Classical Chinese poetry

I’m only a beginner with it, but these are some of my impressions so far. The language is very terse and spare, so the reader has to go a long way to meet the author. That’s always true — at least, every author hopes for such readers — but in this case it’s often impossible to make any sense at all of the text without entering headlong into the dark thicket. Grammatical persons and tenses, for instance, tend to be left implicit. Putting the sense together depends on a set of stereotyped associations and symbols, often quite elaborate. The art of the poet lies to a great extent in the freshness and life he can bring to these much handled old stones. As I see it, that’s what makes this body of work “classical”. The character of the language encouraged the formation of a symbolic lexicon that, by becoming somewhat rigid, allowed the growth of a stable literary tradition. In the case of Roman poetry, something similar happens in its relation to Greek myth and literature; the language can be dense as well as allusive, but in almost the opposite way, exploiting the grammatical exuberance of Latin to loosen word order and so permit expressive juxtapositions (Horace’s “callida iunctura”) and a general lapidary quality, but also great lyricism. In both cases, the tradition had high points — the end of the Republic and the reign of Augustus, and the Tang Dynasty — but the Chinese classical idiom seems to have been more durable as a living vehicle than the Roman. It is also inseparable from calligraphy and painting, an aspect that depends on the physicality of the writing system. Not only are the characters themselves an enduring symbolic code, but their rhythm derives from the fluid strokes of the brush. We do not even know how the classical language was pronounced, but its poets still sing.


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