Ethics and the Humanities - The Humanistic Spirit and Artistic Charm of Classical Chinese Literature.
Random photo: Impressions of China
China is rich in literary works which artistically depict the lives and feelings of their subjects and have become an important part of traditional Chinese culture.
The moral spirit and humanity of Chinese literary classics is a broad question which we will discuss only in terms of poetry and drama. Ancient Chinese poetry sought after the soul, the eyes, the emotions and the talents of a poem. These were a true reflection of the spirit of morality and humanism.
The soul of a poem. in contact with various natural and social phenomena, a poet has to be moved by something that stimulates him to take up his pen. Why is he so moved? His life experiences, learning and demeanor, and his mind and aspiration, or his entire soul and heart all contribute to the effect. For example, the Tang poet Li Shen (772-846) wrote a poem, the first three lines of which are:
Each seed that's sown in spring,
Will make autumn yields high.
What will fertile fields bring?
Up to here, he has only made a general description of a natural phenomenon, and its evolution and the true social conditions Watching the scene, some may praise the prosperous and peaceful times, others might eulogize the year's bumper harvest, but the poet concludes his verse like this:
Of hunger peasants die.
The final touch is to the depth of the soul of the poem. The poet has advanced a question for thought: Nature's gifts are abundant and the peasants have worked hard, then why is it that they "die of hunger"? The poet does not give a direct answer, but everyone knows that the killer is extortionate taxation and relentless exploitation.
Lu You, (1125-1210), a great poet of the Southern Song Dynasty, was born at a time when the Northern Song Dynasty was fast on its way to extinction. He was brought up in a family full of patriotic spirit. Politically, he was adamant for resistance against the Jin invaders, but he was continually suppressed by those who favored capitulation. In the last years of his life, he retired to his hometown, but he never gave up his faith in the recovery of the Central Plain of China. One of his poems depicts a scene which he saw one night as he walked along a riverbank: Peasants staying up all night watering their farmland and traders preparing for the early morning market. He was moved to sigh: "To earn a living, the people work so hard/I feel ashamed taking a state salary for doing nothing." At that time There was nothing that the poet could do for his country, and he was forced to retire to his hometown. There, he lived on a meager pension, and this small sum weighed on his con- science. The poem shows a poet's noble soul of attachment to others and restraint of his own interests.
The great Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770), in his verse entitled "My Cottage Unroofed by Autumn Gales," depicts his family's plight when his cottage's roof was destroyed in a storm. So far so good, if he had declared at the end of his poem "Could I get mansions covering a few miles/I'd house all my family members and make them beam with smiles." But he writes: "Could I get mansions covering ten thousand miles/I'd house all scholars poor and make them beam with smiles." And he continues: "Frozen in my unroofed cot, content I'd die." This shows that the poet was selfless in his thoughts of others. The soul of a poem reflects the heart of a poet who loves the people, which is also the artistic expression.of Confucius' doctrine of "benevolence."
Du Fu loved other living things as well as the people. During the rebellion launched by An Lushan and Shi Siming in 755-763 during the Tang Dynasty, he suffered greatly in his roving life. His son died of hunger but he took compassion on a sick horse and even a dying tree in his poems. In his "A Bony Horse," he wishes he can help this horse that has been abandoned by troops, but he cannot, so he hopes that someone else will do so.
Not only benevolent to animals, he also laments the sight of a tree blown down in a gale outside the door of his house: "Like a tiger collapsed or a dragon smashed up down to bushes/On its bosom is stained blood and tears." He continues as if missing a lost bosom friend: "Now that I have no one to recite my new verses to/My straw cottage will become colorless from now on" Meng Haoran (689-740), another famous Tang poet, wrote a very popular poem:
This morn of spring in bed I'm lying,
Not to awake till birds are crying.
After one night of wind and showers,
How many are the fallen flowers!
