Dear Readers and Followers as well as Lovers and Collectors of Fine Quotes and Poems,
This post is an interesting brief excursion into Chinese history and literary culture, introduced with an elegant example of calligraphy by the author [ SoundEagle🦅ೋღஜஇ ].
The quoted poem exemplifies the strong ethical focus of much traditional Chinese literature, and the translations provided, when juxtaposed with the original text, well illustrate the economy of expression that is characteristic of the Chinese language.
As an evocative but concise vehicle frequently incorporating expressive folk influences filtered through the minds of Chinese literati, poetry has been unswervingly held in exceptionally high regard in Chinese culture since antiquity, insofar as poetry has facilitated a format and a forum for both public and private expressions of profound emotion, sentiment, contemplation, morality, philosophy and spirituality, offering a diverse audience of peers, readers and scholars vast insights into the inner sanctum and intimate life of Chinese writers unfolding via their finest penmanship across more than two millennia. To that extent, Westerners who are well-disposed to the aesthetic and literary aspects of oriental societies have discovered in Chinese poetry an engrossing and gratifying field of study via its exemplification of quintessential distinctions or defining contrasts between the occidental world and Chinese civilization, and also on its own terms and merits, so much so that Chinese poetry has bestowed considerable influence and contribution upon poetry worldwide.
Classical Chinese poetry is traditional Chinese poetry composed in Classical Chinese (also known as Literary Chinese 文言文 or 古文) and characterized by certain traditional forms, modes and genres in connection with or rooted in specific historical periods, such as the poetry of the Tang dynasty (唐朝) from 618 to 907, which is traditionally considered to be the greatest era for Chinese poetry. The map below depicts the six major protectorates during this dynasty (唐朝的六大都護府示意地圖).
A key aspect of Classical Chinese poetry is its potent inter-relationship with other forms of Chinese art such as Chinese painting and Chinese Calligraphy (書法), as demonstrated in the topmost image by SoundEagle🦅ೋღஜஇ.
This featured poem 疾風知勁草 昏日辨誠臣 勇夫安識義 智者必懷仁 has existed for more than one thousand and three hundred years, and is available in several variations. The poem is reputed to be written by Emperor Taizong of Tang 唐太宗 (28 January 598 – 10 July 649), previously Prince of Qin, personal name Li Shimin (李世民), postumous names Wen Huangdi (文皇帝) and Wen Wu Dasheng Daguang Xiao Huangdi (文武大聖大廣孝皇帝). He was the second emperor of the Tang dynasty (唐朝) of China, ruling from 626 to 649. Also known as a politician, (military) strategist and poet, he has been deemed as one of the greatest emperors in China to the extent that his reign became the exemplary model against which all future emperors were benchmarked. Known as the “Reign of Zhenguan” (貞觀之治), his era is regarded as a golden age in ancient Chinese history and was treated as required study and reference material for future crown princes. Emperor Taizong continued to develop imperial examination systems (科舉), and asked his officers to be loyal and true to the policies rather than people or certain individuals, so as to eliminate corruption.
This poem functions as the emperor’s approbation of the upright character of Xiao Yu 蕭瑀 (574 – 647), courtesy name Shiwen (時文) and posthumously known as Duke Zhenbian of Song (宋貞褊公), who served the emperor either as a chancellor or in other designated roles six times and was dismissed six times before being chosen by the emperor in 643 to become one of the 24 dignitaries of Lingyan Pavilion (凌煙閣) commemorated with life-size portraits for their meritorious services and contributions to the Tang empire. In steadfastly maintaining virtues and principles with uncompromising candour and integrity, Xiao Yu’s upfront and upright approach to administrative and court affairs had tried the patience of some officials so much and often that his status and professional fortune had waxed and waned repeatedly as a result of going in and out of their favours. Apart from enduring repeated recruitments and dismissals over his entire career by several emperors under whom he served justly and faithfully, Xiao Yu not only had surrendered and dedicated his own lands, real estates and military power without hesitation to Emperor Taizong’s father, namely Emperor Gaozu of Tang 唐高祖 (who, by some accounts, actually seized Xiao’s property and awarded it to his accomplished military officers, and later returned the property to Xiao, who then divided and distributed the property to his clan members, only keeping the family shrine in honour of his ancestors), but also had the courage and perseverance throughout his careers to advise, persuade and admonish the various emperors whom he served without fear or favour. In 635, on making Xiao Yu the de facto chancellor once again, the aforementioned Emperor Taizong of Tang 唐太宗 wrote a poem that included the featured quote and remarked as follows:
After the sixth year of the Wude era [in 623], Emperor Gaozu considered deposing the crown prince and making me crown prince, but could not resolve to do so. I was not tolerated by my brothers, and I often really feared that instead of being rewarded for my accomplishments, I would be punished. Yet this person [Xiao Yu] could not be tempted by material goods or threatened by death, and thus he was truly a pillar for the empire!
