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Friday, December 8, 2023

Belatedness with Chinese Characteristics


I recently came across this poem by the Ming poet Tang Yin (1470-1524) that was written in response to a well-known preface and poem written by the Tang poet Wang Bo (650-676).  Almost 1,000 years separate these two men and yet, as often seems to be the case with Chinese poetry, a remarkable sense of cultural continuity makes their dialog both possible and rewarding.


First, my translation of a few lines from Wang Bo’s preface, followed by Tang Yin’s response.


Wang Bo (an excerpt from Preface to Prince Teng’s Pavilion)


A lone bird flies towards the setting sun

Autumn water and broad sky merge as one

A fisherman’s song echoes dimly across the lake

Startled, a flock of geese break the stillness

With trembling calls as the cold draws near

Along the shoreline








Tang Yin

Untitled Poem


Expressing yourself

Something always

Remains concealed

Or omitted

A lone bird, the clouds at sunset

Autumn waters and broad sky

In this auspicious place

Mountains and lake

Without blemish


A thousand years

Pass by in an instant

Just ask the people on the water

How the Emperor’s pavilion

Looked back then












It may help your understanding of the interchange between these two poets if I share a bit of background.  Wang Bo was part of the first wave of great poets during the Tang Dynasty.  He was a child prodigy who started writing his own poems at the age of 6 but whose life was cut short when he drowned at sea at the age of 26.  Even so, he left a lasting mark on the history of Chinese poetry, not just for his body of work, consisting of 76 poems, but also for his contribution to poetic theory. Wang is generally credited as one of the first major proponents of the idea that a poem ought to directly reflect the poet’s own state of mind (言志). This was a novel idea at the time but soon became accepted as a fundamental part of the Tang esthetic, essential to the art the great Tang poets who followed in his wake, from Li Bai to DuFu to Wang Wei, all of whom adopted and adapted Wang Bo’s precept in their own way.  This view of poetry as a deeply personal mode of expression is what makes Tang poetry so accessible to us today.      


Wang Bo’s contribution to poetic theory is one of the keys, I think, to understanding the subtlety of Tang Yin’s response.  The first line of Tang Yin’s poem (兴发总关情) may be best understood as a gloss or further refinement on Wang Bo’s view of poetry as direct personal expression.  Whatever a poet reveals, something always remains concealed.


There’s alot going on here, including historical references,not all of which I fully understand.  Both poets stood in the same place, more or less, when they wrote their poems, on the shores of the Gan River, looking towards a monument known as Prince Teng’s Pavilion.  This is one of the most well-known structures in southern China, originally built in 653 by a younger brother of the Tang Emperor Taizong. But in the intervening years between Wang Bo’s poem and Tang Yin’s, the Pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt more than 25 times.  I think this is part of Tang Yin is thinking about in the second stanza of his poem – Prince Teng’s proud tower standing as a monument to cultural continuity, destruction and change.


What I find so compelling about Tang Yin’s poem is how it’s imbued with this strong sense of belatedness – a later day poet puzzling over his own place in a long-standing cultural tradition.  But this is belatedness with distinctly Chinese characteristics, as opposed the way Harold Bloom used the term.  Tang Yin as a later day poet is not so much struggling to make his own mark by overcoming his predecessor poet. The grand monuments in Chinese culture are always being built, destroyed and rebuilt, just as the grand poetic tradition is never complete (because no personal expression can ever be said to be complete) but remains ever evolving.  A sense of belatedness is no cause for struggle but rather stands as an invitation to participate in the long sweep of Chinese culture. 

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