The first three lines give a general description of the scenes and drowsiness in the spring days. The feelings for cherishing flowers of the writer did not gush out till the last line
As to cherishing flowers, we cannot but think of Lu You. He loved plum blossoms the best. He wrote many poems about plum flowers. One of them goes like this: "One or two flowers bring back a message of the coming spring/In the breezes more flowers on the southern and northern branches are day by day appearing/But seeing a full bloom I know they will sadly decline in no time/I would rather advise them not to bloom so quickly in the prime."
Generally speaking, flower admirers hope to See a full blooming as early as possible. But the poet thinks differently, wishing plum flowers not to bloom and wither away too quickly. This is intended not only for flowers, but also for the writer himself to have a longer period of time to stay with his fondling. He is sincere and selfless. He is also truly affectionate.
The soul of a poem reflects not only the heart of the poet that shares the joys and sorrows of the people and cherishes everything in nature and society, but also an ardent heart. When his warm and ardent patriotic feelings for his motherland turned to be a lamenting song, Lu You gushed out his feelings like a volcano which bursts into an eruption that shakes the earth. In his "Lamentation," he writes:
" ....Even if I am buried five meters deep underground/My bones may turn to dust but not my heart/Will not anybody wish to be the brightest star shining over the vast land?/Will not anybody wish to revenge the predecessors for feuds of past generations?"
Never misunderstand that he had intentions to brag of his heroic action. In his "Testament to My Son," which he wrote on his deathbed, he says, "When royal armies recover the Central Plain/Do not forget to tell your sire in sacred rite," wishing nothing at all for his own posthumous honors. His determination to recover his motherland did not end with his death. His determination would shine forever, inspiring posterity to carry out their duties for the nation. This is the artistic crystallization of the "noble spirit" of the Confucian doctrine.
Lu You was no less loyal to his beloved than to his country. He frequently indulged himself in the passionate memory of his late first wife, Tang Wan, who was compelled by his mother to divorce him and eventually sacrificed her life for him. In his eighties, conscious of his soon becoming a clod of clay beneath the hill, he still revisited the garden alone where they used to meet to find her traces and was beside himself with tears. His heart was not only warm and ardent like a fire but also unfailingly sincere.
The discerning eyes of a poet. A book is a medium of knowledge that a writer finds out from the internal links of things through logical thinking, Like a scholar or a scientist, a poet must also have a pair of sharp and discerning eyes that can See through the appearance to get at the essence of a matter. Besides, they should be able to perceive all the properties and details of the matter. A poet draws all that responds to his aesthetic ideal into his mind and modeled that to his images for his production. Therefore, a poem, whatever its content may be in the reasoning, descriptive, lyric and even argumentation styles, is quite different from any other works.
Zhong Rong (?-c. 518), a scholar and commentator of the Liang Dynasty (502-557) in classic poetry, had given some exemplified contents or themes for poem writing.
For instance, Qu Yuan, a great poet of the State of Chu during the Warring States Period, whose political viewpoints were not adopted by the ruler of his time, was deposed and exiled and finally drowned himself. And also Wang Zhaojun, a concubine of the Emperor Yuandi in the Western Han period, who volunteered to marry the ruler of the Huns, making a certain contribution to the establishment of friendly relations between the Han Dynasty and the Huns. Their suppressed grievance, indignation and passion had to be released by way of poems. That is to say, poetry is the best way to express one's own feelings.
Of course, poetry can also be used to reason, describe and even discuss something, only a bit different in form from scientific and literary works. Ye Xie (1627-1703), a scholar of poetry of the Qing Dynasty, said, "Is it necessary for a poet to give the reasons of anything that everybody can explain? Is it necessary for a poet to describe an event that everybody can describe?" Then, how can a poet reason out such things that ordinary people find hard to explain? In the following example, we quote Zhang Jie of the Tang Dynasty as saying in his verses entitled "The Pit Where Emperor Qin Burned the Classics":
Smoke of burnt classics gone up with the empire's fall,
Fortress and rivers could not guard the capital.
