One common criticism of classical poetry is that, as opposed to “new poetry” (詩㵋, thơ mới), it required the poet to repress his personal feelings and diminished the presence of the ego in art. This criticism is not without foundation, however, it is often repeated by people not widely read in classical poetry and uninitiated into appreciating the finer details of such poems. Classical Chinese poetry encompasses centuries of widely varying philosophies, aesthetic ideals, topics, genres, authors, and writing styles. Like any refined art, it cannot be dismissed with a few generalized criticisms aimed at summarizing over twenty centuries of artistic development in terms accessible to the uninitiated modern. Classical poetry has been preserved because, on some level, it deeply resonates in the reader’s soul. If classical poetry did not reflect a shared human condition linking past and present, how could it outlive the death of its authors, the rise and fall dynasties, and the ceaseless vicissitudes of time? Those uninterested or even critical of classical Chinese learning often fail to understand that, ultimately, the ancient writers were just as “human” as we are today. Though separated by an uncrossable breadth of time and space, we share the same joys and sorrows, the same moon and stars, the same hopes and disappointments in love and life. Sitting here in a smoke filled café tucked away in a forgotten corner of the fourth largest sprawling metropolis of the United States, listening to Vietnamese pop music while mulling over obscure Chinese poetry and reflecting on the events of the past summer, I don’t feel like a singular anachronism lost in modernity. I feel human.
Hữu sở tư
Tư dữ quân biệt lai
Kỷ kiến phù dung hoa
Doanh doanh cách thu thủy
Nhược tại thiên nhất nha
Dục thiệp bất đắc khứ
Mang mang túc yên vụ
Hương giang đa phương thảo
Hà tâm thái hành đỗ
Thanh điểu cao vân gian
Cẩm thư hà thời hoàn
Quân tâm tuy phỉ thạch
Hữu khủng điêu chu nhan
Chu nhan bất khả trượng
Na năng bất trù trướng
Hà như song phỉ thúy
Phi khứ lan điều thượng
Thinking of someone
Thinking of the day I parted with you until now
How often have I seen the hibiscus flowers blossom
Separated only by the autumn river
It is as though we are each at the edge of the sky
I wish to cross, but cannot go
Haze and mist obscure everything
Fragrant grass flourishes along the Hương river
But who has the heart to harvest them?
Green birds disappear into the towering clouds
When will your precious letter return?
Though your heart is not made of stone
Worry has withered my rosy cheeks
If my rosy cheeks cannot remain as of old
How can I not be sad?
If only we could be like the colorful birds
Flying over the blossoming flowers
– The author of this poem, Đào Tấn (陶進, 1845-1907), has been featured in a previous post.
– The illustration is a picture of the Hương river (香江, Hương giang) mentioned in the poem. The river runs through the city Huế (順化, Thuận Hóa), located in central Vietnam, which was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn dynasty.