Ben Wang’s Special Course: Heart of a Culture: The Tang, Song, and Yuan Poetry of China Part III

Ben Wang’s Special Course: Heart of a Culture: The Tang, Song, and Yuan Poetry of China Part III


Tuesday, 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM
April 7 – June 9, 2020
10 sessions (20 hours)
$465 member / $505 non-member
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)

Blending music and painting – in that the spoken is music and the written painting – the Chinese language is uniquely suited for poetry. The classical Chinese poetry is a seemingly impersonal record of what a poet sees of life, as how it is reflected in Nature. It’s a pictorial composition set in matching tones, thus resulting in a union of literary and musical intensity and emotional depth: a literary genre that the cultivated Chinese have held in the highest esteem since the nascency of Chinese history and culture. A fine classical Chinese poem is a bridge for readers to wander into the mind and heart of the poet who inspires us to marvel at the beauty of a literary genre that transcends the boundary of time and place, in that how life with all its joys and sorrows is portrayed in metaphors and similes.

Classical Chinese poetry reached its heights during the Tang dynasty (618-907). In this 3-part lecture in English, taught consecutively in 3 semesters, starting September 2019, Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer of China Institute, will introduce poetry of the Tang (Tang Shi), Song (960-1280) (Song Ci), and Yuan (1280-1368) (Yuan Qu).  Detailed discussion of the poems and the subtle differences between the 3 will be explained and elaborated to reveal beauty and profundity in their now common, now separate ways. Political and social backgrounds of the Periods, against which the poems were composed, and relationship between Chinese poetry, music, painting and major schools of thought will also be explored.

Song Ci emerged in the twilight years of the Tang but flourished during the ensuing Song dynasty (960-1127). With words written into existing tunes brought into China from Central Asia, Ci allows for more personal expression than the Tang poetry. Whether written with a “heroic abandon (haofang)” or “delicate restraint (wanyue),” Song Ci endures as a hauntingly moving poetic force in Chinese literature, a literary form in which there is a prevailing languorous melancholy that is the heart of Ci.

Qu of the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) is a close cousin of Ci. Derived from the latter, Qu is characterized by lines of unequal length and prescribed rhyming and tonal schemes. Though each Qu poem must be composed according to a chosen metrical song pattern, the poet can add freely “padding words” to the lines, which allows considerable variation in the number of characters per line. Also, in Qu the (then) colloquial language enjoyed an even more elevated status than that in Ci. This led to a dramatic rise of the popularity of Qu poems/songs in the streets and taverns, among actors, entertainers and their patrons, as well as high members of the intelligentsia. Yuan Qu paved the way for new literary genres during the later Ming and Qing dynasties, such as the poetic drama and novel. More important, Qu was an indisputable harbinger to the increasingly more vernacular language of the later centuries until this present day.

Despite the rich poetic images that blend human emotions and Nature, the central themes of Qu are primarily negativism and escapism, which manifests how the poets of those days loathed the new Mongolian rulers, as the Mongolians – then considered savage nomads by the majority Han Chinese, as these northern invaders didn’t even have a written language in the late 13th century, when the Yuan empire was established — ruled China with cruelty, incompetence and inept governance. Particularly disturbing to the Han majority was the abolishment of the traditional examination system, which led to a deathly decline of the social status of the Han scholars whose aspiration to serve the country was direly crushed, resulted in poverty and low social standing.  These hard feelings of rancor on the part of the Han poets thus rendered the Qu poems bravado, disillusionment, pent-up anger, resignation, all of which culminating in a stifled rage and outcry, as how they are well reflected in the Yuan Qu.

As how he’ll conduct his talks on the poetic genre of Tang Shi, Ben Wang, lecturer of this special and stupendous course of cultural, academic, artistic and historical significance, will introduce the lives and selected works – poems never taught, discussed, studied, or annotated in any of the published books before by Ben Wang – of some of the finest Ci and Qu poets. This is a course for all those who are interested in better learning the heart of the Chinese culture. No previous knowledge of Chinese is required.



Ben Wang, is Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of the Renwen Society of China Institute, and Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program. An award-winning published translator, Ben Wang has taught and lectured on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature at Yale, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions. Ben Wang taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University and New York University between 1969 and 1991.

6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
Instructor: Ben Wang