The emperor further uttered to Xiao Yu:
Your faithfulness and probity cannot be exceeded even by the holy men of antiquity; however, your overzealousness to distinguish between good and evil also sometimes renders you difficult to tolerate.
Such an upright and incorruptible character as embodied by the honourable deeds as well as the scrupulous dedication and unflinching sacrifices of Xiao Yu is patently worthy of being immortalized by the poem as the personification of enduring loyalty, integrity, bravery and forthrightness achieved with benevolence and righteousness, but without favouritism and transgression.
Furthermore, there existed the larger context of governance and civil service beyond the interpersonal and political context regarding the relationship forged between an eminently dutiful official such as Xiao Yu and his commanding emperor who presided over the vast administration of the Tang empire. Classical Chinese poetry reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty (唐朝) from 618 to 907, during which poets and poems were in great abundance, and poetry was integrated into almost every aspect of the social life and professional arena of the literate class, including becoming an integral constituent of the imperial examinations (科舉) sat by anyone aspiring to a government post:
Chinese imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China for selecting candidates for the state bureaucracy. The concept of choosing bureaucrats by merit rather than birth started early in Chinese history but using written examinations as a tool of selection started in earnest during the mid-Tang dynasty. The system became dominant during the Song dynasty and lasted until it was abolished in the late Qing dynasty reforms in 1905.
The exams served to ensure a common knowledge of writing, the classics, and literary style among state officials. This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule. The examination system played a significant role in tempering the power of hereditary aristocracy, military authority, and the rise of a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats.
A scholar using the pseudonym of Tomi the Art Historian has reflected longitudinally on the important connections between “Government, Bureaucracy, and Ancient China” plus the lessons that can be learnt by contemporary governments both in the East and the West as follows. The account also imparts a decent summary of what scholastic prerequisites Xiao Yu would have to amass and attain before he could ever be accepted by the government to join the administrative elites. Such a towering level of erudition and excellence as required by ancient Chinese governments and their sovereign rulers has no equivalent or counterpart anywhere in the modern world.
So, I’ve been lecturing and posting my lectures online to my students. As I was doing so, I couldn’t help but think of our recent administration’s abject failure in understanding how government works, and how their attempts to cripple government ha[ve] resulted in the death of US citizens.
China was a remarkably successful civilization for most of its 5000 year history. Why? Because it had a great bureaucracy. We know [that] bureaucracy [i]s a dirty wor[d], but really, it is a necessary evil. If you want a government that works, you have to have a functioning bureaucracy.
The Chinese figured this out early and used it to great effect during most of [their] history. Their secret? The Chinese Civil Service Exam.
If you wanted to work in government, you had to pass the civil service exam. And believe me, not just anyone could pass this thing. Picture an exam that encompasses the Bar for lawyers, the CPA for accountants, and then several Ph.D. level comps on history, military matters, cultural subjects, and religion. It was quite the gatekeeper!
As a result, only the very best and brightest Chinese men held government jobs (the system excluded women). It didn’t matter [as to what] your background [was]: anyone could sit for the exam (except women). If you didn’t pass, no government job for you. It didn’t matter if your family was rich, or titled, you had to pass. Villages would often pool their resources to educate a few of their brightest boys to sit for the exam.
What resulted was a true meritocracy. Of course it wasn’t perfect, no human system is. There certainly was the occasional bribery scandal, cheating, etc. But for the most part, it was a system that worked very well.
China was a huge country (and remains so), it was always multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-religious. What tied [it] all together was their strong and well-functioning government that existed outside of any particular emperor. I suppose [that] you could call them the “deep state.” They kept things going, getting taxes collected, building roads, canals, and the Great Wall, feeding their huge population, and enjoying the highest level of technological development on the earth.…
Am I advocating for such a system? Of course not. But I think [that] there is something to be said about investing in the needed infrastructure to keep a great government working. If you want a great country, you have to have a great bureaucracy. The Chinese learned this very early. I thought [that] the USA had learned it, but I guess not.
We are rapidly finding out the cost of a government that is gutted and incapable of responding to a crisis. The cost is the lives of our fellow citizens.
(This is NOT meant as a support to the current government of the People’s Republic of China! They are totalitarian bullies and Chinese scholars educated for the Civil Service Exam would weep to see what their country has become.)
This particular Chinese quatrain, namely jueju (絕句), is in a five-syllable form called wujue (五絕), considered by traditional literary critics to be the most difficult form of regulated verse (近體詩), which is one of the most important forms of Classical Chinese poetry. Limited to exactly 20 characters, writing a wujue (五絕) demands the consummate use of each Chinese character to create a well-crafted poem, and entails the supreme command of symbolic language as required by the refinement of jueju (絕句).
