It may come as no surprise to scholars well versed in Sinology, but the central thesis that emerges from this eclectic collection of essays bears repeating: poetry played a unique, indispensable role in the making of Chinese culture. Percy Shelley’s romantic hyperbole that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” would have been a shrewd ethnographic description of ancient China, if we were to delete the word “unacknowledged.” As Cai puts it in his succinct preface to the volume, poetry indeed permeated every corner and layer of Chinese society: in the public arena, poetry played a key role in diplomacy, court politics, empire building, state ideology and education; in the private sphere, poetry was used by people of different social classes “as a means of gaining entry into officialdom, creating self-identity, fostering friendship, and airing grievances.”
Classical Chinese is an intrinsically interesting language. It refers to the written language of the premodern Chinese tradition and covers a period of some 2500 years (500 BCE~1920 CE) … It served as the shared language of the elites in premodern China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Knowledge of classical Chinese opens you up to new worlds. It represents the human experience of something like 1/5 of the people who ever walked the earth.
More practically speaking, knowledge of classical Chinese will also greatly improve your modern Chinese. The two are distinct languages (at least, by any meaningful definition of “language”), but the modern Chinese languages grew out of their classical ancestor and still bear its imprint. Most of the set phrases (chengyu成語) that mark one’s speech as refined in modern Chinese are summaries of or quotations from classical sources and therefore obey classical structures. Many of the puzzling usages in formal, written Mandarin (the kind used in newspapers) make perfect sense with a basic knowledge of classical Chinese.
In addition, he provides links for recommended learning materials–some of them free–by the likes of David Hawkes, David Knechtges, Edwin Pulleyblank, Mark Edward Lewis, Michael Fuller, Paul Kroll, Paul Rouzer, Richard Mather, Stephen Owen, Zong-qi Cai 蔡宗齊, and Hugh Stimson, to help with reading classical Chinese poetry and prose (I guess it’s time for some women to publish materials on learning classical Chinese).
The online mag. I recently came across an old page on Hilobrow, starting with this:
The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea
The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.
Two versions of the opening couplet of a Wang Wei 王維 poem by Hilobrow cofounder Matthew Battles, the second in the style of David Hinton. “We’re always struggling with the apparent multivalence of classical Chinese poetry,” Battles writes, “the way the openness of the language seems to permit so many readings, combined with the difficulty of translocating the tonal, lexical, and ideographic effects of the originals into alphabetically-styled verse without either losing much of the force or going all specious with talk about picture-writing and orientalist exoticism”—and he mentions books by Eliot Weinberger and Yunte Huang to shore up his point. But in the end, after a weekend on Maine’s Mount Katahdin,
In the Wang Wei I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and abysses seducing, the zones of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another as one moves up and down slope.
It includes articles on poetry such as “The Life and Afterlife of Ling Zhiyuan (1831–1852) and Her Poetry Collection” by Grace S. Fong, “Primers and Poetry in Ancient China: Shenglü fameng and Beyond” by Zhang Jian 張健, Dandan Chen 陳丹丹, “Tao Yuanming: A Symbol of Chinese Culture” by Yuan Xingpei and Alan Berkowitz, and “Poetry and Diplomacy in the Zuozhuan” by Wai-Yee Li 李惠儀.
Click the image for links to download the articles.