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.