At the invitation of the Forum of Fine Arts (FOFA), I gave a dinner talk to its members and guests on The Famous Tang Dynasty Poets. The text of my presentation is reproduced below.
The charm & beauty of Chinese poetry & painting has been most succinctly and aptly encapsulated by poet Su Dong Po of Song Dynasty in just a few words, there is poetry in a painting and painting in a poem.
Historians generally agreed that at the peak of Tang Dynasty in the 7 & 8 centuries, China was the strongest, most advanced and richest country in the world, with a population of 50 millions unmatched by others. It had diplomatic relations with about 70 countries and states from all over Asia.
Its capital Changan (now Xian), was the most prosperous, sophisticated and cosmopolitan city in the world too, with one million inhabitants exceeding the capitals of other countries.
The splendours of China attracted numerous foreigners to that country from all over Asia, starting from Korea and Japan, Southeast Asia and as far as Turkey, Iran, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Arabia and so forth via the maritime and land “Silk Routes”, which were the busiest at that time. Changan alone had foreign residents of at least 10,000.
Many came to trade and even more were attracted by China’s advanced civilisation and societal developments and came to observe and study what made the country tick, hoping they could inspire their own governments to emulate China for their future developments.
These foreign residents were very generously and hospitably treated by China which provided them with living quarters to suit their particular needs & lifestyles.
A good number of these foreigners, after years in China, opted to become Chinese citizens, inter married with local people, some even took up Court appointments and their descendants later became an integral part of the multi-ethnic population of China.
Others, like the Japanese , were on government study missions in China for long periods of time to find out if the Tang government structure, tenets of Confucianism, language and its cultural and religious practices could be adopted in Japan in order to propel the nation forward. Based on their strong recommendations, the Japanese government, after much debates and careful considerations, finally decided to do so, thus irreversibly transforming Japan into a sinicised society underpinned by Confucianism.
Against such a background, culture and the arts flourished, and poetry & painting became the favourite intellectual pursuit & pastime of the Confucian scholars, high Court officials, nobilities, cultivated rich and other elites.
Tang Dynasty produced many of the best poets in Chinese history, topped by the poetic genius of Li Bai, who was so prolific and versatile that he composed more than 1000 poems in his lifetime.
The inimitable, creative, free-flowing, romantic and rhythmic style of Li Bai’s poems, as demonstrated in his famed poems, is still being taught and recited in China today as well as in many other Asian countries with sizeable Chinese communities including Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere.
I am dividing my poem presentation this evening in three themes namely, the first three on home & family ties, the fourth on a mother’s love for his beloved son and the fifth on ancestor veneration and filial piety.
Here they come in the order as shown on the screen before you, with help from Chua Aik Hong, the President of FOFA.
Quiet Night Thoughts by Li Bai
Before my bed
There is bright-lit moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:
Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon
Lowering my head
I dream that I’m home.
This is the most popular and well known of all Li Bai’s poems and can be fluently recited by all 6 years old pupils in China & Increasingly by 7 or 8 years old Chinese pupils in Singapore too.
It is prominently included in all Chinese books of poetry on famed Tang poets, and their foreign translations also.
This poem was composed during the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival and commonly celebrated all over China. When Li Bai looked up at the round and bright moon, he thought of nothing but his family members and his far away native home.
Setting off early from White Emperor City
Departing early from White Emperor — amongst many-hued clouds,
Three-hundred miles to Jiang Ling — arriving within the day,
On both banks the apes cry out repeatedly,
My skiff [little boat] has passed ten thousand mountains.
Li Bai was imprisoned in Sichuan Province for several years by rebels who attempted to overthrow the Tang regime, of which he was a loyal supporter. After this rebellion was finally quelled by Government forces and Li Bai became free again, his one and only thought was to reach home immediately in order to be reunited with his beloved family members.
Although his home was more than 300 nautical miles from Sichuan, which would take many days to reach, in his wishful mind he hoped with favourable winds and river tides he could get there in a single day in his tiny boat. As he passed through countless hills and mountains, he knew he was getting nearer and nearer to his home & loved ones. He became more elated and composed.
