Ye Jiaying: What Matters in Selecting Poems
for Chinese Textbooks is not Quantity but Quality
This year, Ye Jiaying, master researcher of ancient classic Chinese poetry, celebrates her 90th birthday. On this occasion, Former Premier Wen Jiabao and Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper sent congratulatory messages to pay tribute to her contribution to promoting and teaching classic Chinese poetry. Over the years, Ye Jiaying has been totally devoted to teaching and promoting classic Chinese poetry. Her advocacy for recitation of classic Chinese poetry has attracted much attention and produced good results. There are three forms of recitation in the new era, i.e. traditional recitation, recitation in Putonghua and new recitation. Ye Jiaying is a representative of traditional recitation. Not long ago, she published her book “Nine Lectures on the Recitation of Classic Poetry”. The reporter interviewed her on the book and some issues with regard to the promotion of classic poetry.
Ye Jiaying: As a sentence in “Shangshu” or “Book of Documents” goes, “poetry is the expression of earnest thought”. “Maoshixu” also said something to the effect that poetry is the embodiment of thought. What is in heart is thought and what is in language is poetry. The character “zhi” in the traditional Chinese writing is structured in such a way that it has “yan” (meaning “say”) on its left, “zhi” (meaning where to go) at the top of the right side and “xin”(meaning “heart”) at the bottom of the right side. According to the understanding of ancient Chinese, poetry is the expression of where your thought goes, in other words, it reflects what is going on in your mind. When it is in your heart, it is thought, and when it is expressed, it is called poetry. That’s why Chinese poetry pays attention to what is happening in people’s heart. People shall have an interest in the universe, life and all things. Poetry learning is a way to foster such an interest and concern.
Ye Jiaying: In “Offices of Spring” (“Chunguan Zongbo” in Chinese) on education as well as social and religious institutions in the “Rites of Zhou”, one sentence talks about how to learn poetry. It includes “xing, dao, feng, song, yan and yu”. “xing” means being inspired and moved. “dao” means guidance, i.e. telling the children what is the inspiration of a poem. What is “feng”? The ancient interpretation is to read without opening the book, or learn by memory. What is “song”? Ancient Chinese interpretation is to have a rhythm and tone. What is “yan” and “yu”? To initiate a conversation is “yan”, in other words, you say a sentence and quote a line of poem. To respond is “yu”, in other words, I answer with a sentence and also quote a line of poem. “Zuo Zhuan” or “Commentary of Zuo” recorded a lot of such stories. Just imagine, poems are quoted for use in questions and answers on diplomatic occasions. Isn’t it a wonderful era!
I read from the newspaper that some advocate reading scriptures and making children learning classics by memory. But they do not teach the characters to them. How can that work?
Ye Jiaying: This can be flexible. Generally, when reading poems, we need to correctly follow the tonal patterns in classical Chinese poetry. In Putonghua, a lot of the entering tones are mispronounced as level tones, which goes against the tonal pattern. We should try our best to read the tonal pattern and rhyme schemes rightly. As for ancient pronunciation, like “Shijing” and “Lisao”, there have been some books like “Mao Shi Gu Yin Kao” and “Qu Song Gu Yin Yi”. Actually, we don’t need to do such work now, because if we totally follow the ancient pronunciations, we cannot carry on reading at all. When I was at the UBC of Canada, Edwin George Pulleyblank, Dean of our Department specialized in research of ancient Chinese phonology. He taught the students how to read “Guan Ju” of “Shijing”: “Guan Guan Ju Jiu, Zai He Zhi Zhou”, or “Guan-guan go the ospreys, On the islet in the river” in English. He strictly followed ancient pronunciation and nobody understood. I think we should distinct from level and oblique tones. Take “Welcome Rain on a Spring Night” by Du Fu for example. As the poem goes, “Hao Yu Zhi Shi Jie, Dang Chun Nai Fa Sheng” or in English “The good rain knows its season, When spring arrives, it brings life.” “Jie” and “Fa” both should be in entering tones, which should not be mispronounced.
Ye Jiaying: I don’t know exactly what has really happened. I don’t know what poems have been selected to be put into the textbooks and what poems are deleted. So I am not in a position to make specific comments. I don’t think the focus should be on the number. What matters is the quality of selection. Have truly fine works been selected? If a lot of poems are put into the textbooks but many of them are bad works, that is also meaningless. What also matters is how you teach. In addition, we should not underestimate the intelligence of the kids and just ask them to learn very easy poems. You may ask the kids to learn “Ode to the Goose” by Luo Binwang, who wrote the poem when he was just several years old. It cannot be called a wonderful poem. It’s better to teach the kids to read Du Fu’s “Autumn Meditations One”, “Yu Lu Diao Shang Feng Shu Lin” or in English “Jade dew withers and wounds the groves of maple trees”. As long as you explain it well, the kids will like it.
Ye Jiaying: I don’t know much about that. I know that some write very well but generally it is a mixed picture. The key to poem writing is whether you are a true poet or not and whether you have genuine inspiration and thought. Someone once approached me to show me his poems. He wrote diaries in the form of poems and he wrote one or two poems every day. I told him that you can write poems as diary, but that is not real poems. At universities of
Ye Jiaying: There are also remarkable sentences in modern poem. A good example is “One Generation” by Gu Cheng, which goes, “Dark eyes I got from the dark night But I use them to look for light”. There are many kinds of modern poems, from Hu Shizhi’s free verse written in the vernacular, to Guo Xiaochuan and He Jingzhi’s recitational poems and to Gu Cheng and Shu Ting’s misty poems. There are also poems from
The Chinese word “Shi Ge” is translated as “poetry” in English. In fact, poetry does not refer to our poems, rather it refers to ancient
Ye Jiaying: It is difficult to say. Different poets have different advantages. I teach Du Fu’s poetry for the longest period of time. But I like Tao Yuanming best. I also like Li Shangyin.
Ye Jiaying: I feel that there may be some benefits. Take me for example. I started with the “Analects”. Many of the sayings in it have benefited me for my whole life. For example, one should “require much from himself and little from others”. As a sentence in “Mengzi” goes, “When we do not, by what we do, realize what we desire, we must turn inwards, and examine ourselves in every point”. And also the Analects has it that “I daily examine myself on three points: whether, in transacting business for others, I may have been not faithful; whether, in intercourse with friends, I may have been not sincere; whether I may have not mastered and practiced the instructions of my teacher”. All those classic sayings highlight the importance of being strict with oneself. That is what I have learned since childhood. This is a kind of “weak virtue”. I value the beauty of “weak virtue”. But nowadays, many people may like “strong virtue”, which means that “I want be aggressive, I want to defeat others, and I want to get everything by whatever means”. That was not how we were educated when we were children. “Weak virtue” is a kind of virtue. It is not about being weak. Rather, it means that one needs to have moral fortitude, be strict with oneself instead of seeking anything from others and always try one’s best and honor one’s responsibility no matter how many difficulties and hardships there are. My life is not very smooth, but I work hard with moral fortitude and I am not weak.