CL History Poetry Can Express Plaintiveness

Zeyuan Hu



Qian Zhongshu(1910-1998), also as Ch’ien Chung-shu, was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China. In 1933, he graduated from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at Tsinghua University and continued his studies in Oxford University, where he got the degree of B. Litt. (Oxon) in 1937 with his dissertation titled “China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” After graduating, he went to University of Paris to continue his research. In September 1938, he returned his homeland and held a professorship at National Southwest Associated University, Aurora University, and Jinan University. He also worked as the editor-in-chief of Philobiblon, a literary quarterly in English. After 1952, he served as a senior fellow in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, working in the group for the research of foreign literature. Since 1982, he worked as the vice dean of CASS until 1993 as a consultant. Professor Qian is a polyglot, who is well versed in both Chinese and Western literatures. For his erudition and great academic achievements, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of comparative literature in China. This essay was a lecture delivered at a symposium of professors at Waseda University on November 20, 1980. It was published in the first volume of Literary Review (wen xue ping lun) in China, 1981. This essay begins with a funny Italian story about the invention of umbrella. Professor Qian adopts his typical research method of circular interpretation to discuss the mechanisms of poetic creation. With abundant examples from both western and Chinese literatures, he argues against the traditional theory that only plaintiveness can trigger poetry. As a typical case of parallel studies in comparative literature, this essay reveals that human beings share common psychological and emotional mechanism from the perspectives of psychology and literature.

Poetry Can Express Plaintiveness
By Qian Zhongshu   Translated by Hu Zeyuan

It is a bold act for me to lecture here in Japan. Even if a Chinese scholar lectures on the learning of his own country, he should not be embodied with valor, though he must be adventurously courageous. As someone ignorant of the Japanese language, facing your resourceful treasury of “Sinology” or “China studies,” I am like a poor bachelor, staring numbly at a safety box, who knows nothing about the digital lock and who lacks any unlocking tools. However, ignorance is usually a source of courage. There is a ridiculing proverb in Italy called “he invented an umbrella” (ha inventato l’ombrello). It was said that there was once a bumpkin from a remote countryside. One day when he was walking on the road, it suddenly rained. He happened to be taking a stick and a square cloth. Out of sudden wisdom he supported the cloth with his stick to cover his head, so as not to be wet like a chicken fallen into soup when he reached his home. Afterwards, he appreciated his own talents and thought that he had made some contributions to human race and should publicize his invention. He heard that there was a “Patent Bureau of Inventions Regulation” at the town and rushed excitedly there with his stick and cloth to report and demonstrate his invention. Clerks in the bureau burst into laughter on hearing his intention and took out an umbrella to show him closely. Today I am like the countryman who has never seen an umbrella, rushing to the bureau of registration with isolated knowledge. Though, when we can’t find the roof for shelter against raindrops, supporting cloth with a stick is nonetheless an effective way to overcome the emergency.

Nietzsche once compared the singing of poets with the crowing of hens when laying eggs, saying that both were caused by pain (236). This homely but vivid comparison is exactly in conformity with a popular view in the literary and artistic tradition of China: pain is more conducive to the making of poetry than happiness; good poetry is mostly the expression of unhappiness and the release of worries out of a state of poverty and depression. Not only was this view commonplace in poetic theoretical discourses in ancient China, but it also became a formula of writing practice. As a result, we have become so familiar with it that we must highlight it as an important concept in literary criticism in China. In the following section I will give a few of the most common examples of this idea’s presence in classic literature in order to explain it.

