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You can live without poetry but why would you want to?

Author  :  Li Bo     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-01-09

How could one live a life without poetry? To me, this can be answered from three perspectives.

Some may say that without poetry, they are living their lives as normal. But it has to be said that there are differences in terms of mental state, sense and quality of life.

Poetry is to life what a cup of tea, a bowl of wine or a bottle of mineral water is to a thirsty man. A sip of water when your mouth is parched and tongue scorched moistens and nourishes not only your throat, your body but also your heart. 

Anxiety and stress are a part of living in society. When layers of stress weigh heavily on life—when the soul is anxious—it is like how the mouth feels when dry. This thirst can be quenched from culture and poetry.

Sometimes, when someone comes into our hearts, it also soothes us like water. I myself had this feeling in my life. Many readers tell me that my exegesis of poetry nourishes them like a cup of tea. Each time when I see such a message, my heart is touched. Indeed, the encouragement and support from readers, to me, is also a solace. 

Therefore, life can definitely go on without poetry, but it will be less refined and aesthetically enriched.

Second, poetry has different styles. Some of it resembles spring water, some of it plain boiled water, some of it tea, and some of it wine. For example, Li Bai’s poetry is mostly like wine, Du Fu’s is comparable to tea and Wang Wei’s, spring water. 

Tea also can be divided into different types. But no matter what type it is, if it is able to soothe your heart and bring you a sense of yearning for a better life, or if it provides you with momentary relief, that is enough.

There is a popular saying in contemporary Chinese society: “Life is more than our daily grind, in distant lands poetry we find.” To me, it is not appropriate to leave poetry in distant lands afar. They should be brought back by our sides. 

In addition, poetry is actually the cultural genes inside us. It is able to awaken the language sense of the mother tongue, which is quite an important basic skill in life.

We all have an inborn affinity with the mother tongue. Today, in a context in which a high premium is placed on foreign language learning, the status of the mother tongue has not been lowered but remains ever more important. 

The sense of the Chinese language is mostly concealed in classical Chinese. But due to the fact that we seldom use classical Chinese today, such an awareness of the mother tongue will be weakened. Fortunately, there is a shortcut for awakening such language sense—through classical Chinese poetry. A type of verse literary genre, poetry represents the most succinct classical Chinese and embodies the sense for our mother tongue to the largest extent. It is difficult to learn classical Chinese but poetry is catchy. Reciting poetry can make up for the deficiency of classical Chinese language learning.

Some friends ask me what criteria I use for selecting poems. 

After teaching for so many years and attending so many cultural programs as a guest, I could say that I pay the most attention to poetry exegesis and it is the object of my greatest affection. I am often moved to tears by the poems that I teach.

What is the most salient feature of the Chinese civilization? It is not good at the expansion of space but is good at the continuation of time and thus has enduring vitality, which I, as an intellectual, am proud of. Therefore, I deliberately highlighted such historical echoes across time span while teaching poetry, the range of which is not just confined to the poetry of the Tang Dynasty and Ci (a type of lyric poetry) of the Song Dynasty, but can be found throughout ancient and modern times. 

Education today tends to seek quick success and instant benefit. However, the edification of culture and teaching of poetry particularly should not pursue immediate benefit. The value of poetry is the use of the “useless.” However, as Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi) said, “The use of the useless is for great use.” Therefore, it is my hope that through poetry, everyone could find the firmness and peace deep in the inner being and the warmth of the soul in this chaotic mortal world deluged with hustle and bustle in today’s time of confusion and anxiety.


This article is translated from Wenhui Daily. Li Bo is a notable scholar of Chinese culture and a professor from Nanjing Normal University. He is the honored guest of the CCTV program Chinese Poetry Competition and lecturer of another CCTV program Lecture Room.

Editor: Yu Hui

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