Poems recalling the past

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Poems recalling the past

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Editat: ag. 26, 2008, 12:44 pm

A genre of Chinese poetry is called huai gu shi “poems recalling the past”. A typical poem in this genre will strike a note of nostalgia and of sadness about the evanescence of fame and glory. This one is about Huo Qu Bing 霍去病, who led the great expedition sent north to smash the Xiong Nu by Han Wu Di in 119 BC.


Commissioned as general of Han, he pushed his army hard out beyond the Great Wall
The terrain at the great wall is hilly; for 10,000 li it rises to cloud level
In the eighth or ninth month of the chilly autumn some Tartar cavalry entered Yu and Ping provinces
At Flying Fox pass, the midday sun was low; in the Gobi desert foreboding darkness loomed
At times he lost contact with his base; spoons and pots clanged alarms day and night
Atop the wall he brandished his heirloom sword; the lofty banners that hid the sun retreated
Their hordes were reduced to mere cadres; his serried ranks held arms of six commanderies
The Tartar pipes were plaintive at the gate; the Tangut flutes called out atop the berm
The gudu lords first lost heart for war; then the rizhu king could fight no more
The crown stood down the border sentries; the general’s official mansion was set in order for the first time
His rank rose; he accumulated ten thousand bushels of grain. His merit was established; everything he did succeeded
In the ages and ages of sky and earth, the way of man waxes and wanes
Before the concert is played to its end, we see the high tower begin to totter
He deserved to be portrayed on the Unicorn Pavilion; he has a hero’s fame for a thousand years.

This poem is an example of how sinologists get the impression that Classical Chinese has no grammar, is not a language, and can be understood by contemplating the meanings of the characters. Examined carefully, it yields a refutation of each of those mistaken notions.
Take “character meanings.” In the very first line, 汗 is not “sweat.” Going on, 虜 is not “prisoner,” 思 is not “think” and 令 is not “order.” Calling these “loan-characters” merely supplies a name; it does not explain how words can be written with characters whose meanings conflict with the meanings of the words they write.
The diction is compressed, as is well-nigh universal in Chinese poetry, but, as is also generally the case, its grammar is entirely regular. In particular, expressing time and place with a sentence-initial topic rather than a sentence-final conuclear phrase with 於 is less common in ordinary speech than in poetry, but there is nothing irregular about it. Words like 於 and 而 are seldom found in poetry, but their omission in ordinary speech is not irregular. Omission of optional elements has the effect of removing scaffolding, putting more reliance on the reader’s language competence. A reader in whom that competence is deficient will have trouble.
Minimized scaffolding is evident in other aspects of this type of diction as well. The poem relates a connected, consequential narrative, but in a cinematic style that cuts from one scene to the next: wall, pass, desert, battle, flight, attrition, surrender, rewards, glory. To one who is not familiar with this expedition and its results (ie who has not studied the dynastic histories) the poem can seem a random grouping of clumps of unrelated words. That effect is intensified by the heavy use of allusion.
Technical terms (eg 斥候) give little trouble if they are not also common words; it is obvious at first sight that they need to be looked up. Where that is not the case (eg 魚麗) they can tempt a reader to indulge imagination, the result of which can never be anything but deplorable. Allusion carries that temptation to a higher magnitude.
“Pirate bats faltered after the sultan swatted the sixtieth,” alludes to one event in history, the 1927 World Series. If you don’t know baseball it is gibberish—but grammatical gibberish. “Faltered” and “swatted” are clearly verbs because of their affixes. In ancient Chinese, denied such clues, we must not only look up words, we must also look for more examples of their use. To those who rely on “knowing characters” a poem like this one inspires no delight of recognition or joy at felicitous expression. It occasions only an agony of cogitation as to why one might embrace a flag or why clouds pile up on seven weary soldiers.
Thus what appears to be a paradox: those who don’t know the language deny that it is a language, and so bar themselves from learning it, while those who do know it see it clearly for what it is. It would have made no difference to the poet’s contemporaries whether this poem was spoken or written: with or without characters, it would have been clear to the well-educated, obscure to the rest. For example, to one who knows that the Qiang were ethnically similar to the Xiong Nu but were allied with the Han Chinese against them in this war, the line about flute sounds is not mere local color but a fine use of metonymy to depict nomad cavalry asking whether they will be treated decently if they surrender, and others of their kind assuring them that they will. Shakespeare is full of such lines, but no one suggests that his English was not a spoken language.

ag. 27, 2008, 12:18 am

it would have been clear to the well-educated, obscure to the rest

That's one of my frustrations with Chinese literature, so much of it depends on being well-educated. It's tantalizing and just beyond reach, which means irresistable.

set. 2, 2008, 9:38 pm

>2 mvrdrk:

Here's a view of the magnitude of the problem from before the Han dynasty. A bit has been added to the canon since then.


Ning Yüeh was a rustic in Chung-mou. He suffered from the labor of plowing and sowing. He said to a friend, “What could I do to get away from this suffering?” His friend said, “Study is best. If you study for thirty years you can make a success of it.” Ning Yüeh said, “Let me try fifteen years. Where others would rest, I dare not rest; where others would sleep, I dare not sleep.”

feb. 23, 2012, 3:29 pm

here is another buried treasure. the logic is gentle but sure, and reassuring.