Speaking in Symbols: A Festival of Chinese Love Poems

China has a long tradition of romantic poetry. The ancient Book of Songs, dating back to nearly 3,000 years, contains many love poems expressing love between courting couples, between husbands and wives, and love for family and friends. Less ancient but still distant in time are poems from the golden age of Chinese culture: the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), a time when literary giants like Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu, Wang Wei and Bai Juyi (Po Chu-yi) burst into the scene, and bequeathed to the world poetry of breathtaking poignancy and beauty.

Subtlety is the byword in traditional Chinese poetry. This is especially so with romantic poems. To appreciate this subtlety, here are useful pointers to note. First, unlike in the West, love is never explicitly amorous in traditional Chinese poetry. The Chinese way is to convey romantic feelings and longing using symbols and metaphors. This is partly out of decorum, and also to encourage deeper reflections. Thus, courting and longing are always couched in rich symbolism and sex is almost never mentioned directly. Allusions and metaphors abound. For example, jade, a precious stone beloved by the Chinese, is frequently used to connote longing and intimacy, through imageries such as jade cups, jade mirrors, and jade gates. Other images include the moon, often used as a symbol of longing, peach and peony, which symbolize virginity, creatures like Mandarin ducks, geese, magpies or fish, which signify marital bliss, and many-seeded fruits like melons and pomegranates which stand for fecundity.

Apart from subtlety, these imageries have another function: they situate the poem in a particular context – a particular time, place and circumstance, and they record sentiments as if it was experienced by the poet in the moment. This “in-the-moment” expression is another attribute that distinguishes Chinese poetry from the Western poetic tradition which often strives to capture universal truths for all circumstances.


Two Poems from the Book of Songs

I begin with two poems from the ancient Book of Songs. The Book of Songs is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, comprising 305 works dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC. It is one of the “Five Classics” traditionally said to have been compiled by Confucius and has been studied and memorized by scholars in China and neighbouring countries for over two millennia.

The first poem from the Book of Songs mentions the lotus, which has been, and still is a beloved symbol of the purity of heart and mind

By the banks of that marsh
There are sweet flags and lotus.
There is a handsome man with whom I am smitten
What should I do?
Asleep or awake,
I do nothing;
my tears flow like rain.

The cicada and the grasshopper are mentioned in the next poem, also from the Book of Songs. Both insects are highly symbolic. The cicada signifies resurrection and longevity, an association that owes to its fascinating life cycle. Newly hatched insects drop from branches to burrow into the ground, where they nourish themselves on tree roots for as long as 17 years before emerging into the sunlight. The grasshopper has positive connotation of good luck and abundance. When both appear in the same poem, it’s almost certain that the poet is expressing a strong yearning for the cherished attributes that these creatures are thought to embody.

Anxiously chirps the cicada.
Restlessly skips the grasshopper:
Before I saw my lord
My heart was ill at ease.
But now that I have seen him,
Now that I have met him,
My heart is at rest


A Poem by Du Fu (715-70)

‘Flying Geese and Lotuses’, artist unknown, Ming dynasty. Hanging scroll. Ink and color on paper. 158 x 120 cm. Princeton University Museum.

Birds are highly symbolic in Chinese culture. The goose appears in the following poem by the great Tang poet, Du Fu (715-70). Like the mandarin duck, the goose signifies fidelity as it mates for life and often flies in pairs.

‘At the World’s End’ by Du Fu

Cold is the wind that rises
over this remote place.
Old friend, tell me,
When will a wild goose reach me here?
From the rivers and lakes
where the autumn waters are overflowing?

Two Poems by Xue Tao (768-832)

Portrait of Xue Tao by Qui Ying, Ming Dynasty, 16th century.

Xue Tao was a poet and courtesan of the Tang dynasty and one of the most famous female Chinese poets of all time. In the following two poems, she uses the imagery of blooming and fading flowers to signify the passage of time, and the associated feelings of longing.

‘Windblown Flowers’ by Xue Tao

Windblown flowers
grow older day by day.
And our best season
dwindles in the past.
Without someone
to tie the knot of love,
It is of no use
to tie up all those love-knot herbs.

