- Bamboo, Orange, Ocean, and Beyond
The oldest Chinese poem is a very short one with eight words only, two in four pairs, roughly translated into English like this:
In its straightforward description of the early hunting days when our ancestors were making bows from bamboo trees, we see how humans were destroying nature, as well as how smart they were in using bamboo branches to make a bow; we see how they captured animals and consumed their meat. From the earliest days of literature, nature poems were anti-nature; that is, about how opposed to nature human actions were. Later poets tried to sing of how beautiful nature was, but their words paled in the light of their cruelty in killing and eating other creatures.
The difference between nature poetry and eco-poetry seems to be the awareness, in the latter, of human nature: how we destroy the balance of the natural world around us. Part of the awareness results in an attempt to reinterpret the earlier poems. Why were there human voices in the deep, quiet forest in Wang Wei's "Deer Enclosure"? Why was sunset reflected on the green moss? Was it a beautiful scene for Wang Wei or horrible deforestation? The awakening sense of ecology is also seen in reevaluating our daily life, as Duo Duo writes in his poem "Gratitude": "In returning what we've taken, we take again." Duo Duo criticizes everything we do today to despoil nature, from mining to drilling to cutting down trees. Yet we imagine ourselves to be "singers of the earth"— in singing, we forget for a brief moment our sinful actions. Singers or sinners, we are part of what we simultaneously enjoy and destroy. But we also see how small we are: a chrysanthemum, an oriole, a croaker. We are mixed into nature, as Song Wei suggests in his poem "Small Notes in My Old Age":
I return to the village and see lots of red pepperssunbathing on the threshing floor with me [End Page xxvii]
Xi Du expresses something similar in his poem "Seabirds" but with a broader perspective—the land and sea and living creatures and even things we build all responding to each other:
Sometimes the sea meanders to the land, folded as a seagull.Sometimes the land walks to the sea, hiding in a boat.The sea and land go deeper to each other through rain and lightning.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .while crowds of white-robed monks rush to the sunrise
It is probably in this holistic view of the world that we feel less guilty of being a destructive and consumerist human, seeing ourselves as plants, birds, rain, and even "fifty-year-old dust" with feathers and wings, as Zhang Qinghua says in his poem "Dozing at Middle Age." That's how contemporary Chinese poets see themselves— instead of anthropomorphizing other species.
Another interesting feature of eco-poetry is the awareness of geography. Ancient poets name localities in their poems; later poets talk only vaguely about villages and rivers. In returning to the ancient tradition, contemporary Chinese poets are writing about their hometowns, or where they live and work. For instance, Song Wei writes about his hometown, Muchun, in Sichuan province; Gu Ma writes about a small town on the ancient Silk Road in northwest China; Li Suo writes about Kashgar, where she grew up; Jike Bu about Cold Mountains, where she has spent all her life; Lü De'an about a small village by the Ocean Corner where he lived; Jiang Hao about Hainan, the South Sea Island; Duo Duo, even more specifically, about the White Sand Gate in the South Sea Island, where he migrated to; Li Heng, who moves around, writes about "almost-notown." There is an old saying in Chinese, "every mountain raises one kind of person, and so does every river." For example, in Yu Xiaozhong's poem we feel the River Qi disposition, and in Zhang Er's the Buji River temperament.
In China, poets are not just poets but mountain poets, river poets, urban poets, or poets of the grassland. And they are not just any mountain poets or any river poets, but poets of specific...