When I went to China my suitcase was the heavier for all the books of Chinese poetry I’d packed. And often, while I read, I would think of something that had recently happened, or that I had seen that seemed to connect with what I was reading.
So I decided to use an ancient form of tanka to keep track of my experiences. Members of the Heian Court were expected to know how to write a good poem, and a good poem was all the better if it contained a reference to Chinese poetry.
This little one was with her parents playing outside the Museum in Shanghai one evening. With her red shoes that lit up when she walked, and a good luck charm on a cord around her neck, this came to mind:
the smiles/ of small girls/ deny what is written/ that no one is glad/ when a girl is born
The reference is to a poem by Fu Hsüan, who died c. 278 AD) called by different translators Woman or Half of China. The actual words in the poem are: No one is glad when a girl is born. I also thought how it can be the same in China today; there are so many unwanted girl babies. But those who had little girls seemed to cherish them.
outside noodle shops/ in shadowed lanes/ old men dream/ of when a hundred emotions/ stirred their veins
This tanka refers to ‘to the tune of Glittering Sword Hilts’, a poem by Liu Yu Hsi (772 – 846). The last two lines of the original are: And a hundred emotions/ Rushed through their veins.
Terry Ann Carter and I were teaching Chinese secondary school teachers new English methods. This was written about a young teacher with glorious hair:
the young teacher/ has untied her hair/ it falls over her shoulder/ glossy as a cicada’s wing/ iridescent as a blackbird’s wing
It made me think of Meng Haoran’s poem (691 – 740 AD) about a woman loosening her hair, that had the lines My hair loosened, I enjoy the coolness of the evening.
Not all the Chinese poems I used are ancient. In writing the following, I was thinking of a poem by Wen I-To (1899 – 1946), Wonder:
in the shaded pavilion/ we wait for our young friend/ she steps through the moon door/ wearing/ a circle of light.
noon at the mattress store/ as if she will dream until dawn/ on an incense pillow/ the clerk/ sleeps at her desk
refers to a poem by Po Chü-I (772 – 846) called A Song of the Palace.
This was a great way for me to do two or three things at once―read Chinese poetry, journal about the trip, and think about the ongoingness of Chinese history.
Wonderful insights into your mind, and those of the ancient Court poets. Just lovely.