Before the pit turned cold, eastern rebellion spread;
The leaders of revolt were not scholars well read.
This poem is a satire on the burning of books and burying scholars alive by the First Emperor of Qin. The Emperor so detested those scholars for their criticism of his policies by quoting the teachings from ancient classics that he had all These books burnt and Confucian scholars buried alive, a step he believed to be the final and vital blow. But he had never expected that before the pit turned cold, so many people would stage revolts in the eastern area. Of all revolt leaders, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, both giving decisive and vital blows to the emperor, were not scholars them selves. The last two lines tell of a fact worthy of thought, that is, the short life of an imperial dynasty" had no connections with either any scholars or any books. Without the confidence of people in a ruler's policy, any maintenance of a lasting and peaceful regime is definitely impossible.
From These examples, we can See that the peculiarity of the materials of a poem lies not in the peculiarity of the theme. In an article, we could explain the reasons why the Emperor could not save his regime by burning books and burying scholars alive, couldn't we? Yes we could. Apart from tapping the useful content of materials, materials can simply be employed logically in a poem, even irrespective of such a common method as to deduce a conclusion from premises, by piecing out many terms of images, such as smoke of burnt books, fortress and rivers, ruined palaces, cold pit, revolts and the valiant rebellion leaders. And in a form of flashback, that is, the empire's fall, the poet drew a serious lesson from history. The poet had deep vision.
Materials of a story or for a descriptive theme can also be used for poem writing. But in narrative poems, the arrangement of events is dependent on the flow of feelings. "The Everlasting Regret" is one example, written in the Tang Dynasty by Bai Juyi (772-846). The process and details of the revolt of An Lushan, the Emperor Xuanzong(r. 712-756) of the Tang Dynasty fleeing the capital, and the muntiny at the Ma Wei Slope could take hours for a story-teller or ballad-singer to recount. But in this narrative poem, the poet condensed each of These events to one line: "but rebels beat their war drums, making the earth quake," to describe the rebel leader An Lushan's storming into the Tang capital Changan; "six armies would not march -- what could be done? -- with speed," to describe the royal soldiers' mutiny; and "until lady Yang was killed before the steed," to describe the death of the emperor's favorite concubine (Yang Yuhuan). The poet lavishes more detailed and passionate descriptions on the emperor's sorrows and grief after he had lost his beloved. "On western waters blue and western mountains green/The monarch's heart was daily gnawed by sorrow keen/The moon viewed from his tent shed a soul-searing light/The bells heard in night ram made a heart-rending sound." "Fireflies flitting the hall, mutely he pined away/The lonely lampwick burned out, still he could not sleep/Slowly beat drums and rang bells, night began to grow long/Bright shone the Milky Way, daybreak seemed to come late/The lovebird tiles grew chilly with hoar frost so strong/And his kingfisher quilt was cold, not shared by a mate/One long, long year the dead and the living were parted/Her soul came not in dreams to See the brokenhearted." In a word, this poem appears to tell the passions of the Emperor for his lost beloved rather than an account of the mutiny. Without passions, there will be no narratives. That is one of the features of the materials to make up a poem.
Poetic materials can also be applied to argument. For example, in his "Recalling the Past," Lu You writes: "Ministers are all thinking about the safety of themselves/Qin Kui is nor the only traitor to betray his country/It is hopeless to find an able and competent minister like Guan Zhong [a statesman in the Spring and Autumn Period]/There are also no patriots to lament over the loss of their motherland." The poet not only recalled the bad situation of the early days when the Song Dynasty court fled south, but also condemned those in power who sued for peace and their decadence.
From the above examples, we can See that whatever can be used by the poet to express his love, worry and hatred can become materials for writing poems. But it requires keener vision and observation of a poet.
