Rekindled interest in poetry sparks contemplation of timeless value of verse

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, February 22, 2017
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A recent televised Chinese poetry competition has led to a revival of interest in poetry.

Each poem that comes to our attention affords us a glimpse into the wondrous world of the ancients.

Take, for example, the lines cited offhandedly by the now iconic Shanghai student Wu Yishu, from one poem in Shijing ("The Book of Songs") titled "The Seventh Month," which runs as: "The crickets sing in the wilderness in the seventh month, under the eaves in the eighth, at the door step in the ninth, and crawl under my bed in the tenth."

But these cumbersome renderings fail to convey the laconism, cadence and syntactic neatness of the original which, like the rest of the entries in Shijing, consist mainly of four-character lines.

One may be surprised to learn that the 305 poems in Shijing, being the earliest extant anthology of poems, were gleaned over a period of 500 years dating from the Western Zhou Dynasty (C. 1100-771 BC), and compiled in about 600 BC.

Today most of us are still struck by the force of its imagery. In commenting on these verses, Fang Yurun (1811-1883) observed that "part of the beauty of the poem is that everybody is capable of creating such a poem."

But do poems still have a modern message? Are they useful?

One critic, while commending the poem, explained that "looking up to observe the celestial and seasonal changes, and looking down to watch the changes in insects and grass, our responsiveness to seasonal change is essential to our understanding of the world."

Why not study the Songs?

Confucius, in summing up Shijing, once wondered that "Why is it that none of you (disciples) study the Songs? For they will help you to incite people's emotions, to observe their feelings, to keep company, to express your grievances. They may be used at home in the service of one's father; abroad, in the service of one's prince. Moreover, they will widen your acquaintance with the names of birds, beasts, plants and trees." (translation by Arthur Waley) As such, he considered familiarity with these songs a prerequisite for anyone entrusted with management of state affairs.

Modern parents are less convinced of poetry's value. Snatching passing moments and examining them for signs of eternity might be ennobling, but will this help raise their children's test scores, or improve their employment prospects?

It all boils down to how our notions about the purpose of education have changed over the past century.

Our educators used to believe that, since we came from nature, how we live and communicate with the stars, the plants and the animals is essential to our sanity. This view is now deemed unscientific, superstitious, and thus useless.

I still remember how my son was mesmerized by a small pony in 2013, at the entrance to a very small zoo in Rizhao, Shandong Province. He was already ten years old, and after a few years of schooling still exhibited curiosity in his first ever sighting of a real horse.

Typically, exposure to the cutting edge of modern civilization in childhood leads to a steady atrophy of the mind and heart, and a distrust of nature. Some say we Chinese lack a religion, but poems like the above-mentioned "Seventh Month" remind us of our niche in the universe, and express our collective gratitude to the unseen master of the universe.


As we cocoon ourselves in artificial confines of concrete and steel, the hustle and bustle will fast crowd out the remnant memory of the universe into which we are born. Then we will suffer from amnesia, not knowing whence we came, and no longer caring where we will go, as we become hell-bent on the business of getting and spending, privatizing and monetizing. We are so busy that we are one of the only creatures on this planet that no longer undergoes any seasonal changes.

Over the weekend, when I went outside of my home, I was surprised by a magnolia tree at the gate of our neighborhood. It was resplendent with purplish red flowers, like so many dainty lamps. An ancient Chinese scholar would certainly have celebrated the moment by producing some lines of verse. But being unschooled in this art, I only gazed at the tree for a few moments, felt some vague stirrings, and then resumed my mundane business.

Modern education tends to view economic parameters and indexes as dependable facts of life, while the luxuriance of flowers and foliage are largely viewed as irrelevant. Such things have been long ago excluded from the final reckoning, since our enlightenment, started a century ago, has been predicated on the elimination of useless education, and we take great pride in our ability to destroy what we regard as useless.

Does this poetry competition promise a literary spring, as some prophesied? There is great strength in hoping, but it needs to be substantiated by a reconsideration of the uses of education.

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