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Context and simplicity matter in poetry of language

By Haydn James Fogel | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-21 07:59

I recently had the good fortune to catch a performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in Beijing performed by the talented international Middle Kingdom Creatives troupe. I was struck by how potent the storytelling was despite my inability to follow the old English.

It got me thinking about the translated Chinese poetry I've read and how simple it seems in comparison. Many poems are short and to the point, describing a scene in plain terms. Compare the line "The moon shines bright; my love's snow-white. She looks so cute. Can I be mute?" from The Book of Songs with "But, love, you are an ember in the ashes of my heart", from Shakespeare's Henry VI.

Polyglots would roll their eyes at my amateur observation, knowing Chinese poetry only appears simple in English. If I read them in their original form, perhaps with a brain raised in Chinese culture, I would be bombarded with texture, history, imagery and idiomatic nuance.

One key difference between English and Chinese is that English is a low-context language, whereas Chinese is a high-context language. In simple terms, English requires far more words to convey an idea because each word generally has a precise meaning. On the other hand, Chinese words often fit into a multitude of contexts.

Let's look at the context of the first words, "the moon is bright", in the poem mentioned above. The Chinese lunar calendar uses the cycle of the moon's phases to determine the length of a month. This calendar determines the dates of important cultural holidays and when to sow and harvest crops. It is fitting that the character belonging to the Mandarin word for month, yue, is shaped like a crescent moon.

Yue, and its character, appear in the Mandarin word for moon, yueliang, as well as ming, which means brightness. Now, the line, "the moon shines bright", which appears elementary in English letters, connects to themes of the seasonal passage of time and agricultural sustenance — essential elements of life. The elementary is now fundamental. How beautiful the subject of the writer's affection must have been, that she should be compared to the moon.

A simple poem in English becomes a smorgasbord of meaning when reading the original Chinese characters.

English isn't able to function in this way. I'm reminded of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, which reads like a Chinese poem translated into English. "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." The reader can try to glean meaning from the book, but even Hemingway said: "There isn't any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man."

The poet Liu Zongyuan wrote a Tang Dynasty (618-907) classic that includes the line "fishing alone in the cold river snow". It's a famous line; primary school students learn it in China. At face value — in the English version — it is a simple description of a scene. It reads like any of the unpretentious work Hemingway wrote. But in its original context, it symbolizes solitude, introspection and the contemplation of the transient nature of life.

It sounds like The Old Man and the Sea, doesn't it?

Much like a Shakespearean sonnet, poems from the Tang Dynasty contain intricate tonal patterns, distinct rhythms, syntactic structures and aesthetic sensibilities. They're the same but different. The results hold little in common, but the aim is the same: to transmute one's feelings into another via the miracle of language.


Haydn James Fogel



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