“Yanghuo阳货” in Lun Yu (论语 Analects) says “Poems serve to stimulate the mind. They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation. They teach the art of sociability. They show how to regulate feelings of resentment.” “To regulate the feelings of resentment” is only one of the four functions of poetry and the last one mentioned.  “Shi Da Xu”(诗大序 The Preface to Odes) said objectively that “the voice of times of peace and prosperity is calm and delightful” and “the voice of a conquered nation is sorrowful and speculative” without stress or preference to any “voice.” “Yi Wen Zhi”(艺文志 Records of Arts and Literature) of Han Shu (汉书 Book of Han Dynasty) illustrated the idea that “poetry expresses people’s minds” in an impartial way. “So happiness and sorrow are felt by the heart while feelings are expressed by the sound of songs.” Sima Qian was perhaps the first one who failed to take both sides—both happiness and sorrow—into consideration. His texts, “Bao Ren Shaoqin Shu” (报任少卿书 Letter to Ren An) and “Shiji Zixu” (史记自序 Autobiographical Preface to Historical Records) listed great works of art that date back to ancient times and pointed out that some of them were written by the imprisoned, some were written by the demoted, some were written by those in distress, and some were written by the disabled. In his view, all of the works were the products of unfortunate people who suffered from poverty, illness, or even torture by criminal punishment. Beginning with Zhou Yi 周易 (Book of Change) and ending with Shi San Bai Pian诗三百篇(Three Hundred Odes), Sima Qian summarized that “all those works are almost written out of anger and resentment by the sages” and added that “these people were all pent-up.” Sima Qian showed how it is possible to neglect the role of “happiness” in poetry and only to emphasize the “resentment” or “sadness” in Odes. In his reading, the writers of Odes were all “pent-up” sorrowful and unlucky ones. Poems were “mostly” sighs or shouting of “angers.” Cheng Zilong once suggested that “all the works are almost written out of anger and resentment by the sages,” expounding that “in my opinion, Odes were satires in disguise of eulogies—people were missing the brilliant emperors at the fading times” (shi lun 诗论, vol.21. cheng zhongyu quanji 陈忠裕全集, On Poetry, Vol.21. Complete Works of Cheng Zhongyu). For Cheng Zilong, panegyrizing the past is just an expression of resentment towards the present. Hence, in his view, some ostensible paeans in Three Hundred Odes are actually poems of complaint. In a similar manner, Zheng Tan, who supported Confucian argumentation and opposed the luxuriance of literature, persuaded Emperor Tang Wenzong not to be indulged in the “chapters, sections, sentences and phrases in ancient writings,” saying “the ya (hymns) and song (sacrificial songs) were all written by the common people to admonish the governing class rather than by the governing class to cultivate the common people” (Jiu tangshu zheng tan zhuan, Biography of Zheng Tan, Record of Old Tang). Though Zheng Tan’s flatteries were made with an ulterior motive, they also proceeded under the assumption that poems were admonishments in the guise of panegyrics. In He Xiu’s jie gu 解诂 (Exigesis), the line “the 10% taxation of the farming land’s income was implemented and panegyrics arose” in the section of “initial tax on land per mu” in the 15th year of Xuan Gong rule in gongyang zhuan 公羊传 is also thought-provoking. “The sound of peace eulogizing is the best for the emperors…what really caused the appearance of “eulogies” was that food is god for the people…When people had some resentment, they gathered to sing. The hungry sang about food while the exhausted sang about their labor.” Gong Yang Zhuan obviously only talked about a “eulogizing sound” but Exegesis added the phrase “singing out of resentment,” deliberately complicating the issue. It also said “all the ‘singing’ was out of ‘some resentment,’” stranding the opening sentence, “the sound of peace eulogizing,” in oblivion. Cheng Zilong thought “eulogy” amounted to an evasive “admonishment.” Following Zhuan, He Xiu seemed to talk in high-sounding phrases and then added in what, in his experience, was the truth: the “best state” with “sound of peace eulogizing” was only the imagination or fancy of history books, while the singing of “the hungry” and “the exhausted” out of “resentment” was reality. He Xiu and Chen Zilong’s statements are complementary. It seems that this situation has been reflected in Chinese proverbs. “Bei Ge Xing” (悲歌行, Songs of Sorrows), an ancient lyric of yuefu, says “sad songs can be regarded as sobbing while looking afar can be regarded as the return of the beloved.” From then on, the idea of “express[ing] one’s grief and anger in one’s long verse” became widely used. The similar expression “to express one’s happiness in one’s long verses” was seldom used, though someone wrote “Xiao Ge Xing” (笑歌行, Songs of Laughing) in the big name of Li Bai. “yin” (吟) in “xiao yin yin” (笑吟吟,smile happily) doesn’t equal to the “yin” (吟, chant a poem) in “xinshi gaiba zi chang yin” (新诗改罢自长吟, chanting the verses for a long time by oneself on finishing or revising a new verse).

Liu Xie once dealt with Sima Qian’s views with an ingenious metaphor. “Cai lue 才略” (On Talents, the Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons) talks about Feng Yan, suggesting that “Jingtong was fond of literature but was leading a rough life in a prosperous times.” “Xianzhi显志” (demonstration of one’s ambitions) and “preface” are pearls formed from ill clams. That is to say that two essays were outcome of “depression” and “anger.” Liu Xie made a general comment in a less intense tone than Sima Qian and concentrated on one person without expanding to others. “Illness” is a general reference to pains or worries, not limited to physical illnesses like Zuo Qiu’s blindness as Sima Qian said. It also refers to the spiritual sufferings like being unfortunate. “Jiu bian” of chuci (Nine apologies, Poetry of South) said “rugged the way is, oh, the jobless poor are discontent with the day.” In the North Dynasty, a man with the family name Liu thought that poverty could stimulate talents, explaining with four metaphors in one sentence, one of which was the same as that which was used by Liu Xie from South Dynasty. Liu Zhou’s “Liu Zi Ji Tong” (刘子·激通) says “the stalks’ depression is cramped into the tumor of cotton and silk. The clams are ill and hold the bright pearl. Birds can fly to the up sky when stimulated. Archers can shoot over the snow-covered ridge when frightened. These all accomplish bright and elegant treasure though overworked and reach high and far because of stimulation” (Vol. 350, Taiping yulan 太平御览). “Water becomes ferocious when stimulated. Arrows Hanzi fly far away when stimulated.” Hou han shu fengyan zhuan (后汉书·冯衍传,Biography of Feng Yan, Book of Late Han) recorded a letter by Feng Yan to Yin Jiu, which stated that “in my humble opinion, water can’t break the boat if not stimulated, while arrows can’t fly into cloud if not stimulated.” Later, Su Shi in “Letter to Li Duanshu” stated that “trees have tumors, stones have circle patterns. Rhinoceros have horns. They all present beautiful things to man because of their illness,” which means the same thing as the phrase “accomplishing brilliance and elegance though overworked.” Though without the metaphor, “clams’ holding pearls in their mouth,” “trees have tumors” means that “stalks have tumors.”1 There are many similar metaphors to this in westerners’ comments on creative writing. Franz Grillparzer said poems were like the pearls created by ill and silent mussels (Die Perle, das Erzeugnis des kranken stillen Muscheltieres). Flaubert thought that pearls were the outcome of oysters’ illness, while the style of a writer was the overflow of a more profound pain (L’ecoulement d’une douleur plus profonde).2 Heine asked: “is poetry to man as pearls to poor oysters as the illness that causes pain?”3 A.E.Housman said poetry was a secretion, natural like the turpentine in the fir or morbid like the pearl in the oyster.4 It seems this metaphor is very popular. Critics adopt it just because it is very close to the ideas that “poetry can express plaintiveness and “poetry are made out of resentment and anger.” But the sentence in wenxin diao long seemingly hasn’t gained the appreciation it deserves.

