School of Chinese Studies
The Melody Goes On… A poem by Qu Yuan and selected poems from Western Han dynasty
Ben Wang’s Special Course, Winter 2021
10 sessions (20 hours)
January 12 – March 16
Tuesday, 6:30 – 8:30pm
Tuition: $500 members / $540 non-members
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)
*This class is taught in English.
屈原Qū Yuán (345-286 B.C.) and離/罹騷Lí Sāo: Encountering Sorrow
Born to aristocracy of the State of Chu (circa 650-232 B.C.), Qu Yuan was the first known poet, and one of the greatest, in Chinese literature. Qu Yuan was barely twenty years old when he started serving as a consultant to King Huai of Chu, but his talent and patriotism drew intense resentment from other inefficient and corrupt ministers who slandered him to the king, accusing him vain and boastful. The king heeded their words and sent Qu Yuan into years of exile, during which time Qu Yuan composed Suffering Throes, or Encountering Sorrow (Li Sao), his masterpiece and one of the most influential poems in Chinese culture, as a remonstrance of his loyalty to his king and as evidence of his love for his country. During Qu Yuan’s exile, King Huai was led by his iniquitous ministers to many disastrous ventures, which finally resulted in his becoming a captive of the northern Qin, where he died.
After the king’s eldest son inherited the throne, Qu Yuan was reinstated as a high minister for a brief time. When he refused to discontinue his criticism of the again-corrupt new court, Qu Yuan was once again banished by the new king to the distant South, where he both voiced his disillusion with politics and lamented his own tragic destiny. Finally, aging, physically weakened and heart-broken, Qu Yuan died by drowning himself in the Mi Lo River. Fifty years after his death, Chu was annihilated by Qin.
Li Sao is the representative work in The Songs of the South, a collection of poems written by Qu Yuan and other poets. There is much evidence to suggest that Qu Yuan was a shaman in the service of the king of Chu, but in the commentaries of many Han commentators and scholars, the shaman motifs are allegorized to stand for Confucian values, which led traditional readers to understand the texts in this way. As a repository of Confucian values, The Songs of the South, as how it is represented by Qu Yuan’s Li Sao, stands second only to The Book of Songs in Chinese literature. Together, The Book of Songs and The Songs of the South shine as the fountainhead to all things related to Chinese culture. (By BW)
Poems of the Former/Western Han: A Bridge
An indispensable poetic bridge between the Book of Songs, the fountainhead to all things related to culture of China, and the later poetic forms, poetry of the Han dynasty, the Former Han (206 B.C.-25A.D.) and the Latter Han (25A.D-221A.D.), introduces the new pentasyllabic and heptasyllabic poems (as opposed to the quartosyllabic poems in the Book of Songs) and thereby marks as an indispensably influential new poetic force in Chinese literature. For the addition of 1 or 3 characters (syllables) in each line wondrously and further enriches the fine works represented in the earlier quarto-syllabic poems and brings more poignancy and profundity to the poetry.
The Han ballads began during the dawning years of the dynasty (206 B.C. -221A.D.), when an official bureau named Yuefu (House of Music or Ballad, in English) was set up by the emperor’s edict to collect the finest folk songs from the countryside, a number of which were narratives that revealed lives and moods of the people. Human emotions are the central theme in these ballads: songs to inspire, move or to amuse the listeners and readers. There are accounts in these works that condemn sufferings caused by wars, as well as some that lament the misery brought on to the peasantry by poverty.
Though more mature and elaborate in style, the ballads are composed in the similar vein to their parental force, the Book of Songs: They portray in more detailed description the times, which not only bears historic significance, but also leads gloriously to the later poetic genres flourished during the following 8 centuries of the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties. (By BW)
Ben Wang: Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute, retired Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program. A published writer on classical Chinese poetry and others, Ben Wang is an award winning translator both from Chinese into English and vice versa; He taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991.
Ben Wang teaches and lectures on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature, including the Book of Songs, the Songs of the South; Han, Tang and Song poetry; Yuan and Ming poetic dramas; Story of the Stone of the Qing; classical Kunqu Drama and Beijing Opera; Literati Painting. Ben Wang’s lectures on and translations of Kunqu dramas have been reviewed and acclaimed three times in the New York Times by the Times’ music and drama critic James Oestreich as “magnificent,” “captivating,” and “colorful.”
Since 1989, Ben Wang has lectured (extensively on the above-mentioned subjects）at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, New York University, Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s College in California, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, 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.
Latest publications in English:
- Forlorn in the Rain: Translation and Annotation of Selected Classical Chinese Poetry and Others; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: Oct. 2018
- A series of 4 books on the Forbidden City in Beijing, China:
- We All Live in the Forbidden City
- This Is the Greatest Place!
- Bowls of Happiness
- What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?
(Published by China Institute and Released by Tuttle Publishing; 2014, 2015, the series has garnered 9 US book awards, as of September 2016.)
- Laughter and Tears: Libretti from Highlight Scenes of 26 Classical Poetic Kunqu Dramas; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: 2009.