Stephen Owen: Chinese poetry is an education in how to see and experience the world

GMW.cn: Resonance is regarded by many as the glamour of literature, that is, the words of the author express the feeling of the reader exactly. As you have read Tang poems for over 50 years, has there been a moment or a period of time, when a piece of poem has resonated with you like that? I mean, even though the poem was written hundreds of years ago in China, it touched your soul in a certain moment for it had accurately expressed your voice.

Stephen Owen: Of course there are moments in life when the words of a poem are just right; and at such moments I think of those poems. But Chinese poetry is not merely a voice for feelings and thoughts that a person already has; it is also an education in how to see and experience the world. That has shaped me over the years. The great early Qing critic Ye Xie(叶燮) spoke of how there were aspects of the world that could only be said in poetry.

 

GMW.cn: Has classical Chinese literature influenced your life style or how you behave yourself? If yes, could you please name a few aspects of the influence?

Stephen Owen: I think my answer to the first question is the best answer here. I don’t pretend to be a Chinese poet; their world is long gone. Like the rest of us, I am a child of the present. But the poetry lives in the present, shaping the way we notice things in our world from the visible world to the feelings of others and oneself.

 

GMW.cn: You were firstly attracted by Tang poems at the age of 14, which might be a feeling of “flipped” at that time. In the decades afterwards, Chinese literature must have also brought you with great enjoyment and gaiety. Meanwhile, you are fond of American, European and Japanese literature as well. What are the differences between the feelings brought to you by Chinese literature and by literature from other countries?

Stephen Owen: I began as a lover of poetry and remain that—though Chinese poetry obviously holds a special place. Chinese poetry does have overall differences from other traditions, but at the same time each of those traditions is different from all others. I always dislike talking about “Chinese poetry” as a whole, because what is most precious about it is its great diversity. Every attempt to characterize “Chinese poetry” as a whole will encounter dozens of great Chinese poets who do not fit the description. There is no single “essence,” but a continuity and range of change and difference that gives the tradition value and is its enduring strength.

 

GMW.cn: Recently, it has been greatly controversial that 8 classic poems have been deleted from the textbook for the first grade students in elementary schools in Shanghai, while they remain in the listening tapes. Students are no longer required to know every word in the poem or to recite them. Instead, they are supposed to feel the context and rhythmic beauty of these poems. Are you in favor of this change? What do you think are the best ways to teach children ancient poetry?

Stephen Owen: This is a very interesting question and a question with a very different answer than I would give regarding teaching young adults. I like the idea of “growing up with poems.” Perhaps children should learn poetry the way they learn the world outside poetry: they first become familiar with what they do not fully understand; then, over time, they learn the details and the significance of things with which they are already familiar. I think children should memorize (that’s how they develop a sense of rhythm and the beauty of the language). What is most important, however, is to keep returning to the poems, better learning the language, the context, and the family of other poems in which the poem they have known since childhood is embedded. One of the most gratifying experiences as a teacher is the look on a student’s face when he or she suddenly understands something essential in a poem that student had known since childhood.

 

GMW.cn: People have a stereotype that literature experts stay aloof from the mundane world. When you are doing research on Chinese classic literature, have you ever paid attention to the development of contemporary China? Such as the reform, anti-corruption, economy and etcs. Does your study on Chinese classic poetry and culture help you to understand contemporary China better?

Stephen Owen: I am a believer in “liberal arts” education in the following sense: education and reading is not obviously purposeful, giving us the means to understand one particular thing or another. It helps make us a whole person, sensitive to the forces at work in any phenomenon and able to ask the important questions. So the answer is yes, Chinese poetry along with the rest of my educations helps me understand contemporary issues—not just in China.

Interviewed by ZhengYi

GMW.cn

Stephen Owen
American Sinologist

Stephen Owen, is an American sinologist specializing in Chinese literature, particularly Tang dynasty poetry and comparative poetics. He teaches East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.Firstly attracted by Tang poems at the age of 14, he has written or edited dozens of books, articles, and anthologies in the field of Chinese literature.More>>

Follow Guangming Online for exclusive content and more:
  • "Education and reading is not obviously purposeful, giving us the means to understand one particular thing or another. It helps make us a whole person, sensitive to the forces at work in any phenomenon and able to ask the important questions."
  • "I like the idea of “growing up with poems.” Perhaps children should learn poetry the way they learn they learn the world outside poetry."
  • "There is no single “essence,” but a continuity and range of change and difference that gives the tradition value and is its enduring strength."
  • "But Chinese poetry is not merely a voice for feelings and thoughts that a person already has; it also an education in how to see and experience the world. That has shaped me over the years."

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