The Modern Chinese Sonnet

ARCHIVAL COPY SOURCE: IIAS Newsletter 11, Winter 1997, Institutes 08 [DELETED 2005]

Dr Lloyd L. Haft of the Sinological Institute (Leiden University) was a 'Dutch Senior' with the IIAS from August 1996 until February 1997. His research topic is 'Aspects of the Modern Chinese Sonnet'.

I have often been asked (a) what is a 'modern Chinese sonnet' and (b) how did I become involved in studying such an out-of-the-way subject. The answers are, briefly, that (a) a 'modern Chinese sonnet' is a sonnet written in modern Chinese, and (b) the subject, far from being out-of-the-way, is actually at a vital intersection of several dimensions in the ongoing history of modern Chinese poetry. I am finding it more and more amazing that so little attention has been paid to the Chinese sonnet up till now. For example, though Zhu Xiang (1904-1933) wrote an impressive sequence of 71 sonnets in both Italian and English forms, making him the most prolific Chinese sonnetteer of the first half of this century, this part of his oeuvre has been ignored in many famous anthologies both Chinese and English. If my research does nothing else, it will demolish once and for all the glib assumption that the Chinese sonnet can be dismissed as a quaint experiment somewhere in the margins of other, more 'real' poetry.

As to our first question -- what the Chinese sonnet is -- perhaps we can best begin by reviewing our knowledge of what the non-Chinese sonnet is. Broadly speaking, a sonnet is a 14-line poem showing some sort of rhyme or assonance pattern. Often traced to 13th-century South European origins, the sonnet has been established for many centuries in the major European languages and is undoubtedly the most universally practiced European poetic form.

Of countless examples we could quote, one of the most famous is Shakespeare's:

In schoolroom terms, the 'meter' of this poem is 'iambic'; that is, each line comprises five 'feet' each of which consists of a less prominent syllable followed by a more prominent one. In traditional schoolrooms, the desperately difficult question of what exactly 'prominence' means -- my research has led me to believe there is no hard-and-fast answer even in European, let alone Chinese poetry -- was simply dodged by equating 'prominence' with 'stress.' For centuries, schoolchildren have been trained to read such poems with blunt mechanical stress on every second syllable, thus blurring the subtler features of the poem's rhythms. Scholars have pointed out that in actual pronunciation, even of an elevated or performative kind, the actual number of 'stressed' points in the line tends to be smaller than the theoretical number of 'feet.' The question then arises as to which rhythm is more 'real': the theoretical rhythm imposed by the prescribed number of feet, or the supposedly perceived rhythm of the prominent points in pronunciation. Matters are still more complex in the case of poets, like Gerard Manley Hopkins in English or Herman Gorter in Dutch, who often abandon the 'feet' in favor of a modern variant on the older Germanic 'accentual' verse, in which only the 'prominent' points are counted and the less 'prominent' syllables can be arranged at will.

The peculiar nature of the Chinese language gives to the individual syllable a semantic weight that it does not have, say, in a language like English or French. In older stages of Chinese, notably in the so-called Classical Chinese which remained the obligatory language of most serious literature until well into the 20th century, normally each syllable was a distinct word, and all syllables could be more or less equally stressed in pronunciation.

Starting around the end of the First World War, Chinese writers abandoned the old Classical language and began to write in the modern vernacular. One immediate result was that the time-honored forms of Classical Chinese poetry would no longer work, as they were based on the syllabic rhythms of the older language, often prescribing a fixed number of syllables per line. Modern Chinese poets responded to this problem by experimenting with European poetic forms, including the sonnet.

One of the most famous modern Chinese poets, Bian Zhilin (1910-), writes a sort of Chinese 'accentual' verse. In his translations from Shakespeare, for example, each line in Chinese can be divided into five syllable-groups (called in Chinese dun or 'pause-units'), corresponding to the five 'feet' in Shakespeare's line, though the overall number of syllables in the Chinese line varies considerably. By contrast, another famous Chinese translator of Shakespeare's sonnets, Liang Zongdai (1904-1983), maintains an equal number of syllables per line: twelve, reflecting his admiration for the French alexandrine as well as, undoubtedly, a throwback to the isosyllabic Classical Chinese tradition.

Another leading Chinese poet who thinks in terms of dun, though not very fanatically, is China's leading woman poet, Zheng Min (1920-). I met Zheng in China in 1979, and since the 1980s I have often translated her poems during her visits to Poetry International in Rotterdam. In June 1994, during a long train trip to visit the Kröller-Müller Museum, she called my attention to a sonnet sequence she had published in 1991, in which meditations on death are interwoven with allusions to the fate of Chinese intellectuals in the 20th century. That conversation was really the catalyst that decided me to study the Chinese sonnet in more depth.

Zheng Min's 19-poem cycle is a veritable synopsis of the Chinese sonnet from its earliest days to the present. It includes echoes of poems by Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning which were translated and quoted in the 1920s by the famous poet Wen Yiduo (1899-1946), the proverbial father of the dun concept. As regards form, the cycle is a sophisticated blend of elements from those early translations, from formal experiments carried out by Zheng herself and her fellow poets in the 1940s, and from Rilke's Sonnete an Orpheus. As I examined Zheng's recent sonnets more closely against the background of my perennial interest in poetic forms and rhythms, I was inspired to attempt a rhythmic translation of her cycle:

We were all fire birds --

treading all our lives on red flames,

threading through the hells. When bridges burned

over our heads we never made a murmur ...

Zheng's cycle does not stand alone. As I have discovered in the course of my research, the sonnet form is now enjoying a remarkable revival in Chinese poetry. Strange as this may sound, after all these months of study and reflection I think this Chinese 'sonnet boom' is almost an inevitable development. The reasons are: (1) that after a long period of experimental free verse, poets and readers are ready for a swing back toward formally elegant verse, (2) that the sonnet, being a short, technically tight form with an overall premise of rational coherence, in many ways resembles the most widely practiced Classical Chinese form, the lüshi, and (3) that after a long period in which both Classical Chinese and 'foreign' forms were politically suppressed in China and often condemned in the same breath, by a strange logic the poet who now writes in a 'European' form is also subtly showing loyalty to the older 'Chinese' tradition.

In other words: the sonnet is now one of the most 'Chinese' poetic forms! This is but one of my conclusions in the book I hope to publish this year, in which I present the results of this wonderful fellowship period. Ostensibly about an area which many have seen as 'marginal,' the book has actually become almost a selective history of 20th-century Chinese poetry from the viewpoint of form -- that crucial element of poetic continuity which tends to be snowed under in so much present-day scholarly literature with its unfortunately high proportion of modish intellectual bombast.

It is now clear that the still-growing sonnet tradition has become one of the most authentic, convincing and permanent streams in modern Chinese poetry. If my translations and studies succeed in winning for this tradition some of the renewed interest it deserves -- and I feel sure that they will -- this half year will not have been spent in vain.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west;

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

We were all fire birds --

treading all our lives on red flames,

threading through the hells. When bridges burned

over our heads we never made a murmur ...~

Dr Lloyd Haft (1946) is an associate professor of modern Chinese literature at Leiden University. In addition to his scholarly work, Haft has published several volumes of original poetry. For his bilingual collection Atlantis (Amsterdam: Querido, 1993), in Dutch and English, he received the 1994 Jan Campert Prize.