Incidentally, this is the favourite poem of Mao Zedong, founding Chairman of the Peoples’ Republic of China, and it had inspired him to pursue poetry writing seriously. Like Li Bai, Mao was also a prolific poet and had composed numerous poems on a variety of topics. In one of his most well-known poems, he subtly hinted that, his political and intellectual accomplishments to make China great and glorious again, would surpass the nation’s most celebrated warrior rulers Emperors Wudi of Han Dynasty and Genghis Khan of Yuan Dynasty.
Night Mooring at Maple Bridge (Zhang Zhi)
The moon lowers crows caw frost fills the sky,
Maple trees and fishermen’s lights meet my melancholy gaze;
From beyond Han Shan (Cold Mountain) Temple outside the city of Gu Su (Su Chou),
I hear the sound of the midnight bell as it reaches this traveler’s boat.
On a frosty night with only crows in the sky and maple trees on the river banks to keep this lonely traveller company in his dimly lit tiny boat, he became melancholy and felt home sick, insomnia then set in and sleep had completely eluded him. He suddenly heard the striking of the gong at midnight at the famous Han San Temple in the outskirt of Suzhou town. With the dawning of a new day only hours away, he looked forward to a better day ahead for him to journey on to his next travelling destination.
Incidentally, nowadays many Tang poetry loving Japanese travellers would travel to this ancient famed temple in order to listen to the striking of the gong at midnight, just to relive the memories of this lonely traveller in the poem.
The Chinese are a highly family oriented people and attach deep sentiment to their land of birth and ancestral home there. To them, even the moon in their native village seems brighter and rounder, etc. Even China, as a country, is always regarded an enlarged family unit and all its citizens are considered members of this one big enlarged family.
Our forebears’ generation would always wish to die in their native home in China and be buried there, unlike our generation and our children’s generation where our home is Singapore and this is where most of us would live and be our final resting place.
遊子吟 (Song of the Wanderer) by the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet 孟郊
Song of the Wanderer
From the thread in the hand of a loving Mother,
To the coat on the back of the journeying son.
Swiftly stitching till the moment of departure,
Anxiously fearing a delayed return was she.
Who suggested that the heart of a blade of grass,
Could repay the warmth and brilliance of the Springs?
The poet had so succinctly and poignantly captured this compassionate mother’s love for his travelling son in just a few simple lines. The mother’s love for his son is completely unselfish, unconditional, unending and would always remain connected. She loves her son because she gave him life, nurtured him to adulthood and that love would never end, whatever the future might hold for them both.
In my view, this is the purest form of love between two human beings. It is greater than the love between a man and a woman. It is even deeper and more enduring than the love between a husband and wife.
It’s raining hard at the time of the Ching Ming Festival,
The mourner’s heart is overwhelmed on the road upland.
May I ask where there’s a tavern to drown my sorrows?
The shepherd boy points to Xinghua Village in the distance.
Ching Ming Festival is also called Tomb Sweeping Day in old China and is still observed there at the present time and in Singapore and Malaysia too by the Chinese population. It is a day when family members would visit the ancestors’ grave site as a concrete form of filial piety. The Festival usually falls during end March or early April, often accompanied by lingering light shower in China.
The journeys to and from the grave site would take the whole day and part of the night then. These were exhausting treks along uneven roads or paths with no drinking liquid to quench the travellers’ thirst and they became despondent that they might collapse on the way and unable to discharge their obligation at the grave site. They were overjoyed when a passing shepherd boy told them there was a wine tavern not too far ahead of them where they could quench their thirst and rest their tired bodies before reaching the tomb site.
Filial piety is generally regarded as one of the greatest of Chinese heritages and is still widely practised not only in China but also in Chinese communities overseas such as Singapore & Malaysia.
Burial Site and Fengshui
I will now share with you my own visit more than 20 years ago to my grandfather’s burial place in the county of Dabu in China’s Guangdong Province.
