Water in Classical Chinese Literature

by on Thursday, 31 October 2013 Comments

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and one of the longest rivers in the world. The Yellow River is the second biggest river in Asia and the sixth biggest in the world. Both are the most important rivers in the history, culture and economy of China.

Ever since the early history of China, the water of the Yangzi was used for sanitation, irrigation and industry. The vastness of the river meant it was often used to mark borders and was an important consideration in war tactics.

The Yellow river is seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The most prosperous civilizations in the history of China were mostly situated along this river. Therefore, it is not surprising that images of water are apparent in ancient Chinese culture and particularly in Chinese poetry.

In a poem by Wang Zhi Huan of the Tang Dynasty, ‘Ascending the Stork Tower’, the sound of water in the Yellow River running towards the sea makes the poet eager to climb up one storey higher in order to be able to not only hear it, but also see it:

The sun sinks beside the mountain.

The Yellow River runs to the sea.

If you are eager to see the furthest view,

You need to climb one storey higher.


In this poem, the sound of the water is a metaphor for the power which makes humans eager to see further away, broaden their horizons, expand and progress.

A poem by the famous poet Li Bai, ‘Bring in the Wine’ is mostly a call for the reader to enjoy one of the greatest pleasures in life: drinking alcohol (and not water). However, the image of water is also important, forming the opening of the poem:


See how the Yellow River’s waters move out of heaven.

Entering the ocean, never to return.

 

The image of the water running in the Yellow river, in this case, is a metaphor for time. Just as water flows in a river, time runs forward, never to return. We should therefore enjoy our life while we still can.


Rivers were the common method of transportation in the civilizations along them. In literature, the bank of the river was often a place that symbolized the pain of separation or the longing for a loved one to return home. Here, another poem from Li Bai is dedicated to his good friend Meng Hao Ran. In this poem he describes the image of Meng’s boat floating on the river until it completely disappears in the horizon; a final goodbye to his good friend that sailed away:

 

Lonely sail, distant shadow,

Vanish in blue emptiness;

All I see is the great river

Flowing into the far horizon.


tr. Yang Xianyi

 

The woman in ‘Dreaming of the South Side of the River’ by Wen Ting Yun, of the late Tang Dynasty, is looking at the river. She is longing for her lover to return home. The endlessly flowing water seems sad. The personification of the water is meant to reflect the grief in the endless waiting in the woman’s heart:

 

After combing and washing,

she leans alone on the River Gazing Tower.

A thousand boats sail by, but none are his.

Slant sunlight like lingering passion on the unhurried water.

An islet of white duckweed. She’s broken inside.

 

In ‘Fairy of the Magpie Bridge’, Qin Guan of the Song Dynasty writes about two lovers standing on opposite banks of the river, waiting for the glorious day in which they could reunite. The river that is between them is a metaphor for their strong eternal love. The more tender it is, the stronger it becomes, just like water:

 

Among the beautiful clouds,

Over the heavenly river,

Crosses the weaving maiden.

A night of rendezvous,

Across the autumn sky.

Surpasses joy on earth.

Moments of tender love and dream,

So sad to leave the magpie bridge.

Eternal love between us two,

Shall withstand the time apart.

tr. Kylie Hsu

 

Indeed Laozi wrote about this unique quality of water. Although it is the softest thing in nature, its softness is what makes it the strongest. Water can change into any shape. However, at the same time it can also change the shape of surfaces and carve channels into solid rock. That is what makes it invincible.

 

daphnarticle1

The stone is soft like water (Bendu)

 

Water is indeed a remarkable feature of nature. It creates life, but can destroy it too. It can help us build civilizations, but can ruin them at the same time. As we have seen, in Chinese literature it can also affect our minds and hearts, reflect feelings and be a source of inspiration. No matter whether positive or negative, they are feelings central to human lives.

Unfortunately, water seems to have lost the glory of ancient days. We have exploited it for industry and polluted it. We have neglected it for the sake of roads, and airways. We have built bridges over rivers as if they were an obstacle to be ignored.

Taipei city was blessed with a few rivers, but most of its residents are cooped up in the city center, confined to the urban jungle, while in the margins of the city, and only a few minutes away, this remarkable element of nature is waiting for us to remember it still exists.

 

Daphna Salpeter

I have been living in Taiwan for about 7 years now. I graduated at NTNU in the Teaching Chinese as a Second Language department. I'm currently exploring Taiwanese Literature while completing my MA at the department for TW literature at NCCU.

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