Poetry from China’s Golden Age of Poetry

Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse (2003, Copper Canyon Press) translated by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter) shares some of China’s best language of the heart” with the English-speaking world. Red Pine writes that “[p]oetry is China’s greatest art” (p.3) with the T’ang Dynasty (618-906) and the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) representing the Golden Age of Poetry.

Poetry’s pride of place in Chinese culture owes much to its functioning like photographs today; it commemorates occasions and honors friends and family, who have a place in our hearts. Red Pine writes in his preface to the collection that “no social or ritual occasion, no political or personal event was considered complete without a few well-chosen words in rhyme that summarized the subtleties of the Chinese vision of reality.” (p.3)

Learning poetry “by heart” as we say in English reflects this same sentiment. This particular anthology of T’ang and Sung poems, known as Poems of a Thousand Masters in Chinese represents a little over one hundred of China’s most quoted poets according to Red Pine. Children have been learning these poems for more than eight hundred years due to the ease of the four-line structure of the majority of the anthology’s poems.

Red Pine attributes the success through the centuries of this particular anthology of poems to the inclusion of poems that all social classes could relate to such as wishing farewell to departing friends and cleaning of the ancestral graves during the qing ming festival.

Red Pine provides the original Chinese poem in standard characters to facilitate looking up words in Chinese character dictionaries, a biography of each poem, and explanations of the symbols used in the poems in addition to his translation. Nature is present in almost every poem and often stands as a symbol for something else such as political intrigue and/or history.

The individuals who made up the body of the anthology’s poets could make for an interesting sociological study. Poets typically were well educated; some shunned the government posts they qualified for after passing the rigorous civil service examination, but the majority of the anthology’s poets were either monks or banished officials. Officials who told emperors they were ruling unjustly fell from favor, but many chose retirement rather than serve corrupt sovereigns. Poets often portrayed themselves as tipsy, harmless poets to escape censure even in retirement.

The images, scents, sounds, and sensations that Red Pine captures in his translation of Poems of the Masters evoke the Chinese love of nature and make one wish to capture life’s wonderful moments in a poem rather than in a photograph.

This post originally appeared on Ruth Paget’s blog Belle Vie Reviews and More http://belleviereviews.blogspot.com .