Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Poetry Book Review: Multicultural Poetry

A THOUSAND PEAKS: POEMS FROM CHINA. Liu, Siyu, and Orel Protopopescu, translators and editors, 2002. Illustrated by Siyu Liu. China: Global Interprint, Inc, and Berkely, CA: Pacific View Press. ISBN 1-881896-24-2.

Ancient China is a land and time that, for most of us, lies hidden in the mists of long-dead centuries past. But authors Liu and Protopopescu perform magic and roll back time to a land of both romance and bloody history. Poetry in China goes back over five thousand years. It was and continues to be an integral part of Chinese culture. This book gives an excellent overview of Ancient Chinese history, the many dynasties and revolutions, and the many poets as well, on an upper elementary or middle school grade level.

Liu and Protopopescu introduce the reader to the classic Chinese poetry form known as shi, which is very similar in format to the Japanese haiku. Unlike Japanese haiku, though, shi deals not only with nature, but with political unrest, the social climate, and emotions. Shi can be traced back to the Han dynasty, which ended in 206 BCE, but is still a major form of Chinese poetry today. Chinese children are taught to memorize shi before they can even read to instill proper respect for farmers, parents, and authorities. Even Mao Zedong wrote shi, and one of his shi is included in this collection.

The word shi means “poetry” in Chinese, and according to the authors, shi consists of four or eight lines per poem, with five or seven characters per line. The second and fourth lines usually rhyme, and the first line might also rhyme. The first and second lines portray an image, the third offers a different perspective on the image and the last line reflects the poet’s thoughts. All the poems in this collection have been translated from their Chinese originals, and all are shi. The wonderful thing about this poetry collection is that we are given the English translation, the poem in its original Chinese characters, and then the translation of those characters into the Chinese words. This lets us hear the sound of the poem in its original language and see how closely the poems follow the shi structure. The authors thoughtfully included a helpful pronunciation guide.

The book is divided into different chapters, each chapter named after an important part of Chinese culture. We learn about Ancient Chinese social culture, the world’s first civil service exam (called the Jinshi), and how the Ancient Chinese embraced nature. There are poems about respecting those who work the land, mourning the loss of an overthrown leader, political unrest, and even how the grass grows from year to year. Each poem is also accompanied by text which tells us about the poet, the reason the poem was written, and what was happening in Ancient China at the time to motivate the poem’s creation.

My favorite poem in this book is Poem of My Lost Country, written by a Tang dynasty concubine. The accompanying text tells how people placed the blame on Lady Huarui for distracting her emperor while the kingdom was being attacked. She was ultimately blamed for the downfall of the kingdom, and wrote this poem to redeem her reputation. She was taken captive by the new emperor and became his concubine in turn. When the emperor’s brother read this poem, he became suspicious that Lady Huarui was planning to murder her new husband in revenge for her first husband’s murder. Legend says that he arranged a hunting accident that resulted in her death.

Poem of My Lost Country

My lord raised a flag of surrender over his walled town.
Buried deep in his palace, what could I know of it then?
A hundred and forty thousand men put their weapons down.
How shocking to find not one man among them!

shù guó wáng shi

jün wáng chéng shàng shù xiáng qí
qiè zài shēn gōng nâ dé zhī
shí sì wàn rén qí xiè jiâ
nìng wύ yí gè shì nán ér

By Lady Huarui (Tang dynasty)

In the afterword, the two authors discuss the reasons, challenges, and technical difficulties in writing this book. What I found extremely interesting was where Siyu Liu tells us how, at the age of 10 in the midst of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, she discovered her parents’ hidden stash of forbidden books. When Mao Zedong died, Siyu Liu and her friends rejoiced in their newfound ancient heritage. This book is her attempt to preserve that heritage so it won’t be lost again.

Ancient China and other ancient civilizations are usually studied somewhere between 4th and 6th grades. This book would be an excellent accompaniment to the Ancient China unit. It brings the Ancient Chinese people to life, showing their doubts and fears, their struggles and joys, and in doing so, shows us that the Ancient Chinese weren’t so very different from you or me.

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