Sima Qian listed a series of works written out of resentment, some of reasoning, some of recording, and ended the essay with a conclusion that shi sanbai pian (300 Odes) were generally written out of “plaintiveness” as one of the typical examples. Zhong Rong made some explanations based solely on poetry. There is a sentence in the preface to Shi Pin (Evaluation of Poetry) which has long been neglected by us. In gatherings, poetry is a means to relate people. Being alone, people express their resentment with poetry. Ministers of Chu were demoted to the borders. Concubines of Han were sent out of the palace or bones were scattered on the wildness, human ghosts were flying homelessly, soldiers were sent to the borders to defend the country, border travelers were wearing thin clothes, widows were drying their tears in their chambers, officials were deposed out of the royal court and never returned, girls like Yang Yuhuan were adored by the emperor and their feminine beauty destroyed the whole country. All these occasions were so moving that nothing but poetry could express the sentiment. Nothing but long verses could fully express the emotions. So Confucius said “poetry can be used to communicate with people and express the resentment. Nothing better than poetry can make the poor and humble be content with their situation and the lonely people be happy and satisfied.” Strangely, this section is almost the outline of the two famous essays bie fu 别赋 (Farewell Fu. fu, a descriptive prose interspersed with verse) and hen fu 恨赋 (Hate Fu) by Jiang Yan, a contemporary of Zhong Rong. Zhong Rong didn’t mention “stimulation of the mind” and “self-contemplation.” Though he mentioned “sociability,” the overwhelming examples he listed were “resentments.” Only “gathering” and “being adored by the emperor” indubitably belong to happy occasions. Maybe the word “indubitably” is too much. There might be worry or resentment on the occasion “the beauty Yang Yuhuan was adored by the emperor.” For example, in bie fu in vol. 139 of quan jin wen 全晋文 (Complete Works of Jin), Zuo Jiupin resented that she had been apart from her blood relations for ever after she entered the “purple house” (royal family) so she sighed and shed tears. In chapter 18 of Dream of Red Mansions, the emperor’s Concubine Jia couldn’t help sighing “today though with wealth and rank, I’m apart from my kin, it turns out to be meaningless and void.” In the mean time, according to the main theme of famous modern drama Wang Zhaojun(王昭君) the occasions that concubines in Han Dynasty left the palace were not sorrowful, but rather “sociable,” virtually “happy gathering and marriages.” They were joyfully married to the northern barbarian tribes in ancient China. But, when we are reading these ordinary sentences in shi pin诗品, we don’t need those deep insights, just like in ordinary social life we don’t need fluoroscopic perspective of people and objects. In the end of the “Preface”, the author listed a series of examples, over half of which were poems about “resentment” in addition to lost chapters and general materials. Its comment on Li Ling in shang pin 上品” (the High Judgment): “with a rough life, notorious fame and being captured, if Li Ling hadn’t suffered so much, how could his literary achievement be so high!” This pointed out more clearly what Liu Xie called “ill clams’ pearls” i.e. later statements that “poets wrote poems finely only in adversity.”5 Another point should not be neglected. The same thing was regarded as antiseptic for the dead by Sima Qian and as painkiller and tranquilizer for the living by Zhong Rong. In “Letter to Ren An,” Sima Qian only said he wrote to “express his anger” with an aim to avoid “the effacement of his family name” and that “literary grace can not be shown to later generations,” focusing on the function that it had to make him immortal after his death. When Zhong Rong said: “nothing better than poetry makes the poor and the humble easily satisfied, the reclusive life interesting,” he stressed the function of works when the authors are still alive. Poetry can make one reconcile with a hard and lonely life. In another word, one’s frustration and depression are released, comforted or compensated solely through the idea that “poetry can express resentment.” With the diversification of literary genres, this explanation of the motive and effect of creative writing expands from poetry to novel and drama. For example, Zhou Ji in “wu yue wang zai shi suo jiang shan” (吴越王再世索江山, King of Wu and Yue reclaim his kingdom) in vol. 1 of “xi hu e ji”(西湖二集, Two Collections of Westlake) mentioned Qu You’s writing “jian deng xin hua” (剪灯新话, New Words During Pruning the Wicks) and Xu Weils writing “si sheng yuan” (四声猿, Apes of Four Cryings), saying “I can’t cry, laugh, shout or jump. How pitiful I am! So I have to find amusement when the occasion arises, do something insignificant and write a novel to release the anger inside and completely express the wish to sing, cry, shout and jump. The discontentment in one’s mind and boredom find its way out.” Li Yu in “bin bai” (宾白), vol.2 of “li weng ou ji” (笠翁偶寄, Random Writing of an Old Man with Bamboo Hat), talked about his playwriting in a more thorough way: “I was born and brought up in different situations and has never felt relaxed and comfortable since childhood and adulthood to old age. Only when I was writing playwrights, I could not only ease my depression and unhappiness but also become the happiest person in the two worlds…Though without action in reality, I can freely enjoy the illusionary world. If I want to be an official, immediately I can become a rich and noble person…If I want to be a gifted man in the world, I can become the embodiments of Du Fu and Li Bai. If want to marry the beauties, I become the husband of Wang Qiang and Xi Shi.” As Chen Zilong held that among the 305 odes, “eulogies were admonishments in disguise,” Li Yu admitted that the happy “fairyland” in his playwrights was the reflection of the miserable “reality”—the contrary of life mirrored by the playwrights. Everyone is familiar with the famous theory of Freud: those whose wishes can’t be fulfilled in real life will make a concession to create literature and art as the substitute for their wishes, and enjoy the fantasies.6 It might not be far-fetched to say that Freud’s theory has already appeared in the three statements by Zhong Rong and more in two statements of Zhou Ji and Li Yu. Here I only want to call your attention to the similarities.

