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Book Review: Chinese Love Poetry

By (November 26, 2014) No Comment

Chinese Love Poetrychinese love poetry cover
edited by Jane Portal
Interlink Books, 2014

From Interlink Books we have this lovely little item, Chinese Love Poetry, a beautifully-designed keepsake edited by Jane Portal, the Matsutaro Shoriki Chair of the Arts of Asia, Oceania and Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and adorned with Chinese calligraphy done by celebrated artist Qu Lei Lei. The book draws on Chinese painting and print collection of the British Museum, extending from roughly 600 BC to the days of Chairman Mao in the 20th Century, and Portal’s Introduction is brisk and helpful, sketching the major phases of Chinese literary history, from earliest times through the golden age of the Tand dynasty, which gave us the great poetry of Li Po (or Lie Bai), Du Fu, Wang Wei, and many others, to the Song dynasty (in which, according to Portal, “there were no major poets comparable to the great figures of the Tang”), through the Ming and Qing dynasties, and right up to the rule of Mao (whom Portal describes as “an accomplished poet and calligrapher”).

The Chinese poetical tradition is incredibly vast, so any collection like this one – clearly intended as a museum gift shop choice – will necessarily be concerned with skimming. The stunning quality of that literary tradition virtually guarantees that such skimming will yield a great many gems, and in this respect Chinese Love Poetry doesn’t disappoint.

But it’s a curious book nonetheless. It’s beautifully put together, but given its title, it’s a bit strange that so many of the poems included here have nothing to do with love. For instance, Portal includes Wang Wei’s twinkingly happy angling poem “Green Gully”:

If you want to reach Yellow Flower river
I always follow Green Gully stream;
It coils through the mountains
with ten thousand turnings.
Hurrying along
it barely covers a hundred li.
What a clamour it makes among the jumbled rocks!
Deep in the pinewoods
how quiet and still it seems.
Adrift with water-chestnuts, lightly swaying,
Translucently it mirrors reeds and rushes …
My heart is free and at peace,
As tranquil as this clear stream.
Let me stay on some great rock
And trail my fishing-hook for ever!

And, wonderfully, there’s the greatest poem by the greatest poet here, “Drinking Alone Under the Moon” by Li Po:

Among the flowers, with a whole pot of wine,
– A solitary drinker with no companions –
I raise my cup to invite the bright moon:
It throws my shadow
and makes us a party of three.

But moon
understands nothing of drinking,
And shadow
only follows me aimlessly
For the time
shadow and moon are my fellows,
Seizing happiness
while the Spring lasts.
I sing:
the moon sails lingeringly,
I dance:
my shadow twirls and bobs about.
As long as I’m sober, we all frolic together;
When I’m drunk, we scatter and part.
Let us seal for ever
this passionless friendship –
Meet again
by the far-off River of Stars!

Readers coming across poems like these – “passionless friendship,” by Jove! – might wonder if any actual Chinese love poems are going to make an appearance in Chinese Love Poetry, but they can rest assured, there are plenty of exquisite examples, like “Sadness in Spring,” by 14th-century poet Zhang Keqiu:

Awake from
Morning dreams,
Make-up still caked, I miss my
Young man. Long absent, he brings
To mind, blue
Rivers, ripe
Fruit, green grass.

Idle browsers among the gift book displays of bookstores this holiday season will almost certainly not know Chinese poetry as well as they should. And Chinese Love Poetry will start such readers on their way.