown; a neat and tranquil figure compared with our lurid frontispieces.

It has been the habit of Europe to idealize love at the expense of friendship and so to place too heavy a burden on the relation of man and woman. The Chinese erred in the opposite direction, regarding their wives and concubines simply as instruments of procreation. For sympathy and intellectual companionship they looked only to their friends. But these friends were bound by no such tie as held women to their masters; sooner or later they drifted away to frontier campaigns, remote governorships, or country retirement. It would not be an exaggeration to say that half the poems in the Chinese language are poems of parting or separation.

Readers of these translations may imagine that the culture represented by Po Chü-i extended over the whole vast confines of China. This would, I think, be an error. Culture is essentially a metropolitan product. Chü-i was as much dépaysé at a provincial town as Charles Lamb would[6] have been at Botany Bay. But the system of Chinese bureaucracy tended constantly to break up the literary coteries which formed at the capitals, and to drive the members out of the little corner of Shensi and Honan which to them was “home.”

It was chiefly economic necessity which forced the poets of China into the meshes of bureaucracy—backed by the Confucian insistence on public service. To such as were landowners there remained the alternative of agricultural life, arduous and isolated.

The poet, then, usually passed through three stages of existence. In the first we find him with his friends at the capital, drinking, writing, and discussing: burdened by his office probably about as much as Pepys was burdened by his duties at the Admiralty. Next, having failed to curry favour with the Court, he is exiled to some provincial post, perhaps a thousand miles from anyone he cares to talk to. Finally, having scraped together enough money to buy husbands for his daughters, he retires to a small estate, collecting round him the remnants of those with whom he had shared the “feasts and frolics of old days.”

I have spoken hitherto only of poets. But the poetess occupies a place of considerable importance in the first four centuries of our era, though the classical period (T’ang and Sung) produced no great woman writer. Her theme varies little; she is almost always a “rejected wife,” cast adrift by her lord or sent back to her home. Probably her father would be unable to buy her another husband and there was no place for unmarried women in the Chinese social system. The moment, then, which produced such poems was one of supreme tragedy in a woman’s life.

Love-poetry addressed by a man to a woman ceases after[7] the Han dynasty; but a conventional type of love-poem, in which the poet (of either sex) speaks in the person of a deserted wife or concubine, continues to be popular. The theme appears to be almost an obsession with the T’ang and Sung poets. In a vague way, such poems were felt to be allegorical. Just as in the Confucian interpretation of the love-poems in the Odes (see below) the woman typifies the Minister, and the lover the Prince, so in those classical poems the poet in a veiled way laments the thwarting of his own public ambitions. Such tortuous expression of emotion did not lead to good poetry.

The “figures of speech,” devices such as metaphor, simile, and play on words, are used by the Chinese with much more restraint than by us. “Metaphorical epithets” are occasionally to be met with; waves, for example, might perhaps be called “angry.” But in general the adjective does not bear the heavy burden which our poets have laid upon it. The Chinese would call the sky “blue,” “gray,” or “cloudy,” according to circumstances; but never “triumphant” or “terror-scourged.”

The long Homeric simile, introduced for its own sake or to vary the monotony of narrative, is unknown to Chinese poetry. Shorter similes are sometimes found, as when the half-Chinese poet Altun compares the sky over the Mongolian steppe with the “walls of a tent”; but nothing could be found analogous to Mr. T. S. Eliot’s comparison of the sky to a “patient etherized on a table.” Except in popular poetry, puns are rare; but there are several characters which, owing to the wideness of their import, are used in a way almost equivalent to play on words.

Classical allusion, always the vice of Chinese poetry, finally destroyed it altogether. In the later periods (from[8] the fourteenth century onwards) the use of elegant synonyms also prevailed. I have before me a “gradus” of the kind which the later poet used as an aid to composition. The moon should be called the “Silver Dish,” “Frozen Wheel,” or “Golden Ring.” Allusions may in this connection be made to Yü Liang, who rode to heaven on the crescent moon; to the hermit T’ang, who controlled the genius of the New Moon, and kept him in his house as a candle—or to any other of some thirty stories which are given. The sun may be called “The Lantern-Dragon,” the “Crow in Flight,” the “White Colt,” etc.

Such were the artificialities of later Chinese poetry.




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