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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciation:3_曹操_曹丕_曹植》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

(3) Poets of the same family

In the annals of Chinese poetry, there had been famous poets in the same families, like father and son, husband and wife, brothers and sisters. But, because of varying environments, the contents and moods of these blood-related poets, such as two brothers, may differ markedly.

We begin with Emperor Cao Cao 曹操(155-200). His much quoted poemTortoise Longevityshows unlimited optimism and courage in the lines:

   “An old horse takes its respite in its stall 老驥伏櫪

    Its determination remains to gallop speedily and tall 志在千

    A brave man knows his years in decline 烈士暮年

    His aspirations are still bold and high 壯心不

His two sons were also poets of distinction. They were, however of different characters. The older son Cao Pi 曹丕(186-226) was keen on amassing power. The younger Cao Zhi 曹植(192-232) was a prodigy, and contended to be a good poet.

Cao Pi succeeded his father and admired him very much. His poemA Short Song, On the Death of My Fatherlamented on how lonely and helpless he felt after his father had died. It is also a superb poem, with imaginative metaphors of animals and birds to show the love of parents and offspring. We can empathize with him as we read these lines:

    “All in a sudden his soul has flown 神靈倏

     I am fatherless all alone 棄我退

     Who shall I look up to lead me grow 靡瞻靡

     I weep my tears incessantly flow泣涕漣

     

     Loudly I wail and bleakly I sigh 長吟永

     To my father’s sudden death I inquire 懷我聖

     They say longevity favours those who are kind 曰仁者

     Why should my father die 胡不是

But, as a brother he was a cruel man, driven by envy. He felt inferior to his younger brother as a poet. He demanded the much acclaimed child poet to compose a poem in the brief time of pacing seven steps. If he failed to do it he would be executed in public.

Cao Zhi took the beastly demand affably. A perfect metaphor had flashed through his mind as he took the first step. He completed the poem after the fifth step, well ahead of the time given. It became an immortal poem, so simple and evocative

that it has been included in our elementary school textbook. EntitledWritten on Seven Paces by Demand, the poem reads:

     “Beans weep boiling in pot 煮豆燃豆

      Being cooked fired by its own stalk 豆在釜中

      Growing up we stemmed from the same root 本是同根

      Providence allows no haste we each other boot相煎何太

     

I had the experience teaching this poem to grade five pupils at the Aberdeen Elementary School in 1956. Although many of the words were quite difficult, with many strokes and describing things far removed from urban life, the 11-year-old pupils learned to recite the four lines easily. I got the cooperation of the school janitor, who lived at the school premises, to boil a pot of beans in his kitchen, and held my class there. The situation helped me to explain what was depicted in the poem, as well as the affinity of brothers in the family.

Thirty two years later, I surprisingly met one of those pupils at Montmartre in Paris. He called me and identified himself for a joyful reunion. He recalled how that class at the kitchen had imprinted on him the beauty and meaning of that poem. It also aroused in him a persisting love of poetry. He was then a successful architect working in Paris. He educated me on how broad minded Cao Zhi was by reciting to me his To My Brother:

     “A man’s vision extends to the four seas 丈夫志四

      Ten thousand miles from home is neighborly 萬里猶比

      When love is felt deep and brotherly 恩愛苟不

      However far the separation is like being together dearly. 在遠分日

A teacher has many rewards. The greatest is to be called unexpectedly by a student forgotten for decades, and be told that he remembers moments of learning and joy that had helped to affect his life. The student mentioned above is Ling Yi Fan whom I recalled as a shy little boy whose academic performance was average. In Paris years later he told me that he had admired Cao Zhi and that was enough to motivate him to become an architect and a lover of the arts throughout life.

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