POETRY—INSCRIPTIONS - The Feudal Period(B.C. 600-200)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Feudal Period(B.C. 600-200)

THE poetry which is representative of the period between the death of Confucius and the 2nd century B.C. is a thing apart. There is nothing like it in the whole range of Chinese literature. It illumines many a native pronouncement on the poetic art, the drift of which would otherwise remain obscure. For poetry has been defined by the Chinese as "emotion expressed in words," a definition perhaps not more inadequate than Wordsworth's "impassioned expression." "Poetry," they say, "knows no law." And again, "The men of old reckoned it the highest excellence in poetry that the meaning should lie beyond the words, and that the reader should have to think it out." Of these three canons only the last can be said to have survived to the present day. But in the fourth century B.C., Ch'ü Yüan and his school indulged in wild irregular metres which consorted well with their wild irregular thoughts. Their poetry was prose run mad. It was allusive and allegorical to a high degree, and now, but for the commentary, much of it would be quite unintelligible.

CH'Ü YÜAN is the type of a loyal Minister. He enjoyed the full confidence of his Prince until at length the jealousies and intrigues of rivals sapped his position in the State. Then it was that he composed the Li Sao, or Falling into Trouble, the first section of which extends to nearly 400 lines. Beginning from the birth of the writer, it describes his cultivation of virtue and his earnest endeavour to translate precept into practice. Discouraged by failure, he visits the grave of the Emperor Shun (chapter ii.), and gives himself up to prayer, until at length a phœnix-car and dragons appear, and carry him in search of his ideal away beyond the domain of mortality,—the chariot of the Sun moving slowly to light him longer on the way, the Moon leading and the Winds bringing up the rear,—up to the very palace of God. Unable to gain admission here, he seeks out a famous magician, who counsels him to stand firm and to continue his search; whereupon, surrounded by gorgeous clouds and dazzling rainbows, and amid the music of tinkling ornaments attached to his car, he starts from the Milky Way, and passing the Western Pole, reaches the sources of the Yellow River. Before long he is once again in sight of his native land, but without having discovered the object of his search.

Overwhelmed by further disappointments, and sinking still more deeply into disfavour, so that he cared no longer to live, he went forth to the banks of the Mi-lo river. There he met a fisherman who accosted him, saying, "Are you not his Excellency the Minister? What has brought you to this pass?" "The world," replied Ch'ü Yüan, "is foul, and I alone am clean. There they are all drunk, while I alone am sober. So I am dismissed." "Ah!" said the fisherman, "the true sage does not quarrel with his environment, but adapts himself to it. If, as you say, the world is foul, why not leap into the tide and make it clean? If all men are drunk, why not drink with them and teach them to avoid excess?" After some further colloquy, the fisherman rowed away; and Ch'ü Yüan, clasping a large stone in his arms, plunged into the river and was seen no more. This took place on the fifth of the fifth moon; and ever afterwards the people of Ch'u commemorated the day by an annual festival, when offerings of rice in bamboo tubes were cast into the river as a sacrifice to the spirit of their great hero. Such is the origin of the modern Dragon-Boat Festival, which is supposed to be a search for the body of Ch'ü Yüan.

A good specimen of his style will be found in the following short poem, entitled "The Genius of the Mountain." It is one of "nine songs" which, together with a number of other pieces in a similar strain, have been classed under the general heading, Li Sao, as above.

"Methinks there is a Genius of the hills, clad in wistaria, girdled with ivy, with smiling lips, of witching mien, riding on the red pard, wild cats galloping in the rear, reclining in a chariot, with banners of cassia, cloaked with the orchid, girt with azalea, culling the perfume of sweet flowers to leave behind a memory in the heart. But dark is the grove wherein I dwell. No light of Day reaches it ever. The path thither is dangerous and difficult to climb. Alone I stand on the hill-top, while the clouds float beneath my feet, and all around is wrapped in gloom.

"Gently blows the east wind; softly falls the rain. In my joy I become oblivious of home; for who in my decline would honour me now?

"I pluck the larkspur on the hillside, amid the chaos of rock and tangled vine. I hate him who has made me an outcast, who has now no leisure to think of me.

"I drink from the rocky spring. I shade myself beneath the spreading pine. Even though he were to recall me to him, I could not fall to the level of the world.

"Now booms the thunder through the drizzling rain. The gibbons howl around me all the long night. The gale rushes fitfully through the whispering trees. And I am thinking of my Prince, but in vain; for I cannot lay my grief."

Another leading poet of the day was SUNÜG YÜ, of whom we know little beyond the fact that he was nephew of Ch'ü Yüan, and like his uncle both a statesman and a poet. The following extract exhibits him in a mood not far removed from the lamentations of the Li Sao:—

"Among birds the phoenix, among fishes the leviathan

holds the chiefest place;

Cleaving the crimson clouds

the phœnix soars apace,

With only the blue sky above,

far into the realms of space;

But the grandeur of heaven and earth

is as naught to the hedge-sparrow race.

And the leviathan rises in one ocean

to go to rest in a second,

While the depth of a fuddle by a humble minnow

as the depth of the sea is reckoned.

And just as with birds and with fishes,

so too it is with man;

Here soars a phœnix,

there swims a leviathan …

Behold the philosopher, full of nervous thought,

with a flame that never grows dim,

Dwelling complacently alone;

say, what can the vulgar herd know of him? "

As has been stated above, the poems of this school are irregular in metre; in fact, they are only approximately metrical. The poet never ends his line in deference to a prescribed number of feet, but lengthens or shortens to suit the exigency of his thought. Similarly, he may rhyme or he may not. The reader, however, is never conscious of any want of art, carried away as he is by flow of language and rapid succession of poetical imagery.

Several other poets, such as Chía I and Tung-fang So, who cultivated this particular vein, but on a somewhat lower plane, belong to the second century B.C., thus overlapping a period which must be regarded as heralding the birth of a new style rather than occupied with the passing of the old.

It may here be mentioned that many short pieces of doubtful age and authorship—some few unquestionably old —have been rescued by Chinese scholars from various sources, and formed into convenient collections. Of such is a verse known as "Yao's Advice," Yao being the legendary monarch mentioned in chapter ii., who is associated with Shun in China's Golden Age:—

"With trembling heart and cautious steps

Walk daily in fear of God …

Though you never trip over a mountain,

You may often trip over a clod."

There is also the husbandman's song, which enlarges upon the national happiness of those halcyon days:—

"Work, work;—from the rising sun

Till sunset comes and the day is done

I plough the sod

And harrow the clod,

And meat and drink both come to me,

So what care I for the powers that be?"

It seems to have been customary in early days to attach inscriptions, poetical and otherwise, to all sorts of articles for daily use. On the bath-tub of T'ang, founder of the Shang dynasty in B.C. 1766, there was said to have been written these words:—"If any one on any one day can make a new man of himself, let him do so every day." Similarly, an old metal mirror bore as its legend, "Man combs his hair every morning: why not his heart?" And the following lines are said to be taken from an ancient wash-basin:—

"Oh, rather than sink in the world's foul tide

I would sink in the bottomless main;

For he who sinks in the world's foul tide

In noisome depths shall for ever abide,

But he who sinks in the bottomless main

May hope to float to the surface again."

In this class of verse, too, the metre is often irregular and the rhyme a mere jingle, according to the canons of the stricter prosody which came into existence later on.