On a certain point, Zhong Rong and Freud can enter into a dialogue with one another while sometimes Han Yu and Sima Qian can’t agree with each other. “Song meng dong ye xu” (送孟东野序, Preface to See Meng Dongye Off) is an article collected in the anthologies of ancient Chinese literature that in the past school kids read by heart. In the very beginning Han Yu declared that “generally when there are disturbances in one’s mind, there will be some repining. The essence of human voice is language while literature is the essence of language.” He listed great writers like Zhuang Zhou, Qu Yuan, Sima Qian and Sima Xiangru, etc, as examples of “ being good at repining.” Then he ceremoniously presented the protagonist Meng Dongye “the first person complaining in the form of poetry.” Common people think “repining out of turbulent minds” and “writing out of indignation” have the same meaning. In fact, what Han Yu and Sima Qian said are different. The “indignation” of Sima Qian is “roughness” or commonly called “complaints.” The “turbulence of minds” of Han Yu is not identical with “complaints about inequality.” It not only refers to anger and melancholy but also includes happiness. Psychology since the pre-Qin period always holds that the original state of human “nature” is tranquility; “emotion” appears when tranquility is disturbed and human nature “can’t get its tranquility.” There are two sentences in yue ji 乐记 (Records of Music) that claim that “human being is born tranquil and moved by objects,” which is a typical attitude. Classics of Daoism and Buddhism compare this notion to the idea that water is blown by wind into waves.7 This metaphor was later borrowed by Confucianism, which made it into its own idea. Under the sentence “the fate given by the heaven is called nature” in “The Doctrine of the Mean” of li ji 礼记(Book of Rites), Kong Yinda said by quoting He Yang, an expert of the Five Confucius Classics in Liang Dynasty, “the relation of nature to emotion is like that of wave to water, when it is tranquil it is water, when it is moving, it is wave. When it is tranquil, it is nature, when it is moving, it is emotion.” The first chapter of Fu Xing Shu (复性书) of Li Ao, a disciple of Han Yu, said, “Emotion is the movement of nature. When water is confused by sands, it becomes opaque even when it is clean. When nature is moved by emotion, the kind becomes evil.” Even Chen Hao, a Confucian in Song Dynasty, who was afraid of being connected to Buddhism, didn’t avoid suspicion in “Yi Chuan Yu” (Vol.18, he nan e chen yi shu 河南二程遗书, Posthumous Books Left by Two Chens of Henan): “it is the nature of water to be clean and tranquil as a mirror. When it meets sands and stones or when the land is rough, there will be torrents and rapids. Or when there is wind blowing, it becomes turbulent waves and tides. Is this the nature of water?...However, if there is no water, how come the waves; if there is no nature, how comes the emotions?” The sentence “there comes a tide of mind” in popular fiction also shows the popularity of this metaphor. In chapter 34 of “feng shen bang” (封神榜, The Legend of Deification), it is written that the immortal Taiyi was sitting tranquilly, explaining that “dear readers, all the immortals forget forever worries, obsessions and love and have stony hearts which are never moved by anything. ‘A tide of mind’ is that the mind suddenly moves.”—“A tide” is equal to that “there are waves when water moves”. According to ancient psychology, wherever emotion is, “nature” temporarily loses its original tranquility. Not only are anger and depression seen as disturbances of “nature”, but happiness is seen as the same with “the billowy tides” and “approaching tides” of water. Perhaps only when we put Han Yu’s words in this “language world” can we understand its meaning. Another of his article “song gao xian shang ren xu”(送高闲上人序, Preface to Pay Farewell to Gaoxian the Respectable Monk ) says “happiness, anger, poverty, worry, sadness, happiness, resentment, admiration, drunkenness, boredom and any disturbances which moved his (Zhang Xu’s) heart must find expression through his cao shu” (in Chinese calligraphy, characters executed swiftly and with strokes flowing together). “Being moved” and “disturbance” are viewed as positive and negative statements of the same state, restating the same meaning and summarizing emotions like “happiness and anger,” “sadness and pleasure”, etc. Only when we look at the ending of Preface to Pay Farewell to Meng Dongye do wee see that, “we don’t know whether the heaven will harmonize their sounds and make them sing for the prosperity of the country or impoverish them and torture them with worries and concerns and make them cry for their own misfortune?” It is clear to “sing for the prosperity of the country” in good luck and “cry for the misfortune” in bad luck are both “sounding without peaceful mind.” Han Yu here took both aspects into consideration just as Han Shu Yi Wen Zhi (汉书·艺文志,Record of Art and Literature, Book of Han Dynasty) mentioned both “sadness” and “happiness” when talking about “songs,” not like Sima Qian’s partial emphasis on “indignation”. Some critics made some negative criticisms on Han Yu’s words.8 It seems that their understanding of “without the peace of minds” is so narrow that they confused it with “indignation.” Huang Tingjian wrote a couplet “go up and down in the world with only wine to drink, follow happiness and sadness with poetry to sing” (vol. 13, shang wu nei ji (山谷内集), vol. 2, zai zi yun jian jian li zhong nan yu (再次韵兼简履中南玉). The latter sentence originates from “Preface to Pay Farewell to Meng Dongye.” He could as well write “lose luck and become poor and hungry with poetry to release” or “be against luck and become impoverished with poetry to complain. But he used “happiness and sadness” to replace “without peace of mind.” He was really a sensible wise reader.