Gazing at Spring’ by Xue Tao

Flowers bloom:
no one to enjoy them with.

Flowers fall:
no one with whom to grieve.

I wonder when love’s longings
stir us most –

When flowers bloom,
or when flowers fall?

Two Poems by Li Bai (701-62)

Li Bai (701 – 762) by Gao Qipei (1672-1734), Qing dynasty. Album leaf; ink and colors on paper. British Museum.

Li Bai (701-62) is undoubtedly the most eminent and well-loved poet of the Tang dynasty. Much of Li’s life is reflected in his poetry: the places he visited, the pleasure of friendship, the depth of nature, solitude and the joys of drinking wine. “Drinking alone under the Moon” is one of his best-known poems from around a thousand poems that he wrote. Here, Li Bai uses the imagery of the moon to poignantly evoke a feeling of loneliness, a longing for companionship or perhaps a love of oneself!

‘Drinking Alone under the Moon’ by Li Bai

Among the flowers, with a whole pot of wine,
A solitary drinker with no companion.
I raise my cup to invite the bright moon:
It throws my shadow
and makes us a party of three.

But the moon understands nothing of drinking,
And the shadow only follows me aimlessly.
For now, shadow and moon are my fellows,
Seizing happiness while the spring lasts.

I sing.
The moon sails lingeringly.
I dance.
My shadow twirls and bobs about.
As long as I’m sober, we all frolic together:
When I’m drunk, we scatter and part.
Let us seal for ever
this passionate friendship,
And meet again
in the far-off River of Stars!

‘Quiet Peaceful Melody’ by Li Bai

This short poem is one of Li Bai’s most famous. Though short (it is only seven lines long), the poem is drenched with emotions as it reflects the longing of an emperor for his favourite concubine. The emperor in question is Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (r. 712-756), and the concubine is Yang Guifei, supposedly one of the great beauties of that period. The poem has also been turned into a song of the same name.

According to some historical accounts, the emperor and Yang Guifei are often seen together celebrating in the evenings whenever peonies were in full bloom. During one celebration, Xuanzong was displeased with the choice of music and called for Li Bai to write a song. Li Bai, who was supposedly drunk during this time, rapidly composed this poem which greatly pleased the emperor. In it, he praises Yang Guifei’s beauty, comparing her to a blossoming flower, draped in clothes that resemble billowy clouds. In the last three lines, a Jade Mountain is mentioned, invoking an ancient Chinese legend according to which the Jade Mountain is a home for fairies, thus suggesting that Yang Guifei’s beauty makes her on par with a fairy herself.

Here is Li Bai’s poem ‘Quiet Peaceful Melody’, and a song which the poem inspired.

Clouds remind me of her apparel,
flowers remind me of her countenance,

The spring breeze blows against the banister,
the dew are splendidly lush.

If we cannot meet on the Jade Mountain,
then we will surely meet on the jade terrace
basked under the peaceful moonlight.

A Poem by Zhang Jiuling (673-740)

Here’s another poem that uses the moon to connote loneliness and longing. The author, Zhang Jiuling (673-740) was a prominent minister, noted poet and scholar of the Tang Dynasty, serving as chancellor during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong.

‘Looking at the Moon and Longing for a Distant Lover’ by Zhang Jiuling

A clear moon climbs over the sea
To its farthest rim.
The whole sky is glowing.
Lovers complain how endless is the night!
Their longing thoughts rise till the dawn.

I blow out the candle
To enjoy the clear radiance,
Slip on my cloths
For I feel the dew grow thick.
Since I cannot gather a handful of moonlight for you
I shall go back to sleep
And hope to meet you in a dream!

A Poem by Du Mu (803-52)

Our final poem demonstrates a highly effective use of imagery – that of a dripping candle – to describe the sadness of separating lovers. This short poem is by Du Mu (803-52), a late Tang poet best known for his lyrical and romantic quatrains.

Deeply in love, but tonight
We seem to be passionless.
I just feel, before our last cup of wine
That s smile will not come.
The wax candle has sympathy
It weeps at our separation,
with tears rolling down
Until day breaks.

Further reading:

Jane Portal (editor), Chinese Love Poems, British Museum Press, London, 2014.

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