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The Influence of Religion on Chinese Poetry

by L. Cranmer-Byng

To Confucius, as has been already stated, is due that groundwork of Chinese poetry — the Odes. But the master gave his fellow countrymen an ethical system based upon sound common sense, and a deep knowledge of their customs and characteristics. There is little in the Confucian classics to inspire a poet, and we must turn to Buddhism and the mystical philosophy of Lao Tzu for any source of spiritual inspiration from which the poets have drawn. Buddhism and Taoism are sisters. Their parents are self-observance and the Law. Both are quietists, yet in this respect they differ, that the former is the grey quietist, the latter the pearl. The neutral tint is better adapted to the sister in whose eyes all things are Maya — illusion. The shimmer of pearl belongs of right to her whose soul reflects the colour and quiet radiance of a thousand dreams. Compassion urged the one, the love of harmony led the other. How near they were akin! how far apart they have wandered! Yet there has always been this essential difference between them, that while the Buddhist regards the senses as windows looking out upon unreality and mirage, to the Taoist they are doors through which the freed soul rushes to mingle with the colours and tones and contours of the universe. Both Buddha and Lao Tzu are poets, one listening to the rhythm of infinite sorrow, one to the rhythm of infinite joy. Neither knows anything of reward at the hands of men or angels. The teaching of the Semitic religions, "Do good to others that you may benefit at their hands," does not occur in their pages, nor any hints of sensuous delights hereafter.* In all the great Buddhist poems, of which the Shu Hsing Tsan Ching is the best example, there is the same deep sadness, the haunting sorrow of doom. To look on beautiful things is only to feel more poignantly the passing of bright days, and the time when the petals must leave the rose. The form of desire hides within it the seeds of decay. In this epic of which I have spoken, Buddha sees the lovely and virtuous Lady Aruna coming to greet him, says to his disciples:

— * This is a simplistic and inaccurate picture of religious teachings. Mr. Cranmer-Byng, like many cross-cultural scholars, seems to have fallen into the trap of seeing only noble things afar, and only ignoble things at hand. As counter-examples, there are numerous schools of Buddhism, some of which DO offer a type of heaven; and the Confucian ideal of reciprocity can easily be, and often has been, misinterpreted in the same way as Semitic religions. — A. Light, 1995. —

"This woman is indeed exceedingly beautiful, able to fascinate the minds of the religious; so then keep your recollections straight! Let wisdom keep your mind in subjection! Better fall into the fierce tiger's mouth, or under the sharp knife of the executioner, than to dwell with a woman. . . . A woman is anxious to exhibit her form and shape, whether walking, standing, sitting, or even sleeping; even when represented as a picture, she desires most of all to set off the blandishments of her beauty, and thus rob men of their steadfast heart! How then ought you to guard yourselves? By regarding her tears and her smiles as enemies, her stooping form, her hanging arms, and all her disentangled hair as toils designed to entrap man's heart. Then how much more should you suspect her studied, amorous beauty! when she displays her dainty outline, her richly ornamented form, and chatters gaily with the foolish man! Ah, then! what perturbation and what evil thoughts, not seeing underneath the sorrows of impermanence, the impurity, the unreality! Considering these as the reality, all desires die out."*

— * `Sacred Books of the East', vol. 19 pp. 253-4. —

How different is this meeting of beauty and Buddhism from the meeting of Ssu-K`ung T`u, the great Taoist poet, with an unknown girl!

   Gathering the water-plants
   From the wild luxuriance of spring,
   Away in the depth of a wild valley
   Anon, I see a lovely girl.
   With green leaves the peach-trees are loaded,
   The breeze blows gently along the stream,
   Willows shade the winding path,
   Darting orioles collect in groups.
   Eagerly I press forward
   As the reality grows upon me. . . .
   'Tis the eternal theme,
   Which, though old, is ever new.*

Here is reality emerging from the unreal, spring renewing, love and beauty triumphant over death and decay. The girl is the central type and symbol. From her laughing eyes a thousand dead women look out once more on spring, through her poets find their inspiration. Beauty is the key that unlocks the secrets of the frozen world, and brings the dead to life again.

— * `History of Chinese Literature', by Professor Herbert Giles, p. 180. —

The Symbol of Decay!

The Symbol of Immortality!

It is perhaps both. There are times when the grave words of the Dhammapada fall like shadows along the path: "What is life but the flower or the fruit which falls when ripe, yet ever fears the untimely frost? Once born, there is naught but sorrow; for who is there can escape death? From the first moment of life, the result of passionate love and desire, there is nought but the bodily form transitional as the lightning flash." Yet apart from all transitory passions and the ephemeral results of mortal love, the song of the Taoist lover soars unstained, untrammelled. Man attains not by himself, nor woman by herself, but, like the one-winged birds of the Chinese legend, they must rise together. To be a great lover is to be a great mystic, since in the highest conception of mortal beauty that the mind can form there lies always the unattainable, the unpossessed, suggesting the world of beauty and finality beyond our mortal reach. It is in this power of suggestion that the Chinese poets excel. Asked to differentiate between European and Chinese poetry, some critics would perhaps insist upon their particular colour sense, instancing the curious fact that where we see blue to them it often appears green, and vice versa, or the tone theories that make their poems so difficult to understand; in fact, a learned treatise would be written on these lines, to prove that the Chinese poets were not human beings as we understand humanity at all. It is, however, not by this method that we can begin to trace the difference between the poets of East and West, but in the two aspects of life which no amount of comparison can reconcile.

To the Chinese such commonplace things as marriage, friendship, and home have an infinitely deeper meaning than can be attached to them by civilisation which practically lives abroad, in the hotels and restaurants and open houses of others, where there is no sanctity of the life within, no shrine set apart for the hidden family re-union, and the cult of the ancestral spirit. To the Western world, life, save for the conventional hour or so set aside on the seventh day, is a thing profane. In the far East the head of every family is a high-priest in the calling of d