Han Yu did clearly define the notion that “poetry can admonish.” That’s in his “jin tan chang he shi xu”(荆谭唱和诗序, Preface to Poems According to Jintan), which was written to compliment two high rank bureaucrats who could write poems, complimenting that their poems even matched those by impoverished scholars, saying “the royal members and the nobility” can “compare their works with those of the humble and distressed.” That means that to regard the poems of “the distressed” as the standard of test, with a big premise “sound of peace is plain while that of worries should be light. Diction of happiness is hard to be superb while words of poverty and misery are easily perfect.” As early as Six Dynasties, there was somebody “expressed the feeling that “the sound of peace is light.” Wang Wei’s “yu cong di seng zhuo”(Letter to brother Cong Sengzhuo) in vol. 19 of “quan song wen” (Complete Collection of Essays in Song Dynasties) said “if there is no plaintiveness in diction, then the essay reads plain and tasteless.” Later, someone summarized it into seven Chinese-character pithy formula “there is no much secret in pithy formulas, only with being overwhelmed with sorrow and broken heart.” (meng yu shi yu shan lun shi xing er you zuo, 梦与施愚山论诗醒而有作 (Written at the wakening after dreaming of discussing poetry with Shi Yushan), vol. 5 of Fang Wen’s “tu shan xu ji” (Continued Collections of Tu Shan). Why are there differences between “being hard to be superb” and “being easily perfect”? A last surviving loyal minister in late Ming Dynasty and a literary retinue in the early Qing Dynasty tried to make the same psychological answer. Zhang Huangyan said: “it’s true that “diction of pleasure can hardly be superb while the sound of distress can easily be perfect!” Poetry expresses the will of poets. In happiness, if poets’ emotions are dispersed, then their thinking can’t be profound. In distress,  iftheir emotion is calm, then they can express themselves in a smooth way in harmony with the heaven. Therefore, “only under the poor situation can poets write the delicate and marvelous poems.” Loss of luck is also a state. (“cao yun lin shi xu” (Preface to Cao Yunlin’s Poems), vol. 1 of Zhang Cangshui Ji(Collected Poems of Zhang Cangshui), guo cui cong shu (Series of Books of the Quintessence of Chinese Culture). Chen Zhaolun said more briefly: “words of pleasure are hard to be well-chosen while those of distress are easy to be superb.” These words are familiar to us but we don’t know the reason. Perhaps happiness is divergent and nothing stays once released while worries tend to stay and do not vanish after turning and turning. So there is difference of shallowness and profundity in meaning (xiao han ba yong xu, 消寒八咏序 (8 Chanting of Coldness Dispelling), vol. 4, zi zhu shan fang ji (紫竹山房集). Although this explanation of the notion of “being hard to be superb” and “being easy to be superb” is not thorough and complete, the feeling of happiness and sorrow is from the heart. Chen Jiru once distinguished Qu Yuan and Zhang Zhou this way: “sorrow is close to Yin, so Li Sao is solitary and profound. Pleasure is close to Yang, so Nan Hua is free and elegant” (guo, zhuang zi xu(郭·庄子叙), vol. 9 of  “wan xiang tang xiao pin”(晚香堂小品). An Italian poet recorded similar experience: happiness tends to expand, while worries tend to tighten up.9 We often say “the flower of heart blossoms,” “heart’s open,” “so happy that bones become light,” “there’s a knot in heart,” “there’s a stone in heart,” and “a puff of breath is suppressed in stomach.” These expressions show the happiness is emanative and light while worries are condensation and heavy.10 Happiness diverges with nothing left and is hard to keep while sadness turns without leaving and is hard to eliminate. In terms of Goethe’s metaphors, happiness is a ball (die Kugel) while sadness is polygonal (das Vieleck).11 The ball rolls and is gone while polynedron stops on every turn. Zhang Huangyan and Chen Zhaolun pointed out this difference.

