Ask Mei

Which Chinese poems has Trump’s granddaughter been reciting?

Little ambassador

Which Chinese poems has Trump’s granddaughter been reciting?

Trump’s Tang Dynasty diplomat (centre)

Since Donald Trump’s surprise win in the US presidential election, China’s social media has been even busier discussing America’s leader-in-waiting.

The popular themes have included the vindication of those pro-Trump voters who settled there from China (see my article in WiC343), the pros and cons of his victory for China and the world, and even the news of a Beijing court ruling against him in a dispute with someone who has registered his Chinese name (see this issue).

But the most endearing topic is his adorable granddaughter, who has been learning Chinese since she was 18 months old and can already recite Chinese poetry.

A video posted by Ivanka Trump earlier this year went viral on Sina Weibo and WeChat after the election. In it, her then four year-old daughter Arabella, in a red Chinese dress and with Chinese holiday decorations in the background, recites two Tang Dynasty (618-907) poems that are well-known to almost all schoolchildren in China.

China’s traditional education relies heavily on memorising ancient classics, especially Tang and Song Dynasty poems, the crown jewels of Chinese literature and often represented as the peak of the country’s cultural development.

Compared with the more complicated Song poetry 宋词, the popular Tang poems 唐诗 typically consist of just four lines, each with only five or seven characters, and they rhyme in the A-A-B-A structure. That has made Tang verse easier to remember for generations of children and there is even a saying 熟读唐诗三百首,不会作诗也会吟, “as long as you are familiar with 300 Tang poems, even if you are not a poet you can compose poems easily”.

The two poems that Arabella recited are Ode to Geese by Luo Binwang 骆宾王 (638-684) and Pity the Farmers by Li Shen 李绅 (772-846).

As one of the ‘Four Paragons’ of the Early Tang, Luo was a brilliant poet, and is believed to have been only seven years of age when he composed the famous Ode to Geese. With a mere 18 characters, he paints a vivid and pleasant picture of a goose floating on the water:

Goose, goose, goose

Bend the neck towards the sky and sing

White feathers float on the emerald water

Red webs push the clear waves.

Composed by Li in his early years, Pity the Farmers eulogises the hardworking farmer in 20 characters:

Hoeing the crops under midday sun

Sweat falls to the soil under the crops

Who would know the food on the plates

Every grain contains hardship and toil.

Somewhat ironically Li became a senior court official in his later life and quickly forgot the virtues of frugality and hard work. One suspects that China’s current leader Xi Jinping would not condone Li’s change of lifestyle. Still, when Xi visits the White House next year for a state banquet, what better welcome could he receive than a few more Tang poem recitals from the Trump Dynasty’s literary prodigy Arabella…

Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]

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