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Chinese Literature






Chicago Style (Footnotes)

Word Count: 1773 words













                                                              Chinese Literature

No particular method of interpreting poetry exists; it is not a definitive science. Understanding the poem is an entirely subjective action, which differs from person to person, though the overall message of the poem remains. This could range from emotions of sadness, anger, happiness and love. Chinese poetry is among the most understated works of art probably due to its perceived complex nature. It is particularly difficult to maintain the phonetic integrity of the classical Chinese poems when translating them into mainstream languages such as English. As such, most of the most beautiful Chinese poems are rarely translated and as such, most people will never truly appreciate their splendor.  This essay will analyze the techniques used to display emotions in three Chinese poems: the Drunken Lord (8th century), Immortal in Heaven and To Boddhisattva the Barbarian.

Anonymous (8th Century), to ‘The Drunken Lord’ (Zui gong-zi)

This poem describes a wife’s wait for the arrival of her husband, who she assumes or expects to be drunk in the dead of night. The poem is written from her perspective as opposed to that of the husband. This work is based on conventional situations that plagued the Chinese society at the time of its creation. The poet has used various techniques to portray emotion. First, the poem is described in the woman’s voice. While most may ignore this simple fact, the female perspective offers more insight and a raw quality to the situation. Females are well known to be more in tune with their emotions as opposed to males. Therefore, the woman explaining the homecoming of her drunken husband can be considered as more honest and thought provoking. The poet also uses imagery to portray emotion. Describing the dog’s barking and how the wife descends the flight of stairs paints a picture to the reader that transports them to the place and time[1]. This ensures that they live through the events that that night.

The wife expresses her feelings of worry and relief at her husband’s return though an aspect of resignation and appreciation seems to emerge in the poem. She has been waiting for his arrival, this is seen by the fact that though it is late at night, she immediately hears the dog barking and she goes to receive him. From this, it can be understood that the wife was up waiting for him to arrive, filled with worry. Also, the fact that at the end of the poem, she prefers the drunken husband to no husband at all shows a bit of worry. An important aspect is noted whereby the poet describes that the stairs in her house are scented and she is wearing stockings. This can be interpreted to mean that she is a good wife who takes care of both herself and the household despite her troubles. Femininity was and still is a treasured aspect in traditional Chinese culture. The ability of a woman to maintain a home was highly valued and was considered the basis of any good and lasting marriage. The poet further explains that she helps her husband into their bed but he refuses to take off his robes, all alluding to a good wife. Finally, the wife expresses resignation by preferring a drunken husband to none at all. The choice of words used seems to have a tinge of sarcasm when she says ‘if he’s drunk, let him be drunk then’[2]. This may be interpreted to mean that though she does not like the situation, she cannot change it and had abandoned all hope of anything changing. A semblance of anger can also be noted from this line as she is a good wife who deserves a better life. Her last statement is the personification of acquiescence, where despite the burden of a husband who drinks too much, his presence, is better than sleeping alone. Traditional Chinese culture held married women in very high regard and the unmarried ones were often shunned and disrespected. Therefore, having a husband, despite his shortcomings ensured her place in society and their respect as well.  Additionally, the fear of sleeping alone may be understood as the need for protection offered by a man. An aspect of love can also be noted as she describes her husband as my darling. Her love for him may be the reason for her continued patience with his drunken tendencies. By the end of the poem, the emotional conclusion reached is one of acceptance, whereby the wife has accepted her fate as the wife of a drunken lord.

Wei Zhuang (834-910) ‘Immortal in Heaven’ (Tian xian zi)

This is another poem still about the plight of a wife with a drunken husband; however, it is vastly different from the former. In this case, the wife is angry and resentful while in the previous one she is resigned to her fate. In this poem, emotion is expressed the use of the female voice just as in the previous one. Her words and tone portray anger, disappointment and resentment towards her husband. Her description of her drunken husband adds to these emotions. She says that he comes home night after night, extremely drunk but still expecting her to help him into their bed. Poets can use various words to explain a similar situation but the particular words used and their placement will completely transform the meaning they intend to send to their readers. In this case, she describes her husband as a ‘staggering drunk’ rather than just drunk, painting a picture of disdain to the reader[3]. This may be attributed to the fact that she has endured this for a very long time resulting in her anger and dislike. Her husband also expects her to take care of him who further fuels her anger. This is because in traditional Chinese culture, women were expected to take care of their families, particularly their husbands and marriage was held in such high regard. Therefore, the wife is stuck in a marriage with a husband she hates but has no choice because society expects her to not only stay with him but also to take of him regardless of his habits.  The poet further uses imagery to exemplify her emotions by describing the smell of her husband as one of alcohol mixed with musk and orchids[4]. Such vivid description enables the reader to identify with and empathize with the poor wife. Of note is the description of the smell of orchids, which are popular in the Chinese society, which highlights tradition.