Han Yu put the poems of poor scholars as models. His praising of “royal ministers and the nobility” is also an elevation of “haggard scholars,” compliment but not flattery, worldly but not purely snobbish. It’s hard to have such sense of propriety in articles written for big bureaucrats. Sima Qian and Zhong Rong said that only distress and poverty made one write excellent poems. Wang Wei only said diction would not be fine without plaintiveness. Han Yu added the opposite side to this idea, saying that happiness also can make one write poems, but the poems are not fine or the best. With this addition, the discussion is complete. The big premise of Han Yu has some factual basis. We might say, though poetry with “words of poverty” is not necessarily better than poetry with “words of happiness” in quality, fine poems with “words of poverty” are really more than fine poems with “words of happiness.” The reasoning is problematic to assert that only “words of poverty” can make fine poems on the basis that there are more fine poems with “words of poverty.” Han Yu made a small logical mistake. But his mistake is not serious and he can find some famous people who made the same mistake, for example, several western romantic poets in 19th century. In the anthologies we read at school, I once read these well-known sentences: “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts”; “genuine poetry comes only from heart inflamed by profound sorrows”; “the most beautiful poems are the most desperate. Some immortal essays are pure tears.”12 A poet wrote an essay on poetry, elaborating on the idea that all “true beauties” must necessarily involve “this certain taint of sadness.” “Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones”.13 A modern poet thought that grievances are proper to essays while grieves are proper to poetry, “poetry is an extravagance about grief.”14 Nietzsche and Freud are mentioned above. Croce, who praised Nietzsche and disapproved of Freud, also acknowledged that poetry is the product of something unsatisfactory.15 The Swiss erudite Walter Muschg who admired Freud’s style once wrote a thick book “Literary History of Tragic Vision,” which proved that poetry is often hidden with sorrows.16 Pitifully he didn’t know the discussions of critics in ancient China.

Nobody’s willing to taste sorrow and bitterness if he can avoid it. Nobody’s willing to make fine poetry even if he lacks talents. Nobody’s unwilling to take the shortcut and furthermore he doesn’t do harm to others. Unluckily, only “haggard scholars” can utter the “words of the poor.” Though “the pithy formula” is easily gained, the taste of “being overwhelmed with sorrow or joy and heartbroken” is not enjoyable and the chances of getting it are few. When Feng Shu “once read Meng Haorang’s poem”: “without talents, one is abandoned by wise masters; with many sicknesses, one is estranged by old friends,” he said this is “a poem written when the poet is in bad luck but well-written in history.” (Gu Cili’s “han ting shi hua”(寒厅诗话) Talks on Poetry by Han Ting) Bai Juyi said in “du li du shi ji yin ti juan hou” (读李、杜诗集因题卷后). Inscribed after Reading Li Bai, Du Fu’s Collected Poems, “they failed to get high ranks and lived in bitterness, isolation and troubled times. When Du Fu was old, he roved everywhere while Li Bai was sad in life…You should understand the heavenly law that human world needs fine poems which come from adversities.” In order to make marvelous poems, one must experience misfortunes like humiliation, exile from home and turbulences, etc. “Being unlucky” in the whole life to replace one “well-written” poem. This cost isn’t low and not what every poem-maker is willing to pay.17 Therefore there exists a situation for a long time: poets hope to write good poems without any cost or in lower cost. Young lads make poems to “sigh for old age.” Rich men make poems to “lament for poverty.” People who comfortably live in leisure make poems to “sentimentalize the spring” and “grieve at the autumn.” For example, Shi Wenying made a comment on Kou Zhun’s poems in vol. 1 of “xiang shan ye lu”(湘山野录, Wild Records of Mountain Xiang), though in richness and nobility, his poems are still chilly and sorrowful…I think those who have profound talent in poetry all admire poets’ loneliness, sorrow, plaintiveness and sentimentality and put them as the main style.” This is nothing unusual since language has this social function and we often use utterances to replace action, fictionalize facts and disguise our thoughts and emotions. But what’s our attention is in poetry and Ci the function of this fabulation tends to favor one aspect. It often expresses sorrows rather than happiness, mainly reflected as “the voice of sorrowful thinking” but not “the voice of peace”, like crocodile’s tears but not “the gently smiling jaws” of the crocodile in Alice in Wonderland. I recall the sentences describing beauties in san ge ci (三阁词) by Liu Yuxi “they should not have miseries, but their squeamishness becomes sorrows.” Traditional poets become “sorrowful” though without “misfortunes.” This reflects that they have high talents just like traditional beauties become sorrowful without “misfortunes” to reflect their “too much squeamishness.”18 Li Zhi read Sima Qian’s statement of “writing out of indignation” and said thoughtfully that “from this we can see the saints in ancient times never write without indignation. Writing without indignation is like trembling without coldness and sighing without illness. How can we look at this?” (Vol. 3, feng shu 焚书 Burning Books, zhongyi shui hu zhuan xu 忠义水浒传序 Preface to Legends of Loyal and Brotherly Waterside Heroes). It’s impossible to recall “ancient times.” To become saints is not what common poets can nor are they willing to realize. But “sighing without illness” has become a fact that can’t be neglected in literary life. As Liu Xie pointed out, “the heart is not melancholy, which is created to write.” (Qing cai 情采, Literary Minds and the Carving of Dragons) Or as Fan Chengda ridiculed, “poets create sentiments out of extra concerns and make sorrows in isolation” (“Written to negate the sadness of ‘Spring Sentimental Songs”, vol. 17, shih u shi ji 石湖诗集 Collected Poems of Stone Lake).19 Just as French Classical masters described some elegy writers as pretentious and causing them heartbroken (qui s’affligent par art).20 Didn’t the tow Lius (Liu Xie and Liu Yuxi) in South and North Dynasties say “ill clams create pearls” or “clams and mussels hold pearls in their mouth after they get ill”? Poets’ “sighing without illness” and children’s “illness to escape school” are people’s “political illness” to pretend to be ill and are false illnesses. There is hidden a hope in sighing without illness: there is cheap or lucky thing that false illness may also produce genuine pearls. Whether false illness can look like a true one, whether false pearls can be made close to the true ones depend on their talents or not. Poetry together with metaphysics and politics were once listed as “the three fooling tools,” which is not completely groundless. Of course, poem makers are also fooling themselves.

