Month: November 2019

Sunjata

Sunjata is a west African epic surrounding King Sunjata who founded the kingdom of Mali. Its dates are unknown as the story itself comes from storytelling rooted in the Malian tradition, which has resulted in different tellings of the story as well as legends surrounding the figure of Sunjata. These legends include many tales of sorcery, such as the story of Sunjata’s birth itself and how his mother was cursed by a powerful witch. The version of Sunjata found in the Norton Anthology of World Literature is told in such a tone that makes it feel like reading about a legend, not a man. While Sunjata was indeed a real person, many of his deeds are exaggerated to the point where he becomes a character more powerful than any mortal man. Many figures throughout history are also portrayed in this way, such as Alexander the Great in Europe and Miyamoto Musashi in Asia.

Sunjata is portrayed as a child with a destiny, a trope that has been used in countless works of literature. What I liked was that his origin story, like many others, presented him with an obstacle to overcome, namely that he could not walk. But what I found interesting was that he only learned to walk once he stopped using a staff to help him up. This is not only an early example of Sunjata’s strength but could also be a metaphor for finding inner strength rather than relying on any sort of crutch.

One line in the story I found somewhat interesting was “God gave Sunjata feet.” This particular line takes place around the time when Sunjata first learned to walk on his own, without any assistance from a staff. It doesn’t initially seem like it fits to say that after Sunjata learned to walk, God gave him feet. I’m not sure if this is a mistranslation or if the ‘feet’ is actually a metaphor for Sunjata gaining strength as he decided to become a hunter. This line may be an example of the story having such a  tone as the one I described earlier.

There are many lines in this story that provoke sort of a playful mood, such as the one about his iron staff: “Some people say he made the bent iron staff into his bow, but don’t repeat that.” The fact that it’s even implied that the bent iron staff became his bow makes the statement seem true, but the writer of this particular version is saying it might not be. Again, I’m not sure if this could be a mistranslation, but this might be another example of the ‘legendary’ tone of this work of literature.

Another aspect of this story that I enjoyed was the level of detail and the means of describing said detail. This story uses “inventories” quite a bit, especially when describing character actions. In one line, Sunjata “stood up, put up his crocodile-mouth hat, took his hunter’s hammock, his quiver, bow, and fly whisk, shut the front door, and went out he back.” While many people dislike this way of describing character actions, I like it because it gives me an accurate picture of what the characters are doing and also adds to the playful, legendary tone of this piece. This style of writing can be found in other epics as well, so it’s safe to say that this style of writing definitely has its place in literature.

This tale is filled with Sunjata’s feats of physical strength and prowess in battle, but one event I found also interesting is toward the end of the book, when Sunjata inhaled a poison powder and was completely unaffected. While it would be easy to assume that this is another example of Sunjata being made to seem more legend than man, it could also have been real as he could have built an immunity to the poison. We tend to think of physical strength as something a human can achieve, but poison as something that kills all humans no matter how strong they are. This is a common misconception, and yet the work of Sunjata could be playing on our tendencies to assume that certain things cannot be achieved by humans.

However, one example of a legendary feat that truly can’t be achieved by a human is when he lights the torches and that his own light was more powerful than the others. It’s heavily implied that Sunjata is magical in some way and that is why he’s able to do this, so the story could also be hinting at magical origins for all of his strength and other attributes.

One final thing I find interesting is that while many people are aware that the story of Lion King has actually been stolen from the manga Kimba the White Lion, not so many of those people know that the story itself is also loosely based on Sunjata. This can easily be inferred from one of the legends surrounding Sunjata: that he has the strength of a lion. There are many parallels between this story and Lion King such as that he learned to be strong after the death of his father. The fact that a Disney movie is based on Sunjata shows how the epic has influenced storytelling and media even today. 

Works cited:

Puchner, Martin, editor. Sunjata. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th edition. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. pp. 12-59

Gabler, Jay. Twin Cities Daily Planet. 18 Jan, 2012. https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/lion-king-disney-sundiata. Accessed 23 Nov. 2019.

Li Bo

Image result for drinking alone with the moon li bo

Of all the Tang poets, Li Bo is considered to be one of the most important. His poetry is most famous for its prominent Daoist imagery, taking ordinary encounters with nature into something almost magical. Because of his originality in the way he describes his relationship with nature in his poetry, there are even legends that Li Bo died from drowning while trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. The Norton Anthology describes his work as supplying “an additional dimension by describing Daoist worlds beyond the world, evoking moments of history and legend” while most Tang poetry “tends to treat the world at hand.” Li Bo was also known for his relationship with liquor, and seemed to have a bit of a drinking problem. It is even likely that a majority of his poetry was written while he was in a drunken state.Image result for drunk meme

He was a challenger of social conventions. Li Bo never took the civil service examination, he was dismissed from a post at the Hanlin Academy for his drinking problems, and even arrested for treason near the end of his life (1116). Therefore, not only is he loved for his way with nature and his ability to transform a scene into words, but he is also loved for his character of a man who liked to live life a little on the edge of social expectations. Li Bo initially gained his fame from poetry that tells stories of immortals and encounters with the heavens (1117). He enjoyed writing his poetry in old verse and in the imitation of folk songs, but he could also write about the hardships of life as well as the beautiful (1117). He was a character like no other who seemed to live to walk to the beat of his own drum, and go beyond the restrictions of reality in his work.

One of my favorite poems by Li Bo in the Norton Anthology was Drinking Alone with the Moon.I thought it seemed to embody all that was a critical work of Li Bo. It, of course, begins with the consumption of wine, and drinking in solitude amongst a tranquil setting,

A pot of wine among the flowers.

I drink alone, no friend with me.

I raise my cup to invite the moon.

He and my shadow and I make three.

Although the poem seems to be lighthearted, according to Paul Rouzer, drinking alone was a very unusual activity for the ancient Chinese and they were known to be very sociable drinkers. The idea of drinking with only the company of the moon was almost unheard of, adding to the peculiarity of Li Bo’s poetry and character. The moon itself, seems to be a symbol of loneliness or isolation in his poetry as well as other Tang poets. I think it would be important to note that a lot of Li Bo’s poetry revolved around drinking or sitting in solitude, such as Sitting Alone by Jingting Mountain and In the Quiet Night, a particularly somber poem that reads:

The floor before my bed is bright:

Moonlight–like hoarfrost–in my room.

I lift my head and watch the moon.

I drop my head and think of home.

I have found it interesting that even though he was wealthy and a part of the rising bureaucracy, he enjoyed writing about tranquil settings in nature as well as common people. This could be taken as a reflection of Li Bo’s un-satisfaction with life amongst the intellectuals and his feelings of isolation throughout the Tang Dynasty.

Works Cited:

Puchner, Martin, general editor. Norton Anthology of World Literature Volume B. W.W