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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciation: 2__詞》__Kong Shiu Loon (53)

(2) Melodic Lyrics and Poems

The Tang and Song (唐宋) dynasties were great moments for literature. The former was open, when China took in diverse foreign things in exchange of her own wisdom. The latter was under the attacks of powerful tribes from the north, when the Emperor immersed himself in esthetic creation. It was an epoch of consolidation and contradiction, a time of consistence and change. It was an age for songs and poems.

Melodic Lyrics (曲子詞) developed into Ci () , a form of poems which had its roots in ancient times. They were sung by people working in the fields and hills and rivers, happily expressing emotions of joy and sadness, love and longing, hope and disappointment.

By the end of Song, people believed there were thousands of Ci titles (詞牌), lyrics, rhymes and melodies. Unfortunately, much of these were lost in wars and migrations. Fortunately, what had remained is nevertheless formidable.

Both poem and Ci express deep human emotions. They are different only in forms and rules, as well as in content. Generally speaking, the latter is freer than the former in every respect.

Some people say “poems are dignified and Ci’s are flirting and initiative” (詩庄詞媚) to denote the difference between the two. Others stipulate the characteristics of Ci as “enchanting and inculcating” (要眇宜修), a qualifying phrase derived from the Father of Poems Chu Yuen (屈原), who said “美要眇兮宜修,沛吾乘兮桂丹”.   

In any case, singing with Ci was heard everywhere throughout the Song Dynasty; on flower boats in the Westlake, in taverns and narrow lanes, in closed bowers and grand halls, often performed by a sweet graceful young maiden plucking the Pi Pa, responding to the writings of famous poets with her own creation.

What are the rightful contents? In a word, a Ci is about life at ease, feeling free, and urged by a love of the use of words to merely express oneself. Surely, there were many Ci’s lamenting on a wide range of regrets and complaints, like unfulfilled wishes, or being demoted from a high office or exiled to a distant land. But, in the main, more of them are just for the joy of esthetic expression.

Let us now try to sing the Silky Sand Brook by Yan Shu晏殊and feel the beauty of the famous lines:

Helplessly I see flowers fade and fall

Happily these swallows I seem to know return to my wall

The poet spoke on the rhythmic change of Nature where flowers faded and gone, juxtaposed by the homecoming of birds. It was a balance of loss and gain, triggering feelings of sadness and joy. When you repeatedly sing the two lines, you

would feel that they are the main events, and you stand on the side. Such is the power of Nature over man who is subservient in the greatness of the universe.

Many a high school student can remember these two lines, because they are simple and beautiful. And the more you sing the lyrics, the deeper they sink down to become a part of your soul. But, simple as they are, Yan Shu had great difficulty in creating them. A story tells us that he was singing the first line (無可奈何花落去) as he paced around his courtyard one evening, trying to find a match for it. He could not, even after many rounds. He was discouraged and ready to give up when, in the dim environment, a ghostly figure walked approaching him and said four words: 似曾相識.Instantly, his mind felt a flashing light. He sang aloud: 燕歸來 to complete the line. He wanted to thank the stranger. But the latter was gone. The episode left Yan Shu with a mixture of lingering regret and joy. The two lines had given humanity an exquisite and immortal poem.

Let us now try to review a different experience. In my teen years, my friends and I loved Li Bai’s famous Let’s Drink for its grandiose picturing of Nature and the self-centered philosophy of life. It is a long Ci. We select to recite the lines that were most appealing to us ever forward looking teens.

We began with Nature’s grand actions that were fleeting away with no returns, like the first two lines:

Behold Yellow River waters originated high from the sky (黃河之水天上來)

Torrents rush to sea will never return low or high (奔流到海不復)

Then, there were the lines most dear to teenagers:

“Nature has endowed me with talents to usefully apply (天生我材必有用)

Gold spent in thousands will be regained out right (千金散盡還復來)”.

For those of us pressed to study for good marks and a scholarly career, as our parents expected, we really loved to recite the following lines loud and clear at home for everyone to hear:

Most scholars and saints are not recorded in historic books

Only wine lovers who share and cheer are remembered in documentary notes

Not all my friends could recite the whole Ci and remember it after the exams. But most of us could share, half a century later, the joys of our youth when we recited the above lines, whenever we got together to stealthily enjoy a beer.

To sum up this talk, we can easily see that classical poems are relevant to modern life. They transcend time and space and linguistic shifts to allow everybody to share the joys of the beautiful uttering of those great ancient poets.


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