Poetic emotions. A poet may be strongly moved by any object or event that can form a Poetic image in his mind. This image then is developed with the rhymes of his emotions into a poem that can inspire an emotional response in his readers. So a poet is to tally affected by his feelings during the whole process of his production.
Humans, without exception, are creatures with feelings. But what are the peculiar feelings of a poet? They may be summarized as ardor, sincerity, typicality and individualization.
First it is an ardent emotion.
Feelings are gradually deposited from one's experience, accomplishment and conviction, which usually remain in a static and potential state. As outside factor light up a resonance of feeling of a poet, his feeling may burst out in the presentation of joy, anger sadness, happiness, love, hatred or desire. V G Belinsky, a literary theorist of Russia in the 19 th century, said:” Feelings are one of the principal motive forces of the natural instinct of a poet. Without feeling, there will be no poet.
In the relationship between objective events and the feelings of a poet, on the one hand, events can stimulate and determine the feelings. On the other, a poet paints his works with a color of feelings. For example, in her "Slow, Slow Song," the Song Dynasty lyric poet Li Qingzhao (1084-c.1151) wrote: "The ground is covered with yellow flowers, faded and fallen in showers/Who will pick them up now?/Sitting alone at the window, how could I but quicken the pace of darkness that won't thicken?/On plane's broad leaves a free rain drizzles as twilight grizzles." Under such circum stances, one cannot but heave a sigh like the writer: "Oh, what can I do with a grief beyond belief!" In another example, Du Fu in his "Spring View" wrote These lines: "Grieved o'er the years, flowers are moved to tears/Seeing us part, birds cry with broken heart." The author expressed his sentiment over the turmoil of the time by means of flowers, the dews on which seemed to become his tears; and by means of birds, whose cry seemed to become the rattle of saber that made everyone frightened. Still another exemplary work of Lu You is "Song of Divination," an ode to the mume blossom, "Beside the broken bridge and outside the post hall/A flower is blooming forlorn/Saddened by her solitude at night fall/By wind and rain she's further torn/Let other flowers their envy pour/To spring she lays no claim/Fallen in mud and ground to dust, she seems no more/but her fragrance is still the same."
Even blooming at nightfall and in the wind and rain beside the broken bridge and outside the post hall, did plum flowers really have their own solitude and sadness? No. This was but the mood of the author himself, which was alien to plum flowers. As to the praise to the flower, it means the resolute vows of the author not to be conquered and squeezed by those ministers in power who sued for peace.
From the above examples, we can See that the force of a poet's feelings could change the quality and shapes of things. They could change beautiful flowers and charming bird's chirrups into tears and fears, or make anthropomorphize mume flowers to feel sad and have a noble quality.
The ardent passion of a poet can change both the quality and shape of things. There is a folk song, entitled "Parting," going like this:
" We'll never part unless heaven turned to earth! We'll never part unless east turned to west! We'll never part unless officials turned orderlies! Leaving me, you can't be separated from me! Leaving you, I can't be separated from you! Even if we both have to die, we'll never part as separated ghosts."
In this song, a fire of love is burning.
Of course, not all the poems are filled with the feelings of fury, indignation or sorrow. Some are sentimental and languishing. For instance, in his lyric to the tune of "Song of Picking Mulberries," the writer Xin Qiji (1140-1207) wrote: "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." We can also See the expression of sentiments in Li Qingzhao's lines when she missed her faraway husband: "I fear the parting grief would make me sadder look/I've much to say, yet pause as soon as I begin/Recently I've grown thin, not that I'm sick with wine/Nor that for autumn sad I pine." The passions are either profound or consistent. Frivolity and flightiness are not Poetic emotions.
