Study Guide for Classic Chinese and Japanese Love Poetry


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Classical Chinese and Japanese poetry relates human emotions and sensations to images of nature. These images are prescribed by tradition, and have stereotypical associations which the reader is expected to know. In addition, complex word and sound play is common, little of it translatable, and most poems allude to or quote outright from other classic poems which it is assumed every reader has memorized. The result is that an English rendering of such verse is always a very distant relative of the original. It is a tribute to the greatness of Chinese and Japanese verse that it has been so popular and influential in modern times. Note that this poetry, like most pre-modern poetry, does not have titles, and that the titles provided have been invented by the translators. The vast majority of early love poetry written by women laments absent lovers. What do you think this says about women's status and role in society?

All Chinese poems are from Kenneth Rexroth, trans. One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. New Directions, n. d.

Mei Yao Ch'en: "My neighbors on the right"

How do the last four lines relate to the rest of the poem?

Mei Yao Ch'en: "In broad daylight I dream"

Despite the fact that Chinese traditional culture is not famous for promoting affection between spouses, there are many classical poems in which husbands grieve for their dead wives, a fact which reminds us of the importance of not overgeneralizing about cultures. In China it was thought that dead spirits continued to be profoundly involved in their family's lives. People were expected to pray to, talk with, and offer food to departed spirits. How is this belief reflected in this poem? In what roles does the widower particularly remember his wife? In the second stanza, what image suggests togetherness? What image suggests loneliness? She is of course the one who was with him then.

Li Ch'ing Chao: "The warm rain and pure wind"

Fruit tree blossoms, particularly peach and cherry blossoms, are very important in Chinese and Japanese esthetics. They symbolize the rebirth of life in the early spring, but they last for only a few days, so they also symbolize the fleeting nature of life, a typically Buddhist notion. Why is the oncoming of spring not successful in cheering the writer? What does it mean to write a poem in which "my tears will flow together with your tears"? Why does her makeup and hairdress feel like a burden? Oil lamps begin to smoke if the burnt portion of the wick is not trimmed from time to time. Can you guess whether the person to whom this poem is addressed has voluntarily abandoned her or has been forcibly separated from her? How can you tell?

Li Chi'ng Chao: "To the Tune, 'Plum Blossoms Fall and Scatter'"

What senses are used in the imagery in this poem? What is the time of year? The time of day? Wild swans, like ducks, can symbolize faithful lovers. Women lived in separate quarters in noble houses. which of the images suggests separation? Which reunion? What do you think it means for a love to descend from the eyebrows into the heart?

Lu Yu: "Pink and white hands like roses and rice cake!"

This is another "heartbreak in the spring" poem? Why is loneliness so poignant at this time of year? What two images involve knots or being tied? Can you think of any English expressions involving the same imagery which convey similar ideas? People living in the same palace often corresponded with each other through poems, carefully written on special paper and wrapped in cloth. How do you interpret the final sentence?

Yamabe No Akahito: "The mists rise over"

Traditional waka like this are extremely compressed poems in which a single nature image, usually drawn from a traditional list evokes a specific mood. What has rising mist to do with memory? What is Akahito trying to convey to the person whose memory he is dwelling on?

Yamabe No Akahito: "I wish I were close"

A "salt girl" is a young woman who makes her living hauling seawater onto the beach to evaporate in salt pans. What kind of feeling is evoked by this poem?

Ono no Komachi: "I fell asleep thinking of him"

Ono no Komachi is one of the most famous women in Japanese history. She was a renowned beauty, had several sensational love affairs, and became the subject of more than one drama. However, she was also a fine poet, and the passion reflected in her writing may help to explain her reputation--or did the poetry create the reputation? The idea that dead spirits come to people in dreams is particularly strong in Japanese tradition. Why would she want not to have wakened?

Anonymous Court Lady: "On the Death of Emperor Tenji"

This was one of a set of poems written by courtiers mourning the death of a particularly popular emperor. The Japanese emperor was considered to be a god (though "Lord" has a political, not a religious meaning here). Note the intimacy of the imagery? What other poem above expressed the desire for intimacy in terms of something worn? How is this poem like the poem above by Ono no Komachi?

Prince Otsu and Lady Ishikawa: An exchange of poems

A staple of Heian court life was the exchange of waka. The recipient of a poem was expected to begin by taking some words from the poem received and fashion a reply incorporating that those words. Dew is traditionally symbolic of tears. Why might Prince Otsu have been crying? How does Lady Ishikawa seek to reassure him? Does her imagery remind you of any imagery from earlier poems in this group?

Lady Horikawa: "Will he always love me?

This is a classic "morning after" poem. Why might her hair be disordered (hair was normally grown floor length). What is Lady Horikawa feeling?

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: "This morning I will not"

Hitomaro is one of the most famous and prolific early Japanese poets. A different approach to hair. Why does he say he will not comb his hair?

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: "In the sea of ivy clothed Iwami"

This poem is part of a sequence which Hitomaro wrote when he was forced by the government to leave his new wife at their home by the seashore and return to the capitol. Seaweed is a staple of the Japanese diet, and is paid much attention. Here it is the way it moves in the surf that calls the poet's attention and reminds him of~.~.~. what? The vine imagery is obviously related to the seaweed imagery. In the simile what does he compare the vines to? What do these images have in common? What time of year is it? Mount Watari now separates them, but the last thing he saw of her was her sleeves moving and she waved goodbye. Can you find any quality that links together the images involving the seaweed, the vines, the leaves, and the moon? Why is the time of day appropriate for this poem? The traditional way of referring to tears is to refer to one's sleeves, moistened from wiping one's eyes with them. Often only the damp sleeves are mentioned and the tears must be inferred.

