On Friday last, April 20, Chinese Language Day was observed by the United Nations, one of seven such annual observances. International Mother Language Day has been observed each year on February 21, since the year 2000; and there is a day for each of the six official working languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish. There is also an observance for International Translation Day.
The language days were established in 2010 ‘to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity’ as well as ‘to promote equal use of all six languages’ at the UN. All of the UN duty stations around the world celebrate these observances. April 20 falls during Guyu (translated to grain rain), a traditional Chinese solar term. It pays tribute to Cangjie, a very important figure in ancient China, who it is said, invented the Chinese characters used in the written language 5 centuries ago.
There is a myth that on the day he invented the characters all the deities cried, and the sky rained millet, a grain. The day was celebrated at the UN Headquarters in New York on Friday but preceded by a screening on Thursday evening of Masters in the Forbidden City, a film about Beijing’s largest ancient palace complex, home of emperors, 1420 – 1912. Events held on Friday were “Spirits Contained in the Chinese Poetries” a lecture by Li Bo; a panel discussion, “Education in China and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals”, and “Chinese Peking Opera”, a lecture by Li Mo.
Promoting multilingualism and multiculturalism, the presentations closely relate to the poetry, the mythology, the theatre and the politics of China, particularly ancient China. These are all interestingly linked, and this is fascinatingly evident in the poetry, especially the old classical poetry.
The observance of Chinese Language Day is of significance to us historically as well as in an immediate contemporary context. Guyana and the Caribbean have a history of the Chinese presence because of indentureship. There is an old Chinese community in the region, more marked in Suriname, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. The descendants of those immigrants have been part of the shaping of Caribbean society. But this has been intensified by not only the strengthening of diplomatic and political ties with the People’s Republic of China, but through a new wave of migration in contemporary times, creating a fast-growing community of new immigrants almost all of whom are engaged in business.
The Chinese presence now makes an impact in the Caribbean and in Latin America. There are Chinese communities all over the continent of South America. Added to this are the operations of various Chinese companies engaged in engineering, construction and other industries. These developing trends that are visible in Guyana are prominent in Brazil, in Suriname, Colombia, Trinidad and Chile. The Chinese language is now present and has added to multilingualism in these areas of the world.
One of the interesting things about the culture of ancient China is the close ties between poetry and politics. The best known classical poets were politicians or were deeply engaged in public life. They were government administrators, civil servants, governors or diplomats. A common pattern was a refusal to join corrupt practices or political immorality, which often brought them into conflict with emperors who employed them or with their fellow officials in government.
Li Shangyin (813 – 858), a famous classical poet of the Tang Dynasty (618 -907), was one of those. Cao Fang of the University of Guyana Confucius Institute describes him as “one of the ancient poets who was in the government but later saw through the corruption and impotency of the government and resolutely gave up his position and lived a secluded life. The images in his poems are incomparable. The choice of words is so telling that to some Chinese there is no match for him in the history in terms of images and wording. Many lines from his poems have been popular ever since and revered till today.”
To An Unnamed Lover
It’s difficult for us to meet and hard to part;
The east wind is too weak to revive flowers dead.
Spring silkworm till its death spins silk from lovesick
And candles but when burned up have no tears to shed.
At dawn I’m grieved to think your mirrored hair turned grey;
At night you would feel cold while I croon by moonlight.
To the three fairy mountains it’s not a long way,
Would the blue bird oft fly to see you on the height!
This English translation is by Xu Yuanchong, regarded as the foremost Chinese translators of poetry into English. Indeed, he identifies the poem as a good example of the way the poet works and the kind of writing that defines art, as opposed to science. Take the line “Spring silkworm till its death spins silk”: Xu explains “If he meant only the silkworm spins silk throughout its life, then he said what he meant, and it might be formulated 1 +1 = 2 (as is the case in science). But in reality, the poet meant he would be lovesick all his life long, so he said one thing and meant another, and he meant more than he said, so this may be formulated 1 + 1 = 3. What is more, the reader may take this verse to mean that everyone should devote his life to his cause just as the silkworm spins silk all its life. This means even more than what the poet means, so it may be formulated as 1 + 1 = 4.”
Su Shi (1037 – 1101) is a classical poet of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). One characteristic that the following poem demonstrates is the practice in Chinese verse in which every line of the poem is exactly the same length.
The Moon Festival
On the Mid-Autumn Festival of the year Bingchen, I drank happily to dawn and wrote this in my cups while thinking of Ziyou. (This was the setting when the poem was composed. Bingchen is one of the names used in the ancient Chinese chronological system; Ziyou is poet’s brother.)
BRIGHT moon, when was your birth?
Wine cup in hand, I ask the deep blue sky;
Not knowing what year it is tonight
In those celestial palaces on high.
I long to fly back on the wind,
Yet dread those crystal towers, those courts of jade,
Freezing to death among those icy heights!
Instead I rise to dance with my pale shadow;
Better off, after all, in the world of men.
Rounding the red pavilion,
Stooping to look through gauze windows,
She shines on the sleepless,
The moon should know no sadness;
Why, then, is she always full when dear ones are parted?
For men the grief of parting, joy of reunion,
Just as the moon wanes and waxes, is bright or dim;
Always some flaw – and so it has been since of old.
My one wish for you, then, is long life
And a share in this loveliness far, far away!
Cao’s analysis of the poem tells us: “This is a masterpiece of Su Shi. It begins with his admiration of the moon, and turns his thoughts to his brother, Su Zhe, who he had not seen for seven years. Seemingly the poet is imagining and contemplating on the mid-autumn full moon, but actually the poet artfully incorporates the grief of parting, joy of reunion for men into his philosophical probe into the great truth of the universe. The poem gives us a glimpse of both the poet’s inner struggle and his optimistic attitude at life. In the former stanza, the poet asking the deep blue sky indicates his resilience in the face of frustration in life. In the latter stanza, his asking the moon reveals his helplessness about sorrows in life and his good wishes for his family and friends.”
This last selection is not ancient classical verse – it is modern. Yet, like those old poets, this one was deeply involved in politics. In fact, he was the leader of the Chinese government and perhaps the most famous of Chinese politicians. He was known for his transformation of modern China, but it is not widely known that he was a poet. This poem is by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), 1893 – 1976, popularly called Chairman Mao, who overthrew Chiang Kai Shek to become President in 1949. He was the country’s leading Marxist and Chairman of the Communist Party.
See what the northern countries show
Hundreds of leagues ice-bound go
Thousands of leagues flies snow
Behold! Within and without the Great Wall
The boundless land is clad in white
And up and down the Yellow River, all
The endless waves are lost to sight
Mountains like silver serpents dancing
Highlands like waxy elephants advancing
All try to match the sky in height.
Wait till the day is fine
And see the fair bask in sparkling sunshine,
What an enchanting sight!
Our motherland so rich in beauty
Has made countless heroes vie to pay her their duty
But alas! Qin Huang and Han Wu in culture not well bred,
And Tang Zong and Song Zu in letters not wide read,
And Genghis Khan, proud son of heaven for a day
Knew only shooting eagles by bending his bows.
They have all passed away;
Brilliant heroes are those whom we will see today.
Although his landscape references are rather pastoral, the poem is of the heroic variety befitting a communist leader.
The Confucius Institute, University of Guyana
Cao Fang, Dalian University of Foreign Languages, China
Xu Yuanchong, Gems of Classical Chinese Poetry (Peking University Press, 2003.)