Poetic emotions are typical. Such emotions, or feelings, are commonly shared by the broad mass of people while they are fresh and individualized with a certain characteristic. We have mentioned in the preceding section that the feelings of cherishing people and things, of hatred and worry about the times are all feelings of poetry. But sometimes, the feelings directly expressed in a poem are the feelings of some characters in the poem other than those of the author himself. The feelings of the author are indirectly reflected in his attitude toward the feelings of the characters. In a lyric written by 1,iu Yong (?-c.1053) of the Northern Song Dynasty, a lady in a city who was missing her far-off husband is described as the following:
" Not a word has been received since my indifferent love left home. if I had known this before, I would not have been regretful now for not locking up the horse. I would have kept him sitting before the window to read and write the whole day. And with my embroidering works, I would have accompanied him to spend the prime time of our lives."
At that time, literati and scholar-officials despised this lyric simply because a woman, according to the feudal tradition, should encourage her husband to seek after his career and ambition in society so as to bring home the glory and benefit for his wife and children. How could a woman have acted like this? In fact, this sort of writing imitating the voices of a resentful and desolate woman, or a husband drafted into the army, a music player, and a female professional singer should be taken as dramatic poems and the writer and narrator should not be confused. The detailed and lively description of the sorrows of an ordinary woman who was forced to confine herself in such an isolated family life and could not but long for a reunion with her husband showed that the poet had sympathy and understanding for the woman. This is truly what we mean by the feelings of a poem.
Typification requires that generality be conveyed through individuality. Hence the typical feelings of a poet should be fresh with a specific character. Generally speaking, for instance, people usually feel emotional when they part from their dear ones and friends, but Su Shi (1037-1101), a writer of the Song Dynasty, wrote of his separation from his younger brother: "Men have sorrow and joy, they part or meet again/The moon may be bright or dim, she may wax or wane/There has been nothing perfect since the olden days./So let us wish that man will live l(mg as he can/Though miles apart, we'll share the beauty she displays."
Meanwhile, Li Bai (701-762), a great poet of the Tang Dynasty, wrote a poem to his dear friend Wang ],un, who was as light-hearted as himself and had Seen Li off with a song, not tears. In the poem Li said, "When he is about to leave by boat/Suddenly Li Bai hears a song wafting from the riverbank/Though the water in the Peach Pool is one thousand chi deep/Its depth is far less than the feeling of Wang Lun who sees me off."
While men of letters felt sympathy for singsong girls or courtesans or female performing artists, they Generally sympathized with those pretty women for their suffering ill fates. Bai Juyi, a poet of the Tang Dynasty, when he first heard the performance of a female pipa (a four-stringed musical instrument) player, was deeply moved by her extraordinary skills and astonished to find that she was hardly known by the public and lacked a comfortable family life. He wrote: "Both of us in misfortune go from shore to shore/Meeting now, need we have known each other before?" So he thought he should put her on an equal footing, sharing her sorrows in her life. Only under such a particular situation, "the exiled blue-robed host" (author) was moved to tears. Such a feel hag is striking and full of personality.
The feelings of poetry are sincere.
"Sincere feelings can only be expressed with a sincere heart. And only with sincere feelings, can a true poem be produced” The appeal of Du Fu’s poems lies in his honesty. Once he talked about his ambitions in a poem, saying: "Though I was born not clever enough/I wish to become a man like Ji and Qi." Despite the fact that Du Fu had never been appointed to important positions all his life, as had Ji and Qi by the sage-king Shun, we can still assert that his feelings expressed in all his works, such as "Being worried about the broad masses of people in a disaster year/I can only give a deep sigh from the bottom of my warmest heart" were sincere. In Li Bai's verses, we also find that he was not aiming to show off his generosity, when he says in a poem: "The fur coat worth a thousand coins of gold/And flower-dappled horse/May both be sold to buy good wine that we may drown the woes age-old" Poetic talents. In the foregoing passages, we have discussed about the quality of a poet: having an ardent heart, a pair of keen eyes, and with honest and sincere feelings. However, this is not all that is needed to become a poet. A poet must have a talent for poetry. We have said that a poet should use his or her "faculty of imagination" as a furnace to melt what he or she perceives and feels into images with feelings as fuel. So, what we mean by talent for poetry is to denote first the great faculty of imagination.