I only want to list 3 examples. The first example is a criticism made by one famous poet to another. Zhang Lei ridiculed Qin Guan by saying: “the articles in the world are mostly written by the poor. So later, those who wrote literary works were fond of writing in the way the poor wrote. Perhaps this is why Qin Zhi wrote in sorrowful diction though he lived without sorrow? (song Qin Guan cong su hang zhou wei xue xu送秦观从苏杭州为学序 (Preface to See Qin Guan off to Suzhou and Hangzhou to Learn), vol. 51, Zhang Youshi wen ji 张右史文集(Collected Works of Zhang Lei). The second example is a monologue of a famous poet. Xin Yiqi admitted in chou nu er丑奴儿 (Song of Ugly Slave):

While young, I knew no grief I could not bear;

I’d like to go upstairs.

I’d like to go upstairs

To write new verses with a false despair.

I know what grief is now that I am old;

I would not have it told.

I would not have it told,                                                                                            

But only say I’m glad that autumn’s cold.

The former half said “sighing without illness,” “writing without indignation.” The latter half said another fact in life and writing that silence tended to mean and suggest extreme serious “illness”, pain and extremely profound “indignation” no matter expressed or not. The third example is a story of an anonymous writer. There was a Li Tingyan who wrote a hundred rhymed couplet to present to his superior. His superior was very moved when he read “my younger brother died in south China, may elder brother died in north border.” He showed his deep sympathy to Li and said “ I haven’t known your family had suffered such miserable misfortunes.” Li Tingyan answered respectfully “actually they’re fictional and created only for the sake of matching.” This story was expanded and became a laughing stock. Somebody added two more sentences “only for perfect match in poetry, not afraid of deaths of two brothers.” (Fan Zhengmin, dun zhai xian lan遁斋闲览 (Leisurely Reading at a Hermit’s Hut), vol. 32, Tao Zongyi’s “shuo fu”; vol.4, Kong Qi’s zhi zheng zhi ji至正直记(Records to the Upright)). Obviously, Li wrote according to the principle of “words of poverty being easy to be superb” and understood very well that emotions should find objective correlative to write poems with concrete images. If the superior didn’t show his care of his subordinate and asked about the truth, later researchers like us who are influenced by positivism didn’t necessarily know Li was “writing sorrowfully without sorrows.” Interestingly, some common people were fed up with and saw through works in this style. There was a “prostitute from Si Chuan” wrote a Ci entitled “Que Qiao Xian”: “Once the promises of love were made or the emotion was expressed, the articles are filled with spring sorrows. Most writers must have read “tuo kong jing 脱空经” (Scripture of Empty Talk and Lying). Did they learn it from the master? (vol. 11, Zhou Mi’s qi dong ye yu齐东野语 (Wild Talks of Eastern Qi) “tuo kong” means empty talk and lying.21 One love poem of Heine for reference: “people in the world don’t believe in the flame of love and regard it as poetic diction.”22 “Spring sorrows,” “flame of love” are perhaps what “writers uttered carelessly. So readers tend to need “listen carelessly,” take them as true without reading “tuo kong jing.” Of course, “tuo kong jing” has various types. Not only many lyrics, but also some confessions, memories, travelogues and even histories can be put into this category.

At the beginning of this essay, I said that the idea that “poetry can express plaintiveness” is a literary doctrine in ancient China. In the process of free talk, I connect this idea with modern west. Naturally we will unconsciously reach China and its past when we talk about modern west. The objects of humanities studies are interconnected and mutually illuminating. They cross the borders of different countries, connect times and different disciplines. Due to the serious limit of human intelligence and life, for the sake of convenience, we have to narrow down the field of research and subdivide the specialties. Besides this, there is no other way. Therefore, to become an expert in one specialty is a pride subjectively but a choice one has to make objectively. The topic “poetry can express plaintiveness” also involves bigger issues. Ancient criticism on poetry emphasize “words of poverty” while ancient people also “put the sad as the most valuable” when they were appreciating music. Isn’t there any common psychological basis between the two similar traditions? Tragedy has been despised by modern “new critics” as worthless.23 But overwhelming theories in history held this type of dramas is greater than comedy.24 Is there a common psychological basis between the traditional views and undervaluing “words of pleasure”? A strict and law-abiding literary researcher may neglect these questions but may as well realize their existence. Of course, denying that there is any question is nonetheless a joyful way to solve problems.