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: "The Bay of Tsunu"

Another in the series of poems to his young wife. "Shingle" is a rocky beach. Again, what do the images of the seaweed, the waves, and the couple have in common? Hoarfrost is the white frost that coats the grass on chilly winter mornings but which seldom lasts long. In what sense is he like the hoarfrost? In the summer the grass turns yellow and wilts, from lack of moisture. The hope expressed in the last sentence is obviously a desperate one, unlikely to be fulfilled, but what does it express about his feelings for her and his belief in her?

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: "I loved her like the leaves"

The final poem in this sequence is another poem of mourning, but a highly dramatic one. What lines tell us how strong his love for her was? "Man cannot flout/The laws of this world" is an expression of Buddhist submission to the ways of nature: death cannot be prevented. Her soul is thought to have soared off into the air, probably to the heaven of Amida Buddha. The baby wants his mother's milk, but this is not something the father can provide. Note the irony of using a message of feeding to symbolize an inability to feed. In the last section of the poem, he is told that his wife's ghost has been seen in the nearby hills. What does his reaction tell us about his devotion to her?

Otomo Yakamochi: Parting Sorrows of a Frontier Guard

Many famous Japanese poems are about parting from friends or loved ones, often because of military duty. It is well to remember such poems when theories are propounded about the essentially warlike nature of Japanese traditional culture. Note the order in which sorrowing relatives are discussed. What does this tell us about Japanese values? Note how grass is used as a symbol of fragility, as in the first of these three poems. It is also a common symbol of fragility and mortality in ancient Hebrew poetry. What he pray for from the God of Suminoe? At the end of the poem he "sends" it by directing it to deliver itself to his home. The short poems called "Envoys" in this translation are traditional appendages to a "long" poem such as this. An "envoy" in European poetry is a couple of lines at the conclusion which directs the poem to its destination, and means "sending" in French. The Japanese equivalent is not quite the same. These are almost in the nature of "P.S.s" Their form is that which developed into the waka. What theme do all three of these examples have in common?

Lady Kasa: Six Tanka written for Otomo Yakamochi

Tanka is another name for a waka. Lady Kasa's collection of tanka dedicated to Otomo Yakamochi are famous.

"Like the pearl of dew"

What quality of dew is being referred to here?

"Even the grains of sand"

Note that "countless as the grains of sand of the sea" is a very widespread metaphor, common in the West because of the influence of its use in the story of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible.

"The breakers of the Ise Sea:

The surf reminds her of her lover's passion, but of what else?

"I dreamt of a great sword"

No Freudian implications here. The significant point is that only men wore swords.

"The bell has rung"

Many Japanese poems are about lying awake at night, missing someone.

"To love a man without return"

The original Japanese version of this poem has been much discussed and variously interpreted, but its main point is clear. The "devils" are fierce carved guardian spirits. It is not clear whether it is praying to such spirits that is pointless or merely praying to their backs. Judging from these poems, what can you say about the role of love in Lady Kasa's life? How do they match your own preconceptions of Japanese womanhood, if any?

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry

Tu Fu: "Alone in Her Beauty"

Judging by the first lines of the poem, what kind of background is usually associated with beauty? How has the woman's husband treated her? Ducks were traditionally believed to mate for life and are common symbols of mutual devotion. If we compare the distance the water travels in a brook to the flowing of time in a marriage, what is this poem saying by stating "its waters darken?" How is the woman trying to support herself? Why doesn't she bother to decorate her hair anymore? Tu Fu is one of the two most famous Chinese poets.

Anonymous: "The Rejected Wife"

What does this poem tell us about polygamy in China? Official teachings admonished women to accept gracefully the addition of new wives to the family; but poetry such as this is fairly common. For a fine Chinese film on this subject, see Raise the Red Lantern.

From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women

Ono no Komachi: "When My Desire"

At first glance this poem may seem to resemble the ideas of Medieval monks who tried to subdue their evil passions by wearing scratchy hair shirts. Given that we know that the poet was not an ascetic, is there any other possible interpretation? Why do you think she compares night itself to her bedclothes?

Lady Suo: "That Spring Night I Spent"

Here the translator has chosen to use the first poem as its "title." This is a common practice in printing older poetry. To whom do you think this poem is addressed? Why?

Wu Tsao: "For the Courtesan Ch'ing Lin"

Lesbian Chinese poetry is somewhat unusual, but there are several examples, including this one from the 19th century. Note that like much traditional Chinese poetry, these are song lyrics, meant to be performed to a traditional tune. "Courtesan" is a loose term with many meanings in English, but clearly this woman is no low street prostitute. In what way does the poet's opening comparisons resemble the Western tradition of comparing the beloved to an angel? what images suggest that the courtesan has been abandoned by her lover? "Wine games" are drinking games, often involving the recitation or writing of poetry. What mood is suggested by the title and description of the song sung by the courtesan? How is its theme related to an earlier passage in the poem? Jade is particularly prized in China for sculpted objects.

More information about Wu Tsao.

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Last revised April 18, 2000.