Finally, he awakes and states ‘how long does a man’s life last?’[5] One may interpret this statement to show that he is unhappy with his life hence wondering how much longer he must endure it. His unhappiness may stem from the indifference he faces from his wife which is evident from the tone he uses to describe him. As a result, he may have turned to alcohol as a solace, which only made the situation worse resulting in a vicious cycle in which makes him question how long he must live. This brings about an element of resignation from the husband’s perspective. This poem though short is unique in that it offers both sides of the story, so to speak, whereby the poet focuses on the wife’s opinions and emotions but eventually addresses the husband and his perception of the situation. In this case, two emotional conclusions can be reached, for the husband, resignation and acceptance is noted while for the wife, anger, and resentment are the most notable emotions displayed.

Li Yu (937-978). To ‘Boddhisattva Barbarian’ (Pu-sa man)

This poem is about two lovers meeting on a dark night. The poet describes the woman in third person. As such, the poem when read seems like a story told by someone else who lived through it. The overall emotion the poem evokes is love between the two people. The poet uses vivid imagery to elicit feeling. He first describes the environment and the nature of the night. Descriptions such as bright flowers and the dark moon set the stage for a possibly eventful and unforgettable night[6]. He then explains the woman’s attire, stockings. This enables the readers to create the image of a gracefully dressed woman[7]. She is so dressed since she is on her way to meet her love. The poet’s choice of words ensures that the readers are able to notice this simple detail. What follows is a description of where they meet, ‘a painted hallway’ and she melts into the arms of her lover. The reader is able to identify the presence of passion between these two individuals though it seems that their romance is not approved. This is because the poet explains that they want to make the most out of the evening as if they do not know when they will be able to meet again. Traditional Chinese society dictated that relationships between males and females were to be strictly formal unless after marriage, therefore, this poem may be a description of two young individuals passionately in love but well aware that their relationship would never be accepted. Therefore they come up with ways to meet each other in secret to express their love for each other. The poem is a perfect example of romance and passion though illicit in a traditional society.







The Proposal

1.Name: ________ Student ID: ________

  1. Topic: Chinese literature: Classical poetry.

Wrestling with emotions in lyrics, Owen, (559-590) Select any three poems and explain techniques used to describe emotion, how is emotion expresses and what is the emotional resolution reached by the poet at the end of the poems?

  1. Texts:

Stephen Owen, An Anthology Of Chinese Literature, 1st ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).

  1. Thesis:

The selected poems illustrate emotion in various ways, the first two depict two responses from women with husbands who drink too but who have different perspectives. The last poem selected describes childlike love and romance though seemingly illicit. The poems utilize various techniques in order to exemplify emotion including imagery and tone.

  1. Outline:
  2. A) He uses imagery of the environment such as the ‘dark moon’ and ‘bright flowers’.
  3. B) Themes of love and hate emerge in the case of the wife with a drunken husband, while the two lovers in the last poem explain passion.
  4. C) He uses a tone of anger to explain how the wife views her drunken husband.


  1. Two other sources:

Halvor Eifring, Love And Emotions In Traditional Chinese Literature, 1st ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2003). (book). This will help explain the poems.

Zong-qi Cai, How To Read Chinese Poetry, 1st ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008)



















Cai, Zong-qi. 2008. How To Read Chinese Poetry. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eifring, Halvor. 2003. Love And Emotions In Traditional Chinese Literature. 1st ed. Leiden: Brill.

Owen, Stephen. 1996. An Anthology Of Chinese Literature. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

[1] Owen, Anthology, 562.

[2] Ibid, 562

[3] Ibid, 563

[4] Ibid, 563

[5] Ibid, 563

[6] Ibid, 568

[7] Ibid, 568

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