“So what’s the context here?” begins Richard Kent, professor of art history at Franklin & Marshall College. The class, “Chinese Lyric Poetry (in Translation) & its Impact on Western Poetic” is in its fourth week. They look over yuefu poetry, or folk song poetry from the Han dynasty, which spanned from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.
“Battle,” says one student.
“Yes. Sometimes this is called frontier poetry,” says Kent. The poem tells the story of soldiers who left their homes to fight in a different district, and who died there.
“In Burton Watson’s translation, the poem is titled ‘They Fought South of the Wall,’ but in Jui-Lung Su’s it’s titled ‘We Fought South of the Walls,’” says Kent. “How might that difference change the interpretation of the poem?”
Kent’s course, which is cross-listed between art, Chinese, and comparative literature, comprises students of varying majors and class years. Circled around a table and nestled in small wooden desks, the class is small enough that everyone participates, challenging each other and building on ideas. They dissect the poem nearly line by line, hopping from one translation to the next to weigh each rendering. Many class members are fluent speakers of Chinese and offer their own translations from the original text.
“I love Chinese poetry,” says Lingxi Huang ’20, a business, organization and society major from Zhengzhou, China. “Studying at a U.S. liberal arts college, I hope to learn the different perspectives between the East and the West. I would like nothing more than to be open-minded, to listen, and to absorb.”
Xinghan Ma ’21 is a native of Shanghai. “I studied in an international high school with few classes related to Chinese culture,” he says. “I feel like I lack my own culture, so I’m taking the course to regain it. I think it is a global issue: we forget our culture. The first step is to understand, and the next step is to revive cultural identity in society. This is my ultimate goal.”
Kent has taught at F&M since 1991, usually teaching courses on Asian art history and Western photography. Every five to seven years he develops a new course to explore subjects that he feels will enrich the curriculum.
“This course grows out of a longstanding interest in Chinese poetry that goes back both to my undergraduate years and to graduate studies in Chinese art history at Princeton. In fact, my minor field in graduate school was Chinese poetry,” Kent says. He writes poetry himself that is inspired by a traditional Chinese form.
The class turns to the second poem for analysis, “There’s Someone I Think Of,” in Watson’s translation, and in Su’s, “There Is One I Love.”
“What’s the context?”
“A break up. A female voice speaking of abandonment.”
“Yes, there’s an undercurrent of intense emotion throughout the poem,” says Kent.
The poem’s speaker received a “tortoiseshell hairpin with twin pearls” from her love, but when she learns he has been unfaithful, she fiercely proclaims, in Su’s translation, “I shattered it, smashed and burned it. Smashed and burned it.”
The repetition is songlike, an homage to the Chinese oral tradition.
“At first when I read this poem I thought it was really straightforward, but when it comes to translation, it’s almost as complicated as the first poem we read tonight,” Kent says.
The class comes to a quick end, quicker than Kent would like.
Asked what he likes about teaching the course, Kent responds with another question. “What do I like about Chinese poetry? Like many readers, I’m especially drawn to its imagery that summons the natural world in all its vastness and multiplicity.” He says a short poem by Li Bai, an 8th-century poet and considered one of the greatest poets of the Tang dynasty, epitomizes this notion:
Exchange in the Mountains
You ask why I dwell in these azure mountains.
Mind at ease, I smile but can say nothing.
On the flowing water, peach blossoms silently drift away.
There’s another world that exists, but not among us.
(trans. Richard K. Kent)
“It’s terrifically rewarding to teach poetry like this,” he says.
Chinese Lyric & Western Poetic
Richard Kent, professor of art history
SPRING 2018 SEMESTER
Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30–8:30 p.m.
Huegel Alumni House, Room 20
- The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the 13th Century (Burton Watson, Columbia University Press
- The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien (David Hinton, Copper Canyon Press)