Pos­i­tive At­ti­tude in Chi­nese Po­etry

Beijing (English) - - POEM - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by David Ball

One day in late au­tumn over 2,500 years ago, a cricket was chirp­ing in­ces­santly in the front room of a house. An anony­mous poet was then in­spired to write the poem “The Cricket.”

The cricket chirp­ing in the hall,

The year will pass away.

The present not en­joyed at all.

We’ll miss the pass­ing day.

Do not en­joy to ex­cess

But do our duty with de­light!

We’ll en­joy our­selves none the less

If we see those at left and right.

The cricket chirp­ing in the hall, The year will go away.

The present not en­joyed at all, We’ll miss the by­gone day.

Do not en­joy to ex­cess,

But only to the full ex­tent! We’ll en­joy our­selves none the less If we are dili­gent.

The cricket chirp­ing by the door,

Our cart stands un­em­ployed.

The year will be no more

With the days un­en­joyed.

Do not en­joy to ex­cess,

But think of hid­den sor­row!

We’ll en­joy our­selves none the less

If we think of to­mor­row.

In the past, Chi­nese peo­ple marked the chang­ing of the sea­sons by how cer­tain in­sects re­sponded to al­ter­ations in the weather. Crick­ets pre­pare to move in­doors around the end of the year dur­ing the 10th month of the lu­nar cal­en­dar (roughly De­cem­ber). Their ar­rival her­alds the ap­proach of the cold win­ter and the end of the year. The poet was sen­si­tive enough to feel the by­gone past and the tran­sient present, which re­minds the reader of the joy of be­ing alive and philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions about ex­is­tence. This sad­ness about the fleet­ing na­ture of time is an eter­nal theme in Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture.

For more than 2,500 years, “The Cricket” has been praised for its care­ful ob­ser­va­tion of the ma­te­rial world and deep ex­am­i­na­tion of in­ner thoughts. The poem rep­re­sents an­cient schol­ars' at­ti­tudes to­wards life, which in­volves tak­ing plea­sure in the finer things whilst also ad­dress­ing the se­ri­ous­ness and grav­ity of “hav­ing to live one's life­time with­out the com­fort of stay­ing rested at all” as is ad­vo­cated in The Analects. In Nine­teen Old Po­ems, poets de­scribed the short­ness of life by liken­ing it to “float­ing dust” and showed they un­der­stood the bur­dens of life by writ­ing: “one only lives for one hun­dred years but is oc­cu­pied by the thoughts of one thou­sand be­fore and af­ter.” Yet, they urged read­ers to not give up, to “cast aside sad­ness and try to pre­serve health.” The fa­mous poet Su Shi (1037–1101) went one step fur­ther, writ­ing: “to what can we liken hu­man life? Per­haps to a wild swan's foot­prints on mud or snow.” Such ni­hilism, how­ever, does not have to lead to melan­choly or pes­simism. In­stead, it in­tro­duces peo­ple to a free and pos­i­tive at­ti­tude about life, as ex­pressed when Su wrote about “stay­ing im­per­vi­ous to wind, rain or shine.”

“The Cricket,” a folk song col­lected in The Book of Songs, is about“en­joy­ing life but not to ex­cess” and is char­ac­terised by depth, op­ti­mism and mod­er­a­tion. Such a paradigm, which first ap­peared in “The Cricket,” was fur­ther ex­plained by mas­ters such as Con­fu­cius (551–479 BC), Zengzi (505–435 BC), Men­cius (372–289 BC) and Xunzi (313–238 BC) and prac­tised by out­stand­ing schol­ars. It has grad­u­ally been ac­cepted by the Chi­nese as a com­mon at­ti­tude to­wards life. This at­ti­tude has lit­tle to do with phi­los­o­phy or re­li­gion. It is more re­lated to thoughts and aes­thet­ics. This at­ti­tude was praised by Gu Hong­ming (1857–1928, a Chi­nese scholar born in the then Bri­tish Malaya) in The Spirit of the Chi­nese Peo­ple as a “har­mony of heart and rea­son.”

Read­ing “The Cricket,” it is easy to dis­cover the at­ti­tude of “en­joy­ing life none the less if we think of to­mor­row.” Hav­ing been de­vel­oped by Chi­nese peo­ple through the ages, this way of think­ing has now be­come a fine tra­di­tion that val­ues ra­tio­nal spirit and so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. Over the past 2,500-plus years, such an at­ti­tude re­mains as charm­ing as ever and is still a sig­nif­i­cant part of peo­ple's lives to­day.

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