The Difference between Chinese vs English Poetry

Su Kent says, “In my opinion, the essence of classical Chinese poetry is more difficult and allusive. Because of the nature of Chinese characters, each line can express utmost meanings in limited words. The beauty is condensed similar to energy ready to burst out.”

However, traditional Chinese Poetry is similar to Western poetry in other ways.  Lines in Chinese poetry may have a fixed number of syllables and rhyme was required, so ancient Chinese poetry resembles traditional English verse and is not at all like the free verse in today’s Western culture.

Modern Chinese poets have written in free verse, but many still write with a strict form.

In the end, the form is not as important as what the poem says. Western poetry often focuses on love while painting an image of the poet as a lover.

Influenced by Confucius and Taoism, the ancient Chinese poet shows he or she is a friend, not a lover and often paints a picture of a poet’s life as a life of leisure without ambitions beyond writing poetry and having a good time. Su Kent says, “Chinese poetry draws much of its richness from the depth of meaning which these individual ideographs can carry.  Structurally, a classical Chinese poem usually has five or seven hieroglyphs per line, with each line creating a self-contained thought or image.”


In Chinese poetry, the poet must balance one thing against another.

According to legend, Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet, killed himself to protest the corruption of the time, and it is said that the Dragon Boat Festival was named to honor his sacrifice.

Battle
By Qu Yuan (332-295 B.C.)

We grasp our battle-spears: we don our breastplates of hide.
The axles of our chariots touch: our short swords meet.
Standards obscure the sun: the foe roll up like clouds.
Arrows fall thick: the warriors press forward.
They menace our ranks: they break our line.
The left-hand trace-horse is dead: the one on the right
is smitten.
The fallen horses block our wheels: they impede the
yoke-horses?”

Translated by Arthur Waley 1919

Note: The translation process from Mandarin to English would insure that the fixed number of syllables and rhyme required of a traditional Chinese poem in its original language would not survive, but the contextual meaning should.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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