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Notes for Songs of a Golden Age: High Tang Poetry-By Shenzhan Liao, edited by Michael Buening

Notes for Songs of a Golden Age: High Tang Poetry-By Shenzhan Liao, edited by Michael Buening

(Quotes and translations from Mr. Ben Wang’s lecture materials)

Last summer, when Mr. Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer at China Institute, came to us to discuss a classical Chinese poetry series for the fall of 2015, we realized it would take place at a very special moment: by then China Institute would have just moved to 100 Washington Street from the charming Upper East Side townhouse where it resided for 44 years. For years, Ben’s lectures on classical Chinese literature have drawn a large number of followers, who were used to coming to the old townhouse, with its library filled with old books and a scholar garden in the backyard. Now they would be attending Ben’s first lecture series at our new home.

Last week, the 3-session series Songs of a Golden Age: High Tang Poetry, was completed with a two-hour lecture by Mr. Wang on Li Bai (李白, 701-763 AD), with an accompaniment of Chinese traditional music played by Mr. Chen Tao, a flutist and dear friend of Mr. Wang. “Class,“ with a familiar way of addressing his audience, Mr. Wang humbly claimed, “it is poets like Li Bai —- and there are so many great poets in ancient China—- that bring you all here. Not me.”

Certainly, when asking someone in China who is the greatest poet of all time in China’s history, Li Bai, also called “Celestial of Poetry” (詩仙), could be a likely answer. Li Bai lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), considered by most Chinese as a golden age in political power, culture and arts, particularly poetry. In Mr. Wang’s own words.

“The ultimate and cumulative power of his [Li Bai] works lies in how the extraordinary poet enjoys la joie de vivre and at the same time can face inevitable pains and despairs in life, even death, with a defiant gaiety: laughing away through tears.”

With anecdotes, stories and a unique way of interpretation full of passion and details, both on Chinese literature and culture, Mr. Wang covered three poems in the entire two hours of his lecture. One example was a poem by Li Bai from 718 AD:

(in traditional character)
(in pinyin)
fǎng dài tiān shān dàoshi wèi yù
quǎn fèi shuǐ shēn zhòng
táo huā dài yǔ nóng
shù shēn shí jiàn lù
xī wǔ bù wén zhōng
yě zhú fēn qīng ǎi
fēi quán guà bì fēng
bù zhī hé suǒ qù
chóu yǐ liǎng sān song

Translation by Stephen Owen:
Tai-tien Mountain
A dog barks amid the sound of waters,
Peach blossoms dark, bearing dew.
Where trees are thickest sometimes see a deer,
And when noon strikes the ravine, hear no bell.
Bamboo of wildness split through blue haze,
A cascade in flight, hung from an emerald peak.
But no one knows where you’ve gone –
Disappointed, I linger among these few pines.

After being charmed by Mr. Wang’s words, the night ended with another music performance by Mr. Chen, who purposefully chose a piece that resonates with the spirit of Li Bai.

The following day, Mr. Wang was very pleased to receive warm notes from the “Class”:

“Laoshi [teacher in Pinyin], it was the best evening ever spent with Li Bai and your deep insights into his poetry, making each line having so much meaning and unforgettable. And of course, as always it is such a special treat to hear Chen Tao. When I listen I do not find the world such a scary place, but one full of haunting beauty. Xiexie [thank you in Chinese]…”

“And now for what I don’t quite know how to put in Chinese and which I want to come out the right way: thank you so much for spending so much time preparing for your lectures, for trying (and managing) to figure out the best way to engage not only our brains, but also our hearts. I truly, truly appreciate it.”

Indeed, no words can really replicate what the audience experienced: the interpretation of Li Bai delivered with Mr. Wang’s particular style, the performance by Mr. Chen connecting what the audience felt about the poem with the music, and the stylish library where the lecture took place, which incorporates traditional Chinese elements into the contemporary and sleek design of China Institute’s new space.

You could really forget it was taking place only blocks from Wall Street.

Now with the fall series over, we look forward to the next season.