This week I gave a paper at a conference on “Translating China” at the Confucius Institute center at my university, the University of Texas at Dallas. Helped by my wise assistant on these matters, Daisy Guo, I read a few of my translations of the great Tang Dynasty poets.
One of the themes of the conference turned out to be Chinese metaphysics–if that’s the right word. If it means what Aristotle meant, that is, “further reflections on physics (the study of the productive and reproductive process of nature)”, then it could accurately describe this branch of Chinese philosophy. But if it means “the study of the supernatural (that which is not part of nature and temporal processes)”–the usual “Western” meaning–then it would be the wrong word.
Recent developments in cosmological physics implying that if the universe is made of anything, it’s not made basically of matter or static “stuff” but of dynamic feedback, seem to confirm the ancient Chinese (and Heraclitean) notion of harmonic change–CHI–as the origin and foundation of all things. Poetic form is the way feedback is generated in language–if you rhyme and keep to a metrical form, every word affects every other word. Classical Chinese poetry has many such rules, and so it naturally expresses chi. Here are a couple of the poems.
*Farewell, Upon Passing Mount Jin Men
Li Bai (701-762)
And now at length I’ve passed beyond Jin Men
On my adventure to the land of Chu.
The mountains end, the flatlands open out,
The Yangtze meets the vast plains and pours through.
The moon is flung upon its heavenly mirror,
The clouds grow mirages of towers and sea;
But still I love the waters of my homeland
That travel with my boat a thousand li.
A Song of Liang Zhou
Wang Zhihuan (688-744)
The Yellow River climbs away
to far white clouds and sky;
A lonely outpost fortress lies
in mountains ten miles high.
Qiang flute, why must you take to heart
the “Willow” song, alas?
You know the spring wind never blows
across the Yu Men pass.