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Rhymes of the times
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17:09, August 04, 2009

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Why should the zither sad have 50 strings?

Each string, each strain, evokes but vanished springs

Such feeling cannot be recalled again

It seemed long-lost even when it was felt then

From The Sad Zither by Li Shangyin (AD 813-858)

The lines quoted above sum up the sentiments of Shang Guan, about poems written during the Tang Dynasty in China. The 27-year-old, who works at a Beijing-based website management company, is a passionate reader of poetry, classical and modern.

He believes Tang poems, a 50,000-strong body of work written by around 2,200 poets between AD 618 and 907, to be a singular achievement in Chinese cultural history. They're almost too good to be true, hence they defy replication, he says.

Shang is not the only Generation-Y reader sold on the magic charm of Tang poems. Lu Li, 21, studying at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, loves reading her favorites from the classic 300 Tang poems aloud to herself, whenever she is depressed, bored or too happy. Contemporary poetry has limited appeal for her.

"Some writers are just expressing their own feelings, which is kind of selfish," she remarks. "Whereas Tang poems are so very concerned about society and people, and not afraid to criticize the government or officials or show sympathy to poor people," Lu says.

Du Fu (AD 712-770), who wrote so sensitively about soldiers marching relentlessly through briers and brambles in incessant rain, gave a human twist to a tale of warfare and bravado in the poem Song of the Conscripts.

"Conscription goes on here

The magistrates for taxes press

How can we pay them in distress!

If we had known sons bring no joy

We'd prefer a girl to a boy"

The poem remains a favorite of Lu. She also remembers with great longing reading Du Fu's lovely poems as a child - the beginning of an enduring love affair with Tang poetry.

If Tang poetry still resonates with modern China, at least 1,200 years after these were written, there is a reason. As Du Xiaoqin, a professor of Chinese literature at Peking University and a widely-published Tang poetry expert, says: "The Chinese situation today is close to what it was during early (AD 618-713) and high (AD 713-766) Tang periods.

"Tang poetry was written by young people as a matter of routine, reflecting aspects of a highly prosperous society, its open-mindedness, meditation on life and nature. High on both spiritual and emotional content, and yet often perfect examples of restraint and economy, these were examples of the craft of poetry touching the pinnacle. The nation was rising in terms of power and people had high hopes of life getting steadily better."

One doesn't have to dig too deep to see the similarities with modern China, basking in the confidence of a growing economic and political clout.

"We have the time, energy and money to read and write poems, the time to reflect on our country's relationship with the world, forge new friendships, locate ourselves as a nation in the context of a changing global economic scenario," says Du, drawing parallels with the High Tang period, marked by pride, diplomatic negotiations, a concern for the future of the country and a concerted effort to achieve better lives for the common people.

Writing poems was a way of life during the Tang period. Young men aspiring after government positions were asked to write poems in qualifying exams. Emperors and statesmen patronized the art of poetry, sometimes writing themselves. Poems would be written to celebrate birthdays, express love, argue, send an official memo to a superior and pay back debts. Tang poets took up significant social and ethical issues as well as talked about utterly personal matters, almost as if one was keeping a diary, the 21st-century equivalent of which would be sending posts on a blog.

Xin Xiaojuan, a best-selling novelist of the fantasy genre, and also a PhD student of Tang Dynasty poems at Peking University, says: "During the Tang period, writing poems was a way of showing one's talent and intelligence, in that respect there is a similarity with blogs."

But unlike blogs that, in essence, are mostly about self-propaganda, "Tang poems were highly focused on society, history and governance", she adds.

Blogs, however, remain an important medium of showcasing the works of Xin and her fellow poets writing in the Tang tradition, trying to emulate a perfect and precise form that flourished a millennium ago. She cites various portals where posts by contemporary Tang poets are eagerly read and commented on.

Besides, there's the magazine Bei She, brought out by Peking University, which Xin edited for a while. Both academics and students writing in the Tang tradition contribute to the paper, circulated widely across major universities.

But what makes young university-going poets dig out an archaic form and adapt it as their own?

Xin says it has to do with the elegance of the form and also its symbolic value as "the highest achievement in Chinese prosperity" that young poets find attractive.

"I think the classical poetry form can work beautifully as a social language, and I feel its popularity will grow among well-educated people with the rapid progress in Chinese modernization," Xin says.

Shang Guan, patriotically, agrees: "I'm very proud of my ancestors' heritages. If I have children I'd certainly expose them to the nuances of Tang poetry."

Meanwhile Tang poetry has infiltrated the lives of modern Chinese, even when they are not exactly reading the verses, be it classical favorites like Li Bai, Wang Wei or Wang Bo or noted 20th-century writers in the same genre like Huo Songlin, the late Chen Yixin and Qian Zhixi.

Some of them may not be aware of it, but when the Chinese spontaneously mouth aphorisms like, "If you have seen the ocean you won't be impressed by the river", they are quoting from the Tang poet Yuan Zhen (AD 779-831). And again each time one says, "If you are after the gangsters, get their leader first", it's a tribute to the legendary rebel poet Du Fu.

Tang poetry being a major influence in Chinese music is a given, marked as the verses are by such a lyrical and quaint beauty, to say nothing of the haunting melody. Singer-actor Mao Ning, for instance, crooned to lyrics that were a near-literal rendition of Tang poet Zhang Ji's poem, Yue Luo Wu Ti Shuang Man Tian ("The moon goes down, crows cry under the frosty sky ") into modern Chinese.

Kaiser Kuo, founder member of the seminal heavy-metal band Tang Dynasty, chose the name primarily "because of that dynasty's famously cosmopolitan outlook".

Kuo and his fellows tried to conjure up the feel of a time when China grew steadily more enriched by exposing itself to foreign cultures like India, Central Asia, West Asia (Turkey, Iran), East Europe (Hungary) through extensive travel and trade.

"It embraced many non-Chinese cultural elements, from the Buddhist religion to grape wine to Central Asian music," Kuo says.

While the inspiration of Tang Dynasty poets was pervasive, some of the songs the band wrote directly quoted them. For example, the song An De Guang Sha Qian Wan Jian? is translated as "How can we find 10,000 houses to accommodate the poor of the world to make them happy?" - which is a line from Du Fu's poems.

"I'm especially enamored by the poems that have frontier themes: deserts, bloody battles, exotic 'barbarian' loan words, swords. That stuff's metal!" says Kuo.

Source: China Daily



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