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Pauline Wu attempts to explain the reasons and how imagery was used in classic Chinese poetry throughout her chapter on “Imagery in the Classic of Poetry.” She argues that the reason the poetry was written was to communicate something about the human condition, but how it was intended to do so remains a matter of conjecture. The degree to which the poems were intended to convey moralistic messages or were intended to reflect an aesthetic tradition has long been argued with Chinese saying the aesthetic qualities are more important and Western critics claiming more metaphorical meanings.
Yu says the meaning should be based upon how the ancients understood them because this reflects how they were understood by future generations. “Whether or not the earliest statements about Chinese poetry point to a purely aesthetic function ‘ unrelated to ethics’ is an important question” (Yu, 1986: 46). Yu examines how pre-modern Chinese scholars read the songs of The Classic of Poetry and the multiple ways in which meaning can be taken from them to discover that while they are not metaphorical, they are meaningful.
She makes her case first by pointing out how, even though no specific reference is given to the idea of imagery in the text, deliberate use of this type of symbolism was widely used, accepted and understood in 6th century China. She supports this claim by pointing to another text written at about the same period, Classic of Changes, and by pointing to how several images of nature are used again and again to symbolize the same ideas.
This suggests that they already had an established meaning within the society that would have read through these poems or that would have been familiar with them through an oral tradition. But at the same time, these images are not necessarily well-defined within the text of the poems. This is because much of the imagery included in the poems is of nature, which has multiple applications. “As in the Changes, so in the Poetry most images are drawn from the natural world, not surprising in an agricultural society whose major philosophical spokesmen looked to nature as the ultimate standard and source of validity” (Yu, 1986: 45).
A long-term debate has raged regarding the use of this natural imagery, whether the purpose of the poems was to communicate a metaphorical meaning or whether they were intended instead to present simple views of nature and normal human conditions.
Before Yu’s argument can be understood, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the term ‘metaphor.’ According to Richard Marius (1995: 171), a metaphor at its most basic is a comparison between two things. There are descriptive metaphors, which compare two concrete ideas such as “The trees swayed like dancers lost in reverie.” In this example, a person has a definite idea of what a tree is and a definite idea of what a dancer is and the two things are said to be comparable in some way.
The abstract metaphor compares an abstract idea with a concrete idea, as in “my love is a flower that blooms in the desert.” In this statement, the solid (and seemingly miraculous) idea of a flower blooming in a very hot and dry place is compared with the not-solid idea of love, which is thought of differently by different people.
To support her idea that early Chinese poetry was intended to convey meaning relevant to the human condition but was not metaphorical in the Western sense, Yu cites several authors that have rejected claims of metaphorical meaning. One such writer is Marcel Granet who says, “This prejudice in favor of symbolism to which the scholars feel bound as by a professional bond of ethics, leads them into absurdities which they sometimes admit” (1932: 27).
C.H. Wang is cited as rejecting all Western interpretations of the poems because they represent “a manifest distortion of this classic anthology, a distortion both of its genetic character and of the original definition of shih [poetry] in general” (1974: 3). After all, he says, the songs are intended to be appreciated for their aesthetic beauty unrelated to ethics. In examining the words of the ancients regarding their poetry, though, there is evidence that the songs included in Classic of Poetry have always been associated with deeper wisdom and meaning than the printed words convey.
To illustrate this point, Yu analyzes one of the first songs to appear in the book, the Guan Ju. It starts with the concept of the stimulus, or the xing, which is described by Yu as “the use of natural images, repeated with variations to open or subdivide each stanza” (1986: 47) and were probably helpful mnemonic devices in the oral society. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word mnemonic as “a form of words or letters that assists the memory … rhyming verse is often employed for mnemonic purposes, and it is sometimes claimed that this was poetry’s original function” (“Mnemonic”, 2001). There are many examples of cultures using the principles of mnemonics to record their histories in the memories of the living.
Fentress and Wickham (1992) talk about the law speakers in Medieval Iceland, who had to remember their entire law code committed to memory. Medieval Irish culture required at least 12 years of study memorizing stories and genealogies just to become a bard (MacManus, 1967 cited in Tuttle & Haliniak, 2007). “The indigenous people of Australia were very familiar with the method of loci. It is believed that their ancestors sung the world into existence” (Cambor, 2001 cited in Tuttle & Haliniak, 2007). Although the xing serves to stimulate interest and appeal to general knowledge while providing a helpful memory device, it also adds its own deeper meaning to the poem.
Like a metaphor, the xing enables those experiencing the song to take a general idea and apply it to something more specific, but it does this in a completely different way from the metaphor. The metaphor is making a specific connection between one thing and another thing. The xing does this as well, but in such a way that both things can remain general and specific at the same time. The metaphor example used earlier, “The trees swayed like dancers lost in reverie,” is the same kind of metaphor made in the Chinese songs in that it compares a concrete item to a concrete item. In Guan Ju, this is the connection between the ospreys and the lady.
However, in the metaphor example, this connection is made directly, the trees are the dancers. In Guan Ju, the connection is made because of a juxtaposition of images. Juxtaposition refers to “an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast” (“Juxtaposition”, 2006). Because of this subtle difference, the depth of the meaning is completely changed.
“They do not compare one thing to another but simply put a natural phenomenon side by side with a human situation, to suggest an analogy or a contrast” (Liu, 1962: 107). This is what gives it its magical ability to convey deep wisdom, specific application and yet remain general at the same time as is shown through Guan Ju.
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Guan Ju begins with a statement of fact, bringing to mind the image of ospreys secluded on an islet for the first two lines. The second two lines talk about the “beautiful and good lady” (cited in Yu, 1986: 47). This simple side by side comparison suggests a connection between the ospreys and the lady, but leaves it up to the one experiencing the song to determine just what the connection is. It can be something very specific, something relatively general, or widely applicable.
This is illustrated by Yu as she outlines some of the different interpretations that have been proposed of this poem. The first interpretation she cites was brought forward by Confucius, who said the song contained the moral lesson that there could be no joy without wantonness.
Others have interpreted the poem as referring directly to the queen of King Wen of the Zhou dynasty and the time before their marriage, others have connected it with the queen’s search for additional concubines for the King and still others have connected it to an unrelated noble and his intended and the importance of seclusion to the reputation and fortunes of the lady.
Through this type of rhetorical device, the poem is given tremendous application to a variety of situations at the same time that it can be correctly applied to a specific situation because of the way it is connected to nature. Instead of a direct connection, the implied connection made by placing the side of the image by side provides a much wider range of interpretation regarding the meanings and gives the poem a much greater depth than the use of the metaphor.
At the same time, it can concentrate on the aesthetics of the poem without being limited by a specific intention. This understanding explains why recent critics reject Western interpretations of metaphor in Chinese poetry. In doing this, they are missing a great deal of its wisdom.
Fentress, J. and Wickham, C. Social Memory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Granet, Marcel. Festivals and Songs of Ancient China. E.D. Edwards (Trans.). London: George Routledge, 1932.
“Juxtaposition.” Random House Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Random House, 2006.
Liu, James J. Y. The Art of Chinese Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Marius, Richard. A Writer’s Companion. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1995: 171-90.
“Mnemonic.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Web.
Tuttle, Christa & Haliniak, Veronica. Mnemonic Devices. Ontario, Canada: University of Waterloo, 2007. Web.
Wang, C.H. The Bell and the Drum: Shih Ching as Formulaic Poetry in an Oral Tradition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974.
Yu, Pauline. Reading of Imagery in the Chinese Poetic Tradition. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986.