Where does the real beauty of Tang poetry lie?
Not only is English not as important for communication as is imagined, I can prove further that language in general is not that important in communication by citing an example of a misunderstanding regarding poems.
During my middle-school years in southern Taiwan, a classmate's father once told me that reading Tang dynasty poems aloud in Mandarin couldn't give full credit to the beauty of the rhymes. They had to be read out loud in the Hokkien dialect. When I went to college, a Hakka classmate said Hakka Chinese was an ancient language, sounding most beautiful in the recitation of Tang poems. I found him pretty convincing after hearing him reciting a few stanzas. Then I came to Hong Kong and many local Hong Kong people bragged about how Cantonese was the language to bring out the original rhymes and real beauty of Tang poems, which could hardly be achieved if read in Mandarin, because Cantonese retained, so it was claimed, the original flavour of the central Chinese accent for reading the Tang poems. Hearing that, I began to have some doubts.
Two years ago, I went on a business trip to Chengdu in the middle of a hot summer and happened to see a crowd of people gathered under the canopy of a tree around a woman in her seventies or eighties. Driven by curiosity, I walked up and listened to her reading out some Tang poems in the Sichuan dialect. The sound and rhythm were so melodious that she seemed to be almost singing.
By then, I had developed an interest in doing some research. Even though I don't understand Japanese, I asked a Japanese friend to read some Tang poems in Japanese. Then I read aloud a Tang poem I found that had been translated into English. To be more thorough, I even asked an American friend to read it for me.
After some research, I got some answers. But for me, of course, I still have to read aloud the following Tang poem, composed by Zhang Jiuling, in Mandarin.
Thinking of my loved one, far away under moonlight
As the bright moon shines over the sea,
From far away you share this moment with me.
Parted lovers loath lonely nights like this,
All night long you are the dear one I miss.
To enjoy the moon I blow out the candlestick,
My coat is wet with the dew that is thick.
I try to offer you the moonlight so hard to pick,
Hoping a reunion in my dream will come quick.
(Adapted from Ying Sun's translation)
As I suspected it read beautifully, as well!
But how is that so? Doesn't the true beauty of a good Tang poem lie in its implicit charm, rather than simply the rhyme? Does it lie in its artistic state, rather than an accumulation of beautiful words? "The drifting soul of the purple moon exudes the fragrance of fallen flowers." How can we differentiate poems from advertisements if it is simply because they sound good, easily forgotten afterwards? A good poem with intrinsic beauty reads beautifully and is unforgettable no matter it is read in any accents.
Hence I make a plea that we add some implicit charm to the message in our communication rather than depending on language only.
This article was originally published in Chinese in the Ming Pao Daily News (28 February, 2016).
29 February, 2016
（原文刊載於2016年2月29日 President’s Blog – The Way）