Chinese Poetry and Chinese Language

My late grandmother, who was an educator in Hong Kong and China, used to write a poem for each of her new born grandchild. This is the one she wrote for me. 王观 was the original author.

    水是眼波横,
    山是眉峰聚。
    欲问行人去那边? 
    眉眼盈盈处。
    才始送春归, 
    又送君归去。
    若到江南赶上春,
    千万和春住。
                   ——宋•王观《送鲍浩然之浙东》

Poetry can be very concise, and Chinese poetry's are especially so. For example, below is the original Chinese poem for Mulan, which Disney made into a movie.

唧唧復唧唧
木蘭當戶織
不聞機杼聲
唯聞女嘆息

問女何所思
問女何所憶
女亦無所思
女亦無所憶

昨夜見軍帖
可汗大點兵
軍書十二卷
卷卷有爺名

阿爺無大兒
木蘭無長兄
愿為市鞍馬
從此替爺征

東市買駿馬
西市買鞍韉
南市買轡頭
北市買長鞭

朝辭爺娘去
暮宿黃河邊
不聞爺娘喚女聲
但聞黃河流水鳴濺濺

旦辭黃河去
暮至黑山頭
不聞爺娘喚女聲
但聞燕山胡騎聲啾啾

萬里赴戎機
關山度若飛
朔氣傳金柝
寒光照鐵衣

將軍百戰死
壯士十年歸
歸來見天子
天子坐明堂

策勛十二轉
賞賜百千強
可汗問所欲
“木蘭不用尚書郎
愿借明駝千里足
送兒還故鄉”

爺娘聞女來
出郭相扶將
阿姊聞妹來
當戶理紅妝

小弟聞姊來
磨刀霍霍向豬羊
"開我東閣門
坐我西閣床

脫我戰時袍
著我舊時裳."
當窗理云鬢
對鏡貼花黃

出門看火伴
火伴皆驚惶
同行十二年
不知木蘭是女郎

“雄兔腳扑朔
雌兔眼迷離
兩兔傍地,
安能辨我是雄雌?”

The beauty (or challenge, depends on who you ask) is that individual character in Chinese has limited meaning. A chinese character is similar to a letter in english. The letter "t" has limited meaning by itself. It's the combinations of characters where ideas are formed. For example, the letters "t", "e", and "a" individually aren't too useful, but the combination "tea" has a much more tangible definition. The Chinese language has more than 85,000 characters, which in theory allows it to create more combinations than the 26 letter alphabet system. This is perfect for peotry where you want to describe a concept with less words.

Here is the original Mulan poem side by side with the english translation. Notice how the english version uses many more letters than of Chinese characters. Also Chinese characters are much more complex than english letters. Something must give if you want to cram 85,000 possible combination of symbols into the same square box.

1 comment:

  1. good poem!
    Admire your grandma sooo much!

    ReplyDelete

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