Accompanied by a couple of my uncles and close family members there, we travelled by two “tuk-tuk” vehicles along an uneven road for about one hour, then walked for almost another half hour on a muddy trail up a steep hill slope due to heavy rain the night before. It was an exhausting climb and I almost tumbled on the way up but was helped along by my sturdier younger family members there.
Once we reached the burial site, SERENDIPITY, my tiredness vanished like magic, as I stood at the hilltop surrounded by a most spectacularly stunning 360 degree view all around me. My grandfather’s grave faces the south and east, with hills behind it, and was carefully chosen with strict Fengshui principles so as to bring good health and prosperity to his descendants. Fengshui, the Chinese art of geomancy, is still practised in China by some Chinese people there today and also in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere.
With the excavation of many cemeteries to make way for economic development in Singapore, most dead people nowadays would be cremated with their ashes kept in a ceramic urn in various temples, the columbariums of churches or government crematoriums. Many would also choose to have their ashes after cremation to be scattered into the sea.
Traditionally, Fengshui would apply to one’s house orientation and the correct placement of household furniture, fittings and other contents to ensure household harmony and good fortune but nowadays it also applies to public buildings like offices, hotels, hospitals, condominiums and so forth.
With the rapid economic expansion of China in recent decades and its emergence as an economic superpower second only to the US, Chinese soft powers including Fengshui have now spread to some Western countries especially the US where there is growing number of Fengshui adherents including senior politicians, Hollywood celebrity movie stars and producers, captains of industry and other elites.
Many would be surprised that among its very staunch supporters and practitioners is the overly impatient, fickle-minded and aggressive Donald Trump, who is the current president of the United States no less.
I will now cite two interesting cases where Fengshui had brought good fortune and prosperity to a top-end 5-star hotel and the owner of a suburban bungalow in Singapore.
Despite its very good location at the corner of the busy Orchard and Scott Roads, this high-rise Grand Hyatt Hotel, with superb facilities and amenities, was losing money for several years since its opening in the 1970s contrary to expectations.
Then another more able and farsighted expatriate general manager took over and decided to consult a leading Fengshui master there to see whether the Chinese geomancy art could be applied to improve its business fortune. The Fengshui expert, after inspecting the hotel premises, found that the front entrance into this hotel had a wrong facing but could be modified by slanting it at a certain angle so that wealth would flow into the premises.
This was promptly done with good press coverage. True enough, the hotel’s business soon improved significantly and it had never looked back from then on. Today, Grand Hyatt is one of the leading top hotels there and its room occupancy rate remains high and all its restaurants and other facilities and amenities too are very well patronised throughout the year.
The hotel is owned by His Royal Highness the Sultan of Brunei. One of its hotel floors is always reserved exclusively for him and family and his senior aides and close friends.
The second case concerns an English-educated owner of a suburban corner bungalow with its front directly facing a steep downward road. After he and family had lived there for a short time, the owner’s business enterprise turnover began to decline continually.
One of his closest friends then advised him to consult a leading Fengshui expert to see if Chinese geomancy art could help to improve his business operation. He accepted the advice of his good friend and the latter then introduced him to a top Fengshui practitioner there.
After viewing this property, the Fengshui expert immediately pinpointed the problem was due to the property facing the steep downhill road because his wealth would then flow out of his house.
Conversely, if the same house had faced an upward incline road, wealth would then start flowing into his house. To remedy the adverse situation, he then advised that the owner must immediately demolish his house and to rebuild a new one with a correct facing in line with houses on the road right behind his own property.
He promptly acted on the expert advice given and demolished his house and rebuilt a new one in its place. True enough again, his business enterprise turnover soon began to improve significantly, which more than offset the high cost of rebuilding his new bungalow.
Whether you accept Fengshui as a pure geomancy art, a quasi science or simply dismiss it as a superstitious rubbish, you and you alone must decide and make your decision accordingly.
I thank you for your patience in listening to my rather rambling presentation and I wish you a pleasant evening of good food and fellowship of your other FOFA members.
Lam Pin Foo