When a poet starts to compose a poem, he or she has to trans form ideas into artistic images. Though some poems erupt with ardent feelings from a poet's mind like lava from a volcano, without using figurative words, like "Recalling the Past" by Lu You, quoted above, yet most poems were produced from images. The lyric poem "Green Jade Cup," written by He Zhu (1052-1125), a Song Dynasty lyric composer, provides an example:
If you ask me how deep and wide I'm lovesick,
Just See the misty stream where weed grows thick,
The town overflowing with willow down that wafts on breeze,
The drizzling rain that yellows all mume trees!
Here we can See that the author doesn't answer the question "how" with such conceptual words as numbers and quantitative adjectives, but conveys his idea with three images that not only imply meanings of immensity, but also of continuation and vast ness. What a wonderful imaginative power the poet had!
Apart from a great power of imagination, a poet must have a strong ability in the use of Poetic language.
Poetry is characterized by the most profound and complex emotions to be conveyed by the brevity of expression in words. To write or to read a poem equally requires creative imagination. A "single word" in a poem is intended to help the readers to activate their imagination to enjoy the Poetic aesthetics. Theorists of poetry summarized this way as "the key of allusion." For instance, in one of the poems entitled "A Maid of Honor" by Zhang Hu (c.785-852) of the Tang Dynasty, he writes: "The moon casts shadows of a tree on the palace gate/Her longing eyes but saw a heron nest and nothing more/Drawing her jade hairpin, near a candle she came/To save a moth brushing aside the red flame." At first sight, the actions of the maid are discontinuous and sporadic. Now she is outside staring at the nest, then inside brushing aside the flame to save the moth. One image jumps to another abruptly, leaving blanks between them. However, there is a subtle psychological process linking them, which requires the readers' imagination. One may imagine what she is thinking while loc king al the nest: in the warm nest a pair of herons are sleeping neck over neck. Waking from their sweet dreams early the next morning, they would fly out wing to wing, soaring high over the palace walls to the blue sky and white clouds. How people would envy such a scene! When she thinks of this, she cannot but be moved, her eyes looked languishing with a lover's desire. Then she finds herself alone in the moonlight, single and lonely, and unable to take a step out of the palace walls. She withdraws to her chamber gloomily. At that moment she finds a moth trapped and tortured by the lampoil. Like her, it is subjected to misfortune. A feeling of compassion is naturally aroused in her heart and she saves the moth.
The actions of the character in the poem are sporadic and discontinuous. But the subtle and delicate psychological movement of the character is like a subterranean river running silently underneath the lines. Classical theory calls this condensed conceivability.
In some works of great poets, allusions and implications are frequently used. This is called condensed rhetoric. In the poem ”On the River”, composed by Du Fu, there is the line:” To achieve my ambitions, I have to look into the mirror again and again."
What did he look at? Certainly he wanted to See how old he was, and whether he was still able to achieve his ambition. If he found he was still young and bright, then he could give himself an affirmative and encouraging answer, and wouldn't repeatedly look into the mirror. Unfortunately, in the mirror, he saw only a senile and decaying man. If he were resigned to reality, he would look into the mirror no longer. However, he was such a poet that he regarded himself as Ji and Qi (two famous and respected states men in history) and had a vehement desire to achieve his ambitions, so he did not give up hope, and looked into the mirror once more. With These few words, he revealed his psychology from his worries to disappointment, then his refusal to resign himself to failure, his sentiment, predicament and ambitions.
