Back in China, we were told to memorise all the compulsory reads, especially with Chinese poems. This system has been widely debated in modern days as of being 死读书 sǐ dú shū, to read mechanically without processing the knowledge into your own learning. Despite of the common debate, I do find certain value in such system.
However, we will leave this for our next post.
Today, we will be talking about 李白 Lǐ Bái，the well-known poet from Tsang dynasty. The most distinct feature of Lǐ’s poem is that it is straight forward and very precise, like a cup of black coffee, puts language in its most plain form. It is also down to earth like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which can be easily understood by ordinary people.
Below is one of his most popular poem 静夜思 jìng yè sī the Silent Night Thoughts ( video explanation can be found on my YouTube Channel):
Chuáng qián míng yüè guāng， yí shì dì shàng shuāng
床 前 明 月 光， 疑 是 地 上 霜
(I saw) the bright moonlight in front of my bed, and doubt that it might be the winter frost on the ground
jǚ tóu wàng míng yüè， dī tóu sī gù xiāng
举 头 望 明 月， 低 头 思 故 乡
I raise my head to see the bright moon, and lowered my head I thought about my hometown.
now let’s break the poem down into individual characters:
床 chuáng bed 前 qián in front of 明 míng bright 月 yüè moon 光 guāng light
疑 yí to doubt 是 shì is 地 dì floor 上 shàng on top of the 霜 shuāng winter frost
举 jǚ to raise 头 tóu head 望 wàng look towards 明 míng bright 月 yüè moon
低 dī to lower 头 tóu head 思 sī thought 故 gù old, former 乡 xiāng hometown
In Chinese we have this term called 借景抒情 Jiè jǐng shū qíng，to take advantage of a scene to express one’s emotion. In this sense, you can see from the fact that the poet is mistaken the bright moonlight as the winter frost, the moonlight is already looking cold and sorrowful, and the winter frost is ten times worse, it is not hard to see that the poet is in an unpleasant mood.
The next two verses then explains why he is feeling sorrowful.Note that at the time, the poet was 26 years old, travelling outside far away from home. It is one of those nights, when he raises his head saw the clear bright moon but no one was around to share such view with, he then thought about his hometown, and he missed his family.
On an additional note, in Chinese culture, there is always a connection between the moon and the family. Especially when it is full moon, it usually symbolises family reunion.