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Tang-Dynasty poetry viewed through cross-cultural lens

Author  :  DING XUEYING and ZANG XIAOJIA     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-08-18

In late 2021, Tang Shi Zhi Lu (literally, The Road of Tang Poetry), a book co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and Professor Dong Qiang, dean of Yenching Academy and chair of the French Department from the School of Foreign Languages at Peking University, was published by People’s Literature Publishing House in China. Its French edition, Le Flot de la Poésie Continuera de Couler, was published by Paris-based print media outlet Editions Philippe Rey in 2020. A cross-cultural publication between a French writer and a Chinese scholar, this book also represents a practice of cross-cultural dialogue.

Le Clézio regards the Tang Dynasty (618–907) as the golden age of Chinese poetry. In their collaborative effort, Le Clézio and Dong simplified complicated issues and broke spatial and temporal limitations to examine five outstanding poets from the Tang era, namely: Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Li Shangyin, and Wang Wei, alongside their works, from cross-cultural perspectives. Based on common themes in Chinese and French culture, such as wine, women, nature, and emotion, the duo revisit Tang-Dynasty poetry in the disciplinary context of comparative and world literature.

Common themes

The Tang Dynasty witnessed innovations to poetry, which gave rise to a variety of genres, including gufeng (old-style poems), jinti (new-style poems), lyushi (metrical verses), yuefu (Music Bureau songs), and minyao (ballads). While inheriting previous writing traditions, poets at that time blazed new trails in poetry creation. Through rhythms and the four tones of ping (level tone), shang (rising-falling tone), qu (falling tone), and ru (“entering” tone which is pronounced in a short and abrupt manner), they constructed a harmonious and delicate literary world.

Featuring a uniquely flexible grammar structure, Chinese language offered poets great freedom to chase their literary inspirations. Compared with French, Chinese has no articles, fewer pronouns, and doesn’t require verb conjugation. In Le Clézio’s opinion, such a grammar structure made it easier for poets of the Tang Dynasty to compose flexible and lyric works. The format of jueju (literally severed sentences, mostly quatrains) in Tang poetry not only reflects the pursuit of balance in traditional Chinese philosophy, but also helped poets express their varied emotions.

Nature, women, and wine are themes of common concern to Chinese and foreign poets alike, generating unique charm amid clashes between different cultures. Influenced by European poetic traditions, Le Clézio was amazed the first time he read Li Bai’s “Sitting Alone in Face of Peak Jingting” [All birds have flown away, so high; /A lonely cloud drifts on, so free. /Gazing on Mountain Jingting, nor I /Am tired of him, nor he of me. (Translated by renowned Chinese translator Xu Yuanchong)].

The tranquility, peace, and harmony when man is alone with nature, as conveyed in the poem, highly resonated with Le Clézio, who loves nature deeply. The poem even prompted him to look for his own “Mountain Jingting,” where he could sit facing its peak like Li Bai and lose himself in nature.

In addition to Li Bai, other Tang poets, such as Du Fu, Bai Juyi, and Zhang Ruoxu, also eulogized nature through poetry. Leveraging natural elements, they instilled their poems with feelings and perceptions about nature, integrating life intuitions and artistic experiences as a coherent whole.

Like their Chinese counterparts, foreign poets also pursued the fusion of art and nature, as well as the connection between man and nature, exemplified by British and German Romantic poets singing nature’s praises and soul-searching.

When reflecting upon the relationship between poetry and nature, Le Clézio was inspired by the commonality of these nature-related poems, where poets expressed themselves and felt the continuation of time by glorifying nature. In his view, such a humanistic pursuit represents the common philosophical thinking of great poets around the world about art.

Women are another common motif both in Chinese and foreign poetry. In some stages of the Tang Dynasty, the status of women was rising. The experiences of such legendary figures as Yang Yuhuan, also known as Yang Guifei, the beloved consort of Tang Emperor Xuanzong, and the talented pipa (a Chinese musical instrument) player, inspired Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, and other poets. Women’s improved status extended into the thematic and emotional expressions within their poems. The poets recounted the happiness of committed couples, as well as the suffering of families forced to live separately due to war. Some even narrated the loneliness and grievances in the imperial palace from female perspectives.