This example justifies the poet's succinct and proper wording. Poets not only elaborate on their verses, but also on their wording. Igor instance, in a line of a poem, Du Fu writes: "All mountains rise and fall till they reach Thatched (;ate." A single word "reach" suggests a full dynamic sense of These mountains. In his other verses, he writes: "The boundless plain is fringed with stars hanging low/The moon upsurges with the river on the flow," in which the characteristics of "upsurges" and "hanging" are beautifully and succinctly worded. As the night skies are clean and clear, people's eyesight can reach the horizon. So they can See the stars on the horizon, which seem to hang down from the sky vault over- head. Only by having Seen the moon reflected in the river water, heaving and rolling, could people be conscious of the long river that is running. "Upsurges" and "hanging" make the idea and image in the poem dynamic, suggesting a sense of vividness and brightness.
We have just discussed the humanistic spirit in classical poetry. Now let's turn to a brief discussion of traditional Chinese opera.
There are three kinds of ancient Opera cultures in the world. These are Greek tragedies and comedies, Indian Buddhist Opera and traditional Chinese opera. According to most specialists, traditional Chinese opera did not fully develop into a perfect form until the Southern Song during the early 13th century. It had taken a long time to develop in its gestation period.
There have been various forms of opera, prevailing and popular in different periods of time and places. Two examples are the northern Zaju of the Yuan Dynasty, and the southern Opera of the Ming Dynasty. From around the 1560s, a branch of southern Opera singing in Kunshan tune was adapted by folk artists to become the dominant Kunqu Opera for more than 200 years until the 1760s during the mid-stage of the Qing Dynasty. A great number of folk operas also appeared along with dominant forms of Opera during various periods of time. But, being local operas, each was limited to a certain area. From the early 18th century to the mid-19th century, these folk operas began to spread and develop. Many of them were even staged in Beijing. Beginning in 1790, four local Opera troupes of Anhui Province put their programs on the Beijing stage. In the next 10 or so years, in cooperation with the artists of Han Opera from Hubei Province, and absorbing the melodies and styles of performance from Kunqu Opera and Shaanxi Opera, as well as many other melodies of local folk operas, the four troupes evolved a complete artistic style and a performing system of their own to give shape to the famous Peking Opera, which has become the mainstream of Chinese opera.
Chinese Opera is characterized by its unique language. Generally speaking, operatic language requires a smack of Poetic flavor, but it does not necessarily need to be in the form of poetry. Operatic language includes tune and speech (dialogue and monologue). Though speech is mostly composed of prose, it requires that the tone must have rhyme. The tune should not only be poetic, but also rhythmic. The tunes or singing verses of operas is another form of poetry. But it differs from a poem in general, becoming a kind of poetry that can give an account of events, convey a feeling, and can be sung and accompany a dance performance. It is a kind of poetry to supplement the speech. Therefore, an Opera play-writer has to master the particular requirements of Opera language in addition to its general rule.
Theorists of ancient Chinese opera have summarized the three problems of Opera language from long practice of the art. They are the problems of true language, literary grace and necessities of stage performance. These problems may be understood today as the problems of realism, artistry and the suitable stage language.
True language means simple and plain language. This is intended for the needs of the audience.
Though a tune is written in the form of a poem, it is different in form from poems that are composed only for recitation. A poem must leave room for taste and imagination and implication is its soul. An Opera tune, however, is quite different, since the audience does not have time to ponder the meaning of a single line. The idea must be instilled into audience's mind immediately, and the language must be popular language. Language that is hard to understand will pose a barrier between the artists and audiences.
The required true and plain Opera language is like the plain language advocated by Lu Xun (1881-1936), requiring "a true feeling without whitewash, pretensions and artificiality." Xu Dachun (1693-1772), a Qing Dynasty physician who was also well versed in diction and rhyme scheme, pointed out in his The Conveyance of the Sound of Folk Songs and Ballads in Han Style. "Plain language must have a taste, its extension must be based on true events and its openness must have a profound implication." True and plain language means straightforward language and it must have a true feeling and taste.