Works Cited


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Ed. Adrian Del Caro and Robert B. Pippin. Trans. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.


Hu Zeyuan (1977-), Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, is an associate professor at the College of Foreign Languages, Zhejiang Gongshang University, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. His publications on Comparative Literature include:

  • The Elements of Chinese Culture in the Works of Yeats, Journal of Hangzhou Dianzi University, 2013.
  • Retrospect and Prospect: 100 years of Yeats studies in China, Sino-Ireland Relations: Cross-cultural Perspective, World Knowledge Press, 2012.
  • The Translation and Reception of Yeats in China, Academic Frontiers, Zhejiang University Press, 2011.
  • Mu Dan’s Borrowing and Creation out of Yeats, World Literature Review, 2007.
  • The Reincarnation Theme in the Poems of Yeats and its Influence on Mu Dan, North Forum, 2003.
  • A Comparative Studies of Yeats’s Occultism and the Yin and Yang Doctrine of China, Journal of Central South University, 2002.



[1] See, “wen xin yu jing di bing feng que ji” (闻心余京邸病风却寄), Zhao Ji’s “ou bei shi chao”(赵冀,瓯北诗抄).

[2] See, Muschg, Walter. Tragische Literarutergeschichte. Zurich: Diogenes, 2006.

[3] See, Heine, Heinrich. “Die Romantishe Schule.” Collected Poems and Letters of Heine, East Berlin, 1961, vol. 5, p 98.

[4] “The Name and Nature of Poetry”, J. Carter ed. Collected Essays of Housman, 1961, p 194.

[5] guan zhui pian 管锥篇, pp935-7.

[6] Complete Works of Freud, London, 1950, vol.14, p355, p433.

[7] See pp 1211-2, Guan Jun Bian

[8] Refer to Shen Zuozhe’s vol. 4, Yu Jian (寓简), Hong Mai’s vol.4, rong zhai sui bi (容斋随笔), Qian Daxin’s Li Nan Jian Shi Xu (李南涧诗序), vol.26,  Qian Yan Tang Wen Ji (潜研堂文集), Xie Zhangting’s Teng Yin Ke Zhui (藤阴客赘).

[9] Leopardi, Zibaldone di Pensieri, edited and annotated by F. Flora, the fifth edition, 1957, vol. 1, p100.

[10] G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980, p15: Happy is up ; sad is down; p18, Happy is wide; sad is narrow.

[11] See Goethe’s preface to the autobiography of J. Ch. Mampel, Goethe the Critic co-edited by G.F. Senior and C.V. Bock, 1960, p60. See the first poem “Das Gluck ist eine leichte Dirne”, vol. 2, Romancero by Heine. Vol.2, Collected Poems and Letters, p79.

[12] Shelley, To a Skylark, Justinus Kerner, Poesie; Musset, La Nuit de Mai.

[13] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition”, Collected Poems and Essays, Oxford, 1945, p177, p195.

[14] Robert Frost, “Preface to Collected Poems of E.A.Robinson”, and “On Extravagance”, Lives of the Modern Poets by William H. Pritchard, 1980, p129, p137.

[15] La Poesia, the fifth version, 1953, p158.

[16] Literary History of Tragic Vision, p16.

[17] Keats’s letter to Sarah Jeffrey, “the English have produced the finest writer in the world”, one of the main reasons is that “the English world has ill-treated them during their lives”. See Keats, Letters, edited and annotated by H.E. Rollins, 1958, vol. 2. p115.

[18] Huan Xi Sha(浣溪沙, Silk Washing Stream) by Wang Fudao, vol. 16, “neng gai zhai man lu”(能改斋漫录,Random Records of Being Revisable House)by Wu Zeng: 娇多无事做凄凉, too much squeamishness without miseries becomes desolation. This is what Liu Yuxi meant.

[19] Fan Chengda’s poems said “duo shi (多事, etra concerns)” while Wang Fudao’s Ci said “wu shi (无事, without anything). Both share the same meaning though contrary in diction. The meaning of a single character and a word constitutes that of the whole sentence and the whole passage and in return is governed by the latter. The relationship between parts and the whole is circular and dialectic. See Guan Zhui Pian, p169-172, L.Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History, D.Freeman ed. Linguistics and Literary Style, 1970, p36-8.

[20] Boileau, L’Art poetique, the second chapter, line 47.

[21] It means the same with “shao kong”(梢空). “jing”(Buddhist classics). When there is “classics”, there must be Buddha. In the first volume of “xuan he yi shi”(Anecdotes of Xuan He Rule in Song Dynasty), Song Huizong (Emperor Hui of Song Dynasty) said “ is there a Buddha of Void, heaven’s son of nonsense”  when he conferred Li Shishi, a gensha.

[22] Heine, Neue Gedichte, poem 35, Collected Poems and Letters, vol.1, p230.

[23] Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Pour un nouveau Roman (1963), p55, quotes the words of Rolan Barthes, p66-7.

[24] Hegel might be an important exception. He valued comedy higher than tragedy. See S.S. Prawer’s Karl Marx and World Literature (1976), p270, the two sections suggested in the author’s annotation no. 99.




Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at]

Join the Discussion