Many moons ago, sometime in the beginning of this millenium, I bought a small poetry bundle by famous Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) poets, contemporaries and friends, Li Po and Tu Fu. Goodreads says this:
Li Po (AD 701-62) and Tu Fu (AD 712-70) were devoted friends who are traditionally considered to be among China’s greatest poets. Li Po, a legendary carouser, was an itinerant poet whose writing, often dream poems or spirit-journeys, soars to sublime heights in its descriptions of natural scenes and powerful emotions. His sheer escapism and joy is balanced by Tu Fu, who expresses the Confucian virtues of humanity and humility in more autobiographical works that are imbued with great compassion and earthy reality, and shot through with humour.
The poetry by these two friends was one small and early attempt at enjoying and trying to understand Chinese history and culture.
Yesterday my friend Yu Li came to my house, for my weekly writing class. I have been studying Chinese on and off for the last three years now, characterised by enormous ups and downs in motivation and effort. It’s a frustrating process, mostly because of my chronic lack of time. Learning Chinese takes unwavering dedication and lots of hours of plodding away, it’s not a language you just absorb by being immersed in it. But, it’s a beautiful and rich language and recently I started again, with fresh motivation and two new teachers.
Yu Li is first of all a friend, but she’s also a very good writing teacher. Until now I hadn’t bothered with trying to write, as I can type Chinese on my phone and on my computer. But as I’m learning more characters, I found I needed a better way to memorize them. Plus, they are beautiful. The homework of endlessly repeating characters is very relaxing, like meditation, and I’m getting much better at recognizing recurring components. I already had a vocabulary of about 600 characters. Now I’m learning how to write them, scribbling like a five-year-old.
Poetry without boundaries
Yesterday she wanted to try something new. She had written out a poem for me, by Lï Bái (李白). Jìng yè sī (静夜思), or ‘thoughts in a quiet night’ is the best-known classical poem in China. Here it is, with pinyin and a translation:
床前明月光 / Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng / Bright moonlight before my bed
疑是地上霜 / Yí shì dì shàng shuāng / Seems like frost upon the floor
举头望明月 / Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè / I raise my head and watch the moon
低头思故乡 / Dī tóu sī gù xiāng / I lower my head and think of home
As we are practising it I get a bit emotional, as the restrictions on travel have just been extended until at least October. There is no way I’ll be able to go home this year. Only two weeks ago I went on a short trip, for the first time since the Covid-19 restrictions were imposed on us months ago. Finally, I was outside Kunming, alone, in the countryside, listening to croaking frogs and crickets, and seeing a gigantic full moon rise over the hills. So yes, I get the sentiment in the poem, even if it is sweltering hot right now and the poem was written some 1300 years ago.
Then the penny drops – this Lï Bái is the same person as Li Po, who I read so long ago. Back then, I was longing for Asia, having just returned from a stint in Thailand. Now I am in China, and longing for home. Same poem, different circumstances, similar feelings.
Yu Li and me end the class by sitting on my balcony and talking about Leonard Cohen, listening to Jacquel Brel’s ‘Le Plat Pays’ (cue more homesickness) and reading Rilke’s Herbsttag in German. Sentiments like these are the same the world over and throughout the centuries. Yu Li and me are both delighted – and a bit emotional – that the other truly ‘gets’ their beloved poets from home. Art truly connects people across cultures, but so does language, so I have to get back to my Chinese homework.