on inhabiting earth with inaccessibly beautiful things

I unfortunately know no Chinese. The sounds, resonances, allusions, and calligraphy of traditional Chinese poetry can reach me only through paraphrase or as abstract patterns, each character looking not much different from the next. However, Perry Link writes,

Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.

Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity—a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time—that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen.

I thought of this passage during a recent, brief visit to the Sackler Gallery in Washington, which is showing “Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty.” The highlights are vast, wall-sized hanging scrolls that display poems in the original authors’ calligraphy. The setting is abstract, modern, respectfully dark. In the background, a recording of a classical Chinese zither plays. The English translations by a Sackler curator, Stephen D. Allee, produce what I would call good poetry. The language is moving and sometimes surprising. For instance:

My friends are scattered few and far apart and the rain just drizzles on.
Fragrance fades from the incense burner and the teacups have toppled over;
I composed a poem on plum blossoms, but I’m sorry it is not well done.

I trust that these English lines convey the sense of the end of a poem by Wen Zhengming (composed ca. 1500), but they bear only a distant relationship to the scroll he painted and the sounds that his intended audience would hear as they read it. It’s strange to think that I will never be able to experience a deeply valuable art form–in Link’s estimation, the best tradition of poetry in the world–even though I can stand in the same room with it.

(See also: nostalgia for now and Ito Jakuchu at the National Gallery)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.