1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - Later Poetry

(Part 52)


Later Poetry

Certainly the change that came over it after the time of Confucius is very marked. Instead of the peaceful odes of his day, we find pieces reflecting the unsettled condition of political and social affairs. Songs breathing fire and sword, mingled with wild fancies, the offspring of Taouist teaching, have taken the place of the domestic ballads of the Book of Odes. The simple monotheistic belief of the early Chinese is exchanged for a superstitious faith in a host of gods and goddesses, who haunt every hill, and dance in every glade. As a specimen of the poetry of this period, we may quote the following "Lament of a Soldier on a Campaign," by Sun Tsze-king, of the Wei dynasty :—

"On the hilly way blows the morning breeze ; the
Autumn shrubs are veiled in mist and rain.
The whole city escorts us far on our way, providing us with rations for a thousand li.
Their very worst have the three Fates done. Ah me :
how can I be saved? There is nought more
bitter than an early each death. Do not the Gods desire
to gain perpetual youth?

As Sorrow and Happiness, so are Fortune and Misfortune
intermingled. Heaven and Earth are the
moulds in which we are formed, and in them is
there nothing which does not bear significance.

Far into the future looks the sage, early striving to
avert calamity. But who can examine his own
heart, scrutinize it by the light of heaven, regulate
it for his present life, and preserve it for the
old age which is to come?
Longer grows the distance from what I have left
behind me : my trouble is greater than I can bear.’

With other poets this new phase of belief encouraged a contempt for life, and an uncertainty of all beyond it ; and these during the first two centuries gave vent to their indifference in odes advocating the Epicurean philosophy, "Let us eat drink, for to-morrow we die." Eight short dynasties, times of confusion and disorder, followed after the Han dynasties (206 B.C. to 221 A.D) and then came to Tang dynasty (620-907), a period which is looked back upon as being the golden age of literature, as , indeed, it was in every field which marks a nation’s greatness. It was during this epoch that imperial armies occupied Bokhara and Samarcand, that the Buddhist traveller Heuen-tsang made his way to India, and to every spot rendered sacred by the presence of Buddha, and that the softening influences of Christianity were introduced by the Nestorians into the very heart of the empire. It was a time of prosperity and peace. Literature flourished, and skill art were employed to soften and add harmony to the national poetry. The four syllables, of which nearly all the lines in the Book of Odes were composed, were exchange for five and seven. The subjects also partook of the change. Le Tai-pih, the greatest poet of his time, turned his lyre to notes on the pleasures of wine and of beauty, which would have done honour to Anacreon. Evening feasts amid the parterres of gardens rich which he and his imitators were never tired of dilating. Such sonnets are sometimes pretty, and occasionally the ideas they contain are striking ; but the disadvantages of the languages and of education weigh heavily upon their authors, and they seldom rise beyond the level of the merest mediocrity. The following is taken from the writings of the poet just mentioned, and is translated lineatim et verbatim :—

A Solitary Carouse on a Day in Spring

" The east wind fans a gentle breeze,
The steams and trees glory in the brightness of the Spring,
The bright sun illuminates the green shrubs,
And the falling flowers are scattered and fly away.
The solitary cloud retreats to the hollow hill,
The birds return to their leafy haunt.
Every being has a refuge whither he may turn,
I alone have nothing to which to cling.
So, seated opposite the moon shining o’er the cliff,
I drink and sing to the fragrant blossoms."

Of epic poetry the Chinese know nothing, and this need not surprise us when we remember how entirely that style of writing was an importation form Greece into Western Europe ; and Voltaire tell us that, when he was thinking of publishing the Henriade, he consulted a friend on the subject, who recommended him to give up the undertaking, "for," said he, "the French have not epic heads." Neither have the Chinese. A sustained effort of imagination is difficult to them, and the strict laws of rhyme and metre which hamper the poet would make a lengthened poem in Chinese the work of a lifetime.

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