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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 8. 1964.

Chinese Poet Saw Suffering, Affluence

page 4

Chinese Poet Saw Suffering, Affluence

In my dreams I wonder whether it would be possible
To build an immense mansion with thousands of rooms,
Solid as a hill, defying wind and rain,
Where all who needed could take welcome shelter."

Portrait of Tu Fu from a stone carving.

Portrait of Tu Fu from a stone carving.

From the brush of China's greatest poet Tu Fu (712-770AD), these lines illustrate the two most important characteristics of his poetry; compassion and dignity.

TU FU lived in a troubled period during the Tang dynasty. For most of his life he wandered China in ceaseless flight from the internal unrest and wars which were plaguing the country at the time. He witnessed and experienced himself the sufferings of the masses, and it is this suffering and his ironic portraits of the affluent court life which are the major themes of his work.

Unlike his brilliant and better known contemporary Li Po. Tu Fu did not begin writing until middle age and always composed with difficulty. He did not share LI Po's Byronic personality nor his easy detachment from subject matter. Tu Fu was uncompromisingly gripped by the huge spectacle of suffering which the time presented. He writes often of his own sufferings, particularly the weariness of his wanderings, and separation from his family. But he speaks of himself without pity:

Grey hair loose about my ears, Picking up acorns others have overlooked;
Up the bleak sides of hills that lie so steep
And cold on winter days, I plod."

Tu Fu's poetry is realistic. Occasionally his poetry has the close horror of Owen's:

"Cooking fires are few and far between,
Sometimes I meet wounded soldier's
Spilling out their blood, sobbing, moaning."

And again:

"Behind the red-painted doors, the aroma of wine and meat;
On the wild road outside, the corpses of people frozen to death."

This last quotation continues:

"A hairbreadth divides wealth' and utter poverty.
This strange contrast fills me with unappeasible anguish."

These lines explain why Tu Fu is so popular in the Chinese Peoples Republic. His feeling for the common people and the criticism implicit in his descriptions of court life and officials make him definitely an "in" poet in modern China.

Salient's Fine Arts Editor continues his series on Oriental art.

But far from being a social commentator. Tu Fu will always remain for the Chinese an old and humble figure, roaming sadly through the war-torn countryside, seeking ceaselessly a peaceful place to settle in. Of one of his rare visits to his family Tu Fu wrote:

"My wife is astonished that I still exist.
No longer bewildered she wipes away her tears.
I was drifting sand in the wind of the world's anger.
It is just fate that has brought me home alive."

It would be as well to make some remarks about Chinese poetry in general before leaving the topic. The main difficulties the reader will face are the strangeness of the Chinese character and the inadequacy of translations.

There are many fine translations of Chinese poetry available, but not even the most gifted translator can convey certain aspects of Chinese verse. For example, the Chinese poet makes cunning use of the "tones" or voice infiextions which Chinese words carry. Since this is a linguistic characteristic practically unique to Chinese it cannot be rendered in English.

Another facet of Chinese verse is its compactness. It often gives the impression of being like a sophisticated telegram. The English language is simply not able to express the Chinese meaning as economically, and any attempt to do so inevitably sounds ludicrous and loses much of the original meaning.

Because Chinese words are all monosyllabic as opposed to multisyllabic English words, it is very difficult to render in English the rhythm and rhyme of Chinese verse. As a rule translators avoid attempting to translate most technical devices of Chinese verse, preferring to concentrate on the meaning and spirit.

The most important characteristic of Chinese poetry is its intimate expression of personal feeling There are no epics, no grand tales of adventures well fought, no towering edifices of emotion, few descriptions of nature where the human element is absent. Chinese poetry is simple. But let the reader beware of this simplicity: it is not what it seems.

I do not mean that an apparent simplicity masks complexity. It is rather that the Western reader is likely to overlook the profound significance of a statement which to him seems trite. These simple statements can be far more difficult to wholly grasp than the most obscure lines of Eliot. An understanding of Chinese poetry does not come immediately, but grows and clarifies itself with further growth.

The next issue of Salient will introduce the great Hindu epic, the "Ramayana," by Valmiki.