Gu Yanwu: Translations of Letters, Poems and Essays

By | 1 February 2015


The Purpose of Poetry
Shun said: “Poetry is an expression of the will.” This is the fundamental aspect of poetry. In the ‘Royal Regulations’ chapter of the Book of Rites is the statement: “An order was given to the grand preceptor to arrange the Odes as a means of examining the ways of the people.” This is the use of poetry. Xun Zi, in discussing the ‘Xiao Ya’ section of the Odes, said: “There was criticism of the government of the day in order to recall that of the past. The words have an elegance in them; the sounds have a melancholy in them.” This is the emotion of poetry. Thus, the Odes was the “traces of kings”. From the Jianan period (196-219) onward, down to the Qi (479-501) and Liang (502-556) periods, poets, in their fu, sought beauty to excess, failing by a long way to fulfil the purpose of poetry.

The Tang poet, Bai Juyi, in a letter to Yuan Weizhi, wrote: “As the years pass and experience grows, each time I speak with people, I deliberate a lot on current matters. Each time I read the Documents and Histories, I mainly seek principle (li) and the Way (dao). This was when I first realised that literature should be written to accord with the times and that poems and songs should be in accord with affairs.” So in arranging his own poems, he designated as satirical poems those which praised the good and ridiculed the bad, comparing himself to Liang Hong and his composition of the Wuyi Song. He said: “Of those who appreciate this poetry, both Deng Fang and Tang Qu are dead whilst you and I are both in distress.” Could it be that Heaven wishes to destroy the six forms of verse in the first songs in the four sections of the Odes? Further, can we assume that Heaven does not intend to make the troubles and sufferings of ordinary people known to the emperor?” Ah, alas! Bai Juyi may be said to be someone who knew the purpose of establishing his words.

Ge Hong of the Jin period, styled Baopu Zi, said: “In ancient times, poetry criticised errors and failings. Therefore, it was of benefit and was valued. Nowadays, poetry is nothing more than empty words and so is flawed and worthless.”

Note: The Record of Rites (Li Ji) is one of the three ancient classics on rites and conduct. The Odes is the ancient classic of poetry and contains 305 poems traditionally regarded as having been selected and arranged by Confucius. The ‘Xiao Ya’ (‘Minor Elegantiae’) is one section of this work. Bai Juyi was one of the most notable of the Tang poets. Liang Hong, a scholar of the Later Han peiod, wrote a poem (the ‘Wuyi Song’) which is said to have so offended the emperor that he ordered Liang’s arrest, although apparently this was never carried out. Ge Hong was a Daoist scholar and recluse who styled himself Master Baopu.

The Evolution of Poetic Style
The three hundred verses of the Odes could not do otherwise than evolve into the Chu Ci (The Songs of the South). The Chu Ci could not do otherwise than evolve into the verse of the Han and Wei periods; [the verse] of the Han and Wei periods could not do otherwise than evolve into the verse of the Six Dynasties; and the verse of the Six Dynasties could not do otherwise than evolve into the verse of the Tang period. These changes were determined by circumstances. If one uses the style of a particular period, one will certainly conform to the literature of that period, so establishing a standard. The styles of prose and poetry evolve with time because they cannot do otherwise than change. If the literary style of one period were to continue over a long time, people would be writing the same things all the time. Now, however, after the passage of many years, there is still the use of old-fashioned words which are imitated time and again. And this is considered poetry! But is it acceptable? If there is not conformity, there is loss of what is considered poetry, and if there is conformity, there is loss of individuality. The reason why Li Bai and Du Fu are alone among Tang poets in scaling the heights is that they never failed to conform and yet never conformed. Only those who understand this may properly discuss poetry.

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