Some people mistake the required literary grace of Opera language as loading the composition with fancy phrases. This is contrary to the requirements of a true and plain language. Wang Jide (?-c.1623), an Opera theorist of the Ming Dynasty, in his On Opera said "there are many taboos in Opera such as excessive literary, ambiguous language, a classic and pedantic language, or a language of the literati loaded with learning." Some people doubted that faced with so many prohibitions and requirements, a playwright could produce anything at all. Typical examples are eloquent. In The West Chamber, by Wang Shifu, a dramatist of the Yuan Dynasty, the writer's language is rich in literary grace, without any ambiguity and ornate traces. It depicts in detail his characters' personalities and actions with a unique genre and color:
Master Zhang, infatuated with Cui Yingying, follows Hong niang to the outside of the abbot's residence. He abruptly introduces himself to Hongniang, but Hongniang reproaches him.
Master Zhang sings:
"The courtyard of my inn is large, my pillow and nay mat are cold. A single lamp casts its flickering shadow upon my books and screen. Even if I should be rewarded in this life with the fulfillment of my longings, how can I endure this neverending night? I cannot sleep. I move about. Like a hand tossed from side to side, I groan and sigh ten thousand times. I pound and twist my pillow and my quilt five thousand times."
"She is delicate as she blushes. She is like a flower when she speaks. Her skin is smooth like perfumed jade. We met but for a moment. I cannot remember her charming face. I rest my chin upon my hand, lost in sweet thoughts."
Zhang receives a letter asking for another meeting, having been fooled once before. While he waits for her at the West Chamber, he sings:
"I stand in the doorway, my cheeks upon my hands. Time drags by, I cannot know whether she will come or not. It may not be easy for her to elude her watchful mother. I wear out my eyes looking forward to her arrival. My poor heart aches from waiting and I blame myself alone that I learned so quickly, all too quickly,to love and long for her!
"If she is really coming, she has left her room by now. And when she comes she will bring with her springtime to this cold cell. If she does not come it will be as though I had cast a stone in the depths of the great ocean to stir it up -- in vain. I count her foot steps as she approaches, and lean on my windowsill. I must speak again with you. Have you forgotten, my beloved, the words we had together, you and I?
"Although you have reprimanded me, I do not let your reproaches go to my head. I rejoice to See that you have changed again, and that your love for me has all returned. It seems a full half-year that I have waited for this night. And all this time my lot has been an irksome one to bear."
The wording is as plain as ordinary speech and accurately and clearly describes Master Zhang's failing in love at first sight with Cui Yingying, his missing her terribly and his impatience as he waits for her. We can also See a smack of good will smock at the infatuated and crazy bookworm by the writer. The language in this drama can be regarded as exemplar}, combining true and plain language with literary grace.
The necessities of stage performance means all the necessary and suitable stage language. Speeches that are not suitable for stage performance, including speeches without personality, a sense of movement., or a flavor of poetry are unnecessary. But here we will just talk about the special contradictions of Opera language, excluding the conventional requirements we have just mentioned above and those qualities of straightforwardness and flavor of life of the language. What then should be included in the necessities of stage performance? In short, it encompasses the requirements of melody and speech that are easily sung and understood with an aesthetic effect. For instance, the words which are sung must match the tune and be articulated clearly and accurately to their tones in a well-balanced rhythm. It can also be summarized as "pronouncing the words correctly and in a sweet, mellow voice."
To sum up, Chinese literature is a gem of traditional Chinese culture. A basic knowledge in this respect will bring us wisdom, taste and aesthetic enjoyment.
More about Chinese Culture
- Chinese Ancient Poems
The greatest Chinese poetry was created during the Tang Dynasty.
- Chinese Classic Drama
Chinese classic drama was popular in the 17th century.
- Chinese Classic Novels
Introduction to Classic Novels.
- Chinese Epics
The Life of King Gesar is the only living epic in the world today.
- Ethics and the Humanities
- The Humanistic Spirit and Artistic Charm of Classical Chinese Literature.