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Ye Jiaying: What Matters in Selecting Poems
for Chinese Textbooks is not Quantity but Quality

Source: China Reading Weekly Date: 2015-01-13


      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.

China Reading Weekly: “Teaching through poetry” was very important in ancient China. What is your understanding of the Chinese tradition of “teaching through 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.

China Reading Weekly: For years, you have been advocating recitation of classic poems. What is recitation and how to do it?

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? Reading starts from knowing characters. And if you teach the kids to read poems, you must tell them what is the inspiration and thought of the poet. Take Du Fu’s “Autumn Meditations” for example. To teach these poems, you need to tell the kids what kind of person Du Fu is, what was the historical setting of Du Fu, how Du Fu came to Sichuan, Wuxia and Kuizhou, what ideal and ambition he had, how he was going to return to the north. He wrote the eight poems of “Autumn Meditations” when he was caught up in Kuizhou because of the disturbance on the way. Then you lead the kids to read the lines “Jade dew withers and wounds the groves of maple trees, On Wu mountain, in Wu gorge, the air is dull and drear”. In this way, they will have some understanding of the poem and will be moved. And recitation and chanting only come next. If recitation comes first and just recitation, they will only end up in getting a lot of wrongly written or mispronounced characters. Then what is the use of recitation?

China Reading Weekly: Ancient people had ancient pronunciation and tones. “Shijing” or “The Book of Songs” is an example. We may not know its original pronunciation and tones. Our reading of it doesn’t rhyme as our reading of Tang poems and Song verses. How to resolve this problem? Is it that we must know the original pronunciation and tones or can there be some compromise? 

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.

China Reading Weekly: In recent years, the number of classic poems has been cut from some of the local Chinese textbooks, which has been come under criticism. How do you see that?

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.

China Reading Weekly: Now many people like to write old-style poems. The traditional poem writing competition organized by the China Book Company, for example, has attracted a lot of participants. Zhou Xiaotian won the Lu Xun Literature Prize for his traditional poetry creation, which aroused much controversy. What is your view on the current phenomenon of writing old-style poems?

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 Taiwan, there are courses of “Selection of Poems and Exercise” or “Selection of Verses and Exercise”. The students need to learn the tonal patterns of poems and they need to submit some homework. But those farfetched compositions for the sake of doing homework may not be good in quality.

China Reading Weekly: How do you see modern poetry and the western tradition of poetry?

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 Taiwan. We cannot make generalized conclusion. Modern poetry is mainly influenced by foreign traditions.

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 Greece epics and drama. The west is short of Chinese-style verses. Chinese poems can be translated but it is difficult to translate Chinese verses well. The early verses in China were all about the love between men and women. Wen Feiqing, Wei Zhuang, Feng Yansi and Li Houzhu all wrote about love. Foreigners can hardly tell the difference. In fact, the above four and Da Yan and Ouyang Xiu all had their personal unique styles. It is difficult for westerners to appreciate the difference. When the verses are translated into English, they all go something like “there is a beautiful lady and I love her very much”. But in fact, it is not that simple and there is much more to it.

China Reading Weekly: I guess many people have asked you this question: who is your favorite poet? Or which poet has the biggest influence on your life and thinking?

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.

China Reading Weekly: Just now you talked about reading scriptures. Now there are a lot of classes for reading classic scriptures, where the children are asked to recite the Analects of Confucius and others. What’s your view?

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.