For William Wordsworth, a leading English Romantic poet, poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility”.
But about 2,000 years before Wordsworth put pen to paper in the 1790s, a Han dynasty scholar took a different view. He wrote in the Great Preface to China’s earliest poetry collection, the Shi Jing (or Classic of Poetry), “Poetry is where intention goes. In the heart it is an intention; in words it is a poem.”
Rooted both in emotion and intention, great poetry is a vehicle for truth. And in China, with its rich poetic tradition, it is used daily to impart profound truths. Even by prime ministers.
Arriving in Thailand last week on a swansong visit, the outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, went straight to a meeting with overseas Chinese. After speaking about China’s current goal to become a “moderately prosperous society” and achieve higher incomes for all, Wen switched to poetry.
“In my heart I often think of two lines from Qu Yuan’s Li Sao, or Encountering Sorrow, a poem from the Warring States time of about 475 BC to 221 BC, when the country was unified by the Qin emperor,” Wen said.
According to the China News Service Premier Wen then quoted from that poem: “For the ideal that I hold dear to my heart, I’d not regret a thousand times to die.”
“For the pursuit of my innocence, I would die with honesty and integrity,” he added, paraphrasing the verse.
Wen, who will retire in March, has been the subject of recent allegations by the New York Times that his family have abused their position to garner extraordinary wealth – charges Wen has denied.
Given his recent troubles, his poetry selection is being widely read as a protestation of innocence, even if Wen has used similar lines before in public. Significantly, Encountering Sorrow tells the story of an honest official driven out of court by the plotting of his dishonest colleagues.
Qu Yuan is often called China’s “first identifiable poet” (the 300 poems of the Shi Jing, while far older, are anonymous).
Nevertheless Qu is a shadowy figure, born into a noble family in the state of Chu on the Yangtze River in Hubei province, in 339 BC. He became an official at the court of King Huai of Chu, a kinsman.
The poem in question is often read as a kind of political ode to a ruler. The work’s subject is disappointed in his master and wanders through distant places and heavens to rid himself of his melancholy.
In real life Qu Yuan also went into exile and eventually drowned himself in the Miluo River in 278 BC. The annual Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the act, with the races symbolising the wish to save an honest official.
It says much about the continuity of Chinese culture (and perhaps some of its problems) that Wen should use a poem written millennia ago to make a political statement today.
Indeed, China is one of few countries where such a feat is possible. The likelihood of Mario Monti quoting Ovid in Latin or Antonis Samaris citing Sophocles in ancient Greek seems much more remote…
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