Tang-Dynasty women were not only the subjects of poetry, but some were also poets themselves. Shining distinctively in the star-studded realm of Tang poetry, female poets like Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji were remembered by later generations and became heroines in many literary and artistic works with consistently vivid images.

In the West, medieval France also saw the emergence of the first female writer in Europe, Christine de Pizan. She exerted extensive influence for her works touched on a broad spectrum of genres, including poetry, fiction, epics, and biographies, with content covering politics, military, education, ethics, women’s issues, and so on.

Just as Ancient Greek poets defined Dionysus as the opposite of Phoebus, and intoxication as the opposite of rationality, French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire, who was adept at writing about wine, paid attention to the role of the drink from rational and sociological angles, claiming that wine is the “divine child of the Sun” in the piece “Le Vin de chiffonniers” (“The Rag-Picker’s Wine”).

Dong Qiang held that Baudelaire was inclined to consider wine an “antidote to social problems” and an “excitant of the times,” which is vastly different from Li Bai’s romantic descriptions in his emotive poems. Although both poets considered wine the best way to escape the evil and filthy world, Li Bai’s poems had a deeper understanding of wine’s lyric, symbolic, and metaphorical functions.

According to Le Clézio, wine is one of the sources of Li Bai’s inspirations. The Tang poet was well aware of the fundamental difference between being drunk and sober, while Baudelaire’s portrayal of wine in his poetic masterpiece Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) is less profound than Li Bai’s. In Baudelaire’s words, wine is just synonymous with “intoxication.”

Disseminating Tang poetry

Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman poets were committed to eulogizing the greatness of gods, sports, and the prosperity of city-states, and this poetry experienced a resurgence of popularity in the Renaissance. By contrast, poetry in the Tang Dynasty was characterized by more diverse themes, more humanistic emotional expressions, more complicated and exquisite images, and more inclusive styles. Instead of being fettered by myths and legends, Tang poets were devoted to articulating their aspirations and emotions in reality, a phenomenon which can be attributed to the social environment and people’s literary confidence in that era.

From the perspective of literary traditions, the West favors fun and mystery, while classical Chinese aesthetics champions implicitness and room for imagination in creation. French philosopher and Sinologist François Julien expressed appreciation for such an aesthetic taste in his book In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics. Some poems of French Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval are similarly “bland,” whose works have much in common with another famous Tang poet, Li Shangyin. Therefore, Le Clézio and Dong Qiang made a practical attempt to explore the commonalities of Chinese and French poetry by parsing Chinese and French poets’ atheistic views through their works.

When trying to understand Chinese poetry, Westerners must have certain “paths” and “windows” through which to read. For example, due to insufficient knowledge of Chinese language and culture, French Romantic poet Judith Gautier relied heavily on her Chinese tutor Ding Dunling (Ting Ton-Ling) to read and explain the original Chinese texts when she was translating classical Chinese poetry. And Chinese-born French writer and poet François Cheng directly employed French avant-garde theory to re-interpret classical Chinese literary and art works.

Since 2009, Dong Qiang has served as chairman of the Fu Lei Translation and Publication Award committee, and in 2016 he was elected as a correspondent of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques as the first-ever Chinese academician from this academy. His translation works included: Selected Poems of Li Bai and The Analects. In his collaboration with Le Clézio, he extracted most applicable implications of poetry and more vivid, fuller language, with the method he used in translating The Analects, and shared these with his co-author. To this end, he read and absorbed explanations of verses provided by experts from various fields, while bearing in mind the view that translators are also creators.

Excellent world literature is based on the interplay between global and local factors. Although the overseas dissemination of Tang-Dynasty poetry is subject to the influence of certain “paths” and “windows,” it has been endowed with new contemporary value amid cross-cultural communication. Beyond time and space, and across borders, works of world literature are not confined to specific trending topics. On its way to going global, Chinese classical poetry should not simply be exported as replica of native aesthetics. The path of disseminating Tang poetry through collaborative efforts made by Chinese and French scholars should be a dynamic, inclusive stream of poetry that embraces mutual learning, as the title of the French edition of the duo’s work suggests, “Le Flot de la Poésie Continuera de Couler (Poetry is a Stream that Continually Flows).”


Ding Xueying and Zang Xiaojia (associate professor) are from the School of Foreign Studies at Northwestern Polytechnical University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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