hen you talk to Chinese people about their country’s greatest cultural achievements, they almost always mention the great poems of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which are more than a thousand years old.
Chinese can recite these poems by heart. Indeed, my mother-in-law is teaching them to my daughter, who cannot yet say “Mama.”
I hope it does not expose me as too much of a philistine to say that while I admire these poems greatly, I don’t enjoy them all.
And I secretly wonder if my mother-in-law is putting on airs by pretending she enjoys them.
I am suspicious for two reasons.
First, she doesn’t enjoy any of the other arts. Or anything, as far as I can tell.
Second, I’ve studied Chinese classical poetry, both in the original and in translation, and I can’t figure out how the words connect together.
For example, trying to make sense of one of the lines in perhaps the most famous Chinese poem, “Drinking Alone Under the Moon” by Li Bai, I came up with, “Eternal knot and ruthless travel, looking forward to Miao Yunhan...”
My mother-in-law might tell me the poem is about achieving spiritual awareness in the face of loneliness. But I can’t believe she figured this out herself. I feel she must be repeating what a teacher told her.
My favorite work of Chinese literature is The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun, which I thought was extremely funny. When I tell this to people, they look at me as if I lost my mind. Lu Xun, funny? Most of them studied Ah Q in high school, and found it as amusing as a trip to the dentist office.
The razor-sharp satire reminded me of the US writer Mark Twain, whose work also focused on the worst traits of his countrymen. Both authors were pioneers in using vernacular language. And both were politically revolutionary.
An interesting aspect of Twain is that he started his life as a racist and unreflectively supportive of slavery. As a young man, he wrote terrible things about Chinese laborers who had come to the US.
But his views slowly evolved over time. He eventually wrote one of the most damning critiques of slavery ever penned. He spoke out against imperialism by the US and other Western nations in the Far East and elsewhere. He even urged American missionaries to leave China, saying they should return to the US “and convert these Christians!” His later writing showed repeated concern for the Chinese workers in the US.
It’s quite possible that Chinese people who are forced to read Mark Twain in school don’t think he’s funny either. Not even human reproduction is fun by the time teachers turn it into a lesson.
But it remains fascinating to me what parts of a culture can resonate overseas, and what parts fall flat.
For example, everyone in China knows who martial artist Bruce Lee is, but they mostly don’t understand what a hero he was in the West, and they hardly consider him a cultural icon.
But in the 70s and 80s in North America, no one was cooler than Bruce Lee.
My best friend’s older brother had a poster of Lee, the Lord of the Rings and Led Zeppelin on his bedroom wall. One of Lee’s students was Los Angeles Lakers great Kareem AbdulJabbar. Another was Chuck Norris. No poster of poet Li Bai, however.
I do hold some hope that as soon as my daughter learns to walk, my mother-in-law will unveil a hidden talent and start teaching her kung fu, or maybe some swordplay. Even some cool tai-chi moves would do. However, I think Tang Dynasty poems about drinking under the moon are the best my daughter can expect.
For people like my mother-in-law, the word culture doesn’t apply to people like Lee. When I visited her hometown Shenyang, she thought I was low-class for wanting my wife to see a performance by earthy local errenzhuan comedians native to Northeast China.
But what did Bruce Lee think of poetry? I think it’s safe to assume that Lee, like my daughter and every Chinese, learned to recite the classics by heart as a child. And as an adult, Lee, who considered himself to be a philosopher and an artist, wrote two dozen poems.
One of them reads:
When the clouds float past the moon,
I see them floating in the lake,
And I feel as though I were rowing in the sky.
Suddenly I thought of you – mirrored in my heart.
This is clearly influenced by and drawing imagery from the classical poems I struggled to make sense of. And this is, I suppose, how culture keeps getting handed down from generation to generation.