As with other forms of Chinese poetry, tonal metre in jueju (絕句) is a complex process comparable to the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables in sonnets, since a poet writing a jueju (絕句) or similar lüshi-style poem (律詩) needs to alternate level and oblique tones both between and within lines.
Other rules as applied to the jueju (絕句) include regular line length; a single rhyme in even-numbered verses; strict patterning of tonal alternations; a major caesura before the last three syllables; optional parallelism and grammaticality of each line as a sentence.
Jueju poems (絕句) are always quatrains; or more specifically, a matched pair of couplets (對聯) where each line comprises five or seven syllables. Overall, each couplet generally forms a distinct unit, and the third line usually introduces some turn of thought or direction within the poem.
疾 風 知 勁 草 ”, literally meaning “ Strong wind knows tough grass. ”, already existed as an idiom (a phrase or expression with a figurative, non-literal meaning) as early as 23 AD, supposedly conceived by Emperor Guangwu 光武帝 (15 January 5 BC – 29 March 57 AD) of the Han dynasty (漢朝). It can be translated more freely and meaningfully into less literal but more idiomatic English prose as “The storm puts strong grass to the test.”, conveying that one’s true colours are revealed after a severe or daunting test. This idiom is analogous in meaning to the Italian proverb “ The good seaman is known in bad weather. ” Both the Chinese idiom and Italian proverb convey that the true worth of a person can only be unquestionably apparent when difficult times or challenging circumstances stretch the person to the limit. In addition, there might even be the latitude of interpreting the Chinese idiom as having a secondary meaning or an underlying import that a flexible or resourceful rather than an unbending or inveterate person will better survive a taxing trial, insofar as a tree with a stiff trunk and rigid branches will be snapped and overwhelmed whereas a grass with only pliable leaves will be safely greeted by the powerful wind, thus coming through unscathed.The first line of the poem, “
昏 日 辨 誠 臣 ”, literally means “ Dusky day recognizes honest statesmen. ”, signifying that one’s integrity is tested during gloomy, turbulent times.The second line, “
勇 夫 安 識 義 ”, rhetorically asks “ How can brave men ever know rectitude? ”, declaring that one’s sense of justice and morality is beyond mere bravery.The third line, “
智 者 必 懷 仁 ”, states “ Wise persons must possess kindness. ”, indicating that wisdom and compassion go hand in hand.The last line, “
+ The first half of the poem begins with a metaphorical proclamation that only the grass that can withstand the force of an intense gale is truly known to be strong. It then intimates that only in times of sociopolitical turmoil can a person in office be identified as a loyal minister or an honest statesman.
+ The second half of the poem asserts with a rhetorical question that people who exercise courage without wisdom are just brave men who do not know righteousness at all. It concludes that only those who are both wise and brave can truly possess benevolence and righteousness, for they have genuinely comprehended what kindness and justice are.
+ + + The whole poem edifies us that only the strong and sincere can bear hardship and turmoil; and that only the wise and valiant can know righteousness and cherish benevolence.
Ancient Chinese Poem
💨 疾 風 知 勁 草 🌾
Poem Explained in Modern Chinese Prose
Literal English Translation of Ancient Chinese Poem
Strong wind knows tough grass.
Compact English Translation of Ancient Chinese Poem
Only the strong and sincere can bear hardship and turmoil.
Only the wise and valiant can know righteousness and cherish benevolence.
Full English Translation of Modern Chinese Prose
Only in the violent gale can the strength and vigour of grass be known.
Only in the dark and turbulent age can the loyalty and honesty of officials be recognized.
Without wisdom, how can brave men ever understand the justice of serving the public, the country, the people and the community?
Only those who are both wise and courageous can be certain to cherish loyalty, benevolence and righteousness to and for the people.
Considering that the quoted poem comes in at least two variations (one of which has “ 板 蕩 識 誠 臣 ” as the second line), and given that its first line, “ 疾 風 知 勁 草 ”, is a figurative idiom that already existed roughly at the start of the first millennium, more than 600 years before the poem was written, one is left with some trepidation about specifying the pedigree or provenance of a quotation, which in this case happens to be an ancient Chinese poem presenting the issue of partial indeterminacy or circumscribed accuracy of its origin(s) and authorship(s) to any quoter who wishes to credit the quotee with total precision or unequivocal fidelity. Another issue incurred by such a quotation is the challenge posed by translating idioms, where a literal word-by-word translation of an opaque, abstruse or inscrutable idiom will most probably fail to convey the same meaning in other languages. Indeed, any quotation presented with misattribution (attributed to the wrong person) or mistranslation (garbled in translation) qualifies as a misquotation, the variety and ramifications of which are discussed in great detail in the post entitled The Quotation Fallacy “💬”.