31 October 2005

East meets West on Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone. This really is a great holiday, and the only one that I have really mourned over the last several years. Outside the US, one can scrape together a pretty decent celebration of practically anything else, but abroad, there is no door to door trick-or-treating, not jack-o-lanterns on front porches, nothing. My children have no clue that they ought to be very envious of what awaits every child in America tonight.

When I think of Halloween, the last thing that comes to my mind is Ancient China. But, China has been on my mind anyway, and with today being Halloween, I put the two together. All month the Kennedy Center has sponsored a Festival of China, so I recently dug up my old text books from a class on the arts inspired by Zen and Taoist teachings. In one of them, I found what I think is a perfect poem:

Withered vines, aged trees, twilight crows.
Beneath the little bridge by the cottage the river flows.
On the ancient road and lean horse the west wind blows.
The evening sun westward goes,
As a broken-hearted man stands at heaven’s close.

This is an example Chinese Dramatic verse, a poem by Ma Chih-yuan (1270-1330) created upon the tune of T’ien Ching Sha. The poem has been expertly translated to preserve the rhyme concluding each of the five lines. Lyric poems such as this one are known by the name of the tune they are set to, and are not considered untitled even though they are not given a name beyond that of the tune.

It is noteworthy that the tonal patterns in this poem would have provided much interest in the original language. In line one the tones are exact opposites of what they are in line three, and the second and fifth line are tonally identical. The symmetry and repetition of this pattern, although difficult to convey in English, would never the less have reinforced and given further unity to the message of the poem.*

What is that unified message? Well, the scene is of fall, of sun-set, of old trees and an ancient road. The horse is lean and the man is beaten down. They are in no condition to withstand the wind, and even the crows might be a threat to them. The poem overflows with signs of decay and death. There is something inevitable about the scene. I don't imagine anyone would read it and think, "Oh cheer up broken-hearted man! Tomorrow is another day." The finality of the scene is reinforced by the river continuing its course as well as the unrelenting wind and the progress of the setting sun. The fact that he is broken-hearted seems natural considering the landscape in which he is placed, and his presence gives as much information about the setting as the landscape does about him. Although all that is said of him is that he is broken-hearted, we sense that the surrounding environment tells us much more than this.

And that brings me back to Halloween. The culture I grew up in doesn't typically look death in the face. It prefers obtuse euphemisms to blunt statements of reality. I frankly think we as a culture are terrified of anything we can not control or change, hence the distance we craft between ourselves and that universal human reality. Halloween stands as a potential exception to this--a chance for a little make-believe.

*I owe all the background information about the poem and the translation to James J. Y. Liu's The Art of Chinese Poetry.


Matthew said...

I wish it was possible to convey the tonal significances and nuances of the poetry form in English. I wish I were skilled enough in Chinese well to even attempt such a thing.

joe said...

I think you ought to dress the kids up as devils and pumpkins anyway. Wouldn't they love to costume up once a year, even without any understanding of what their American counterparts doing?

Anyway, it might make having them more fun for you... if that's possible.

Mary Ann said...

Joe, I LOVE LOVE LOVE that picture.
When we were in germany there was a pseudo Halloween celebration at work each year, and I though about dressing Stella (then 6 months old) up as pigglet, but the idea never really got off the ground. We were sure she'd have been scared silly by it all.