Comparing Chinese and Western Poetry (Excerpt)
1 Most Western poetry about relationships between people centers on love. Although there are many Chinese poems on love, this does not outweigh all other relationships.
2 Friendship between equals and the relationship between prince and minister are not very important themes in Western poetry, but in Chinese poetry they occupy a position almost equal to love. To take away the emotions of loyalty, patriotism and humanitarianism from the poetry of Qu Yuan, Du Fu and Lu You would be to deprive it of its most characteristic traits. It was the custom of critics in the past to read into love poetry a message of loyalty or patriotism. For instance, ancient commentaries on the Book of Songs regarded many poems about sexual love as political satires. Of course, this procedure sometimes gave rise to rather forced interpretations. Recently some critics have gone to the opposite extreme, imposing love themes on genuinely patriotic poems. For instance, works like the Li Sao are regarded by some critics as love poems. This also seems to me a forced reading. Scholars familiar with Western poetry, seeing how important love is in Western poetry, have concluded that it must be equally important in Chinese poetry. They fail to realize that in fact the social conditions and attitudes towards human relationships are very different between East and West. In traditional China love was not in fact as important as modern Chinese people may imagine. On a general estimate, there are more poems on friendship than on love between the sexes in Chinese poetry, and occasional poems dedicated to friends often occupy the greater portion of a poet's collected works. The friendships between poets like Su Wu and Li Ling, the Seven Masters of Jian'an, Li Bai and Du Fu, Han Yu and Meng Jiao, Su Dongpo and Huang Tingjian, and Nalan Chengde and Gu Zhenguan have been a favorite topic of discussion over the ages. On the other hand, despite the friendship that existed between Goethe and Schiller, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, and Verlaine and Rimbaud, there are very few poems in these poets' collected works which celebrate the joys of friendship.
3 There are several reasons why love is not as important in Chinese poetry as it is in Western poetry. First, although the state is superficially the basis of Western society, in practice the emphasis is on the individual. Love is a matter of the utmost consequence in an individual's life, and therefore it is pursued to the utmost, even at the risk of excluding other relationships. To speak of a poet's love life often seems to speak of his whole life, particularly in more recent times. In Chinese society, although the family is theoretically the basic unit, in practice the emphasis is on public service. Men of letters often spent the greater part of their lives as officials living far from home, and it was common for their wives to remain behind in a distant province. During the day they were not in contact with women but with colleagues and other men of letters.
4 Second, the West has been influenced by medieval concepts of chivalry. In consequence, women occupy a fairly high position in society and are relatively well educated, so that they can enjoy the delights of learning and aesthetics on the same level as men. The pleasures of friendship that in China men could only find in the company of other men can in the West frequently be found in the company of women. The position of women in Confucian China, on the other hand, was rather low. Conjugal love usually arose out of ethical considerations, and the pleasure of shared ideals and aspirations was in practice quite rare in marital life. In addition, one's goal in life in Chinese society was the attainment of high official rank, and to spend too much time in the company of women was seen as shameful by Confucians.
5 Third, there is a considerable difference between Western and Eastern concepts of love. Western people attach great importance to love: “Love reigns supreme.” Chinese people have great respect for marriage but little regard for love, and true love is often seen as profligacy. Only people who are frustrated and bored with life and the world would openly express a preference for women and song. Romantically-inclined emperors like Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty and Li Yu of the Southern Tang are objects of universal condemnation. We may say that whereas Western poets want to realize life in love, Chinese poets often only seem to while away their life in love. Chinese poets have their feet planted more firmly on the ground: Love is love and nothing more. Western poets can see a little higher and wider, to elements of philosophy and religious sentiment in love.
6 This is not at all to say that Chinese poets are incapable of profound emotion. Most Western love poetry describes love before marriage, so that there are many poems in praise of the beloved's appearance and expressing passionate desire; Chinese love poetry, on the other hand, describes love after marriage, so that the finest examples are usually on separation or mourning the wife's death. Western poetry is best at “desire”-Shakespeare's sonnets and the shorter poems of Shelley and Browning are triumphs of expressions of desire. Chinese poetry is best at “complaint”-the poems “The Burdock” and “The Cypress Boat” (from the Book of Songs), “Far Away Twinkles the Herdboy Star” (from Nineteen Old Poems), “Festive Song” by Cao Pi, “The Dissolute Woman” and “Autumn Longings” by Emperor Yuandi of Liang, and “Remember Me Long,” “Resentment” and “Spring Longings” by Li Bai are triumphs of “complaint.” Speaking very generally, we may say that Western poetry excels at directness, profundity and elaboration, whereas Chinese poetry excels at indirectness, subtlety and simplicity.