Friday, September 1

How to read a Tang poem

As is well known, Ernest Fenollosa’s “The Chinese written character as a medium for poetry” is the single most fantastic, least accurate thing that has been written on the subject. It contains the following charming paragraph in its introduction:
One modest merit I may, perhaps, claim for my work: it represents for the first time a Japanese school of study in Chinese culture. Hitherto Europeans have been somewhat at the mercy of contemporary Chinese scholarship. Several centuries ago China lost much of her creative self, and of her insight into the causes of her own life; but her original spirit still lives, grows, interprets, transferred to Japan in all its original freshness. The Japanese today represent a stage of culture roughly corresponding to that of China under the Sung dynasty. I have been fortunate in studying for many years as a private pupil under Professor Kainan Mori, who is probably the greatest living authority on Chinese poetry.
The reader will no doubt be curious to know just how the Japanese school has come to interpret Chinese poetry. (The reader may also be curious to know, if the Japanese had only achieved a Song level culture, just how far back the unfortunate Chinese had regressed. Northern Wei, maybe?) Anyway, I looked around a bit.
    Mori Kainan 森槐南 (1863-1911) was the son of Mori Shuntō, one of the most famous poets of the late Edo period. Unfortunately, if he had his own ideas about written Chinese’s absorption of the “poetic substance of nature," he doesn't seem to have set them down in any real accessible format. However, I did get my hands on Tōshisen Hyōshaku 唐詩選評釈, an annotated edition of Li Panlong’s Tangshi xuan, the most widely used anthology of Chinese poetry in Japan during the Edo and Meiji periods. So, if I cannot give you Kainan’s own view on the relative advantages of pictographic writing, we can at least get a taste of the Japanese school’s method by seeing what he has to say about The Most Famous Chinese Poem of All Time:
What poetry accomplishes with its “spirit” 神 is to allow one to grasp its “meaning” 意 outside of its “language” 言. It is as if it were both far and near, both absent and present, like the clouds in the sky or the moon in the water, even if one grasps it with the mind, it is impossible to speak it aloud: this is how the jueju should be, especially those in the pentasyllabic form. Thus Hu Yinglin once declared that Cao Zhi’s gushi, Du Fu’s lüshi, and Li Bo’s jueju were gifts from heaven utterly beyond human capability. And with a work like “Thoughts on a Quiet Night,” it is as if the author’s thoughts as the pen touches the page have already moved beyond the horizon, and it is quite beyond any one else to follow him to his destination.
Kainan goes on to praise the interpretation of one Kyokuen Yuetsu 曲園兪樾, who argues:
First he sees the bright moonlight before his bed but thinks it’s only frost, then he looks up and sees the moon, then he lowers his head and thinks of home: all of this is actually because looking upon the moon’s beauty affects him deeply. If one tried to explain how deeply affecting it was by simply saying, “Oh, how moving,” it would actually be quite shallow. Feeling emerges when one speaks of emotion unemotionally, and the meaning is only true when one describes it unintentionally. [無情を以て情を言へば則はち情出て、無意より意を写せば則はち意真なり]
Kyokuen is the Qing scholar Yu Yinfu (1821-1906) 兪蔭甫, of whom I know nothing, but at least one can assume Kainan probably didn’t have quite the contempt for contemporary Chinese scholarship Fenollosa expressed (especially since he goes on to disparage the interpretation of the Japanese monk-scholar Daiten 大典—but maybe that’s just politics).
    Of course, the best part about the Japanese school, as others before me have noted, is that Fenollosa’s essay (or at least Pound’s recension of it) contains only one complete poem, and it is Japanese. The poem (which begins 月耀如晴雪) is the first item in the collection of Sugawara no Michizane, who records that he wrote it for a class assignment when he was eleven.


Blogger ithinkearthisheaven said...

interesting info .

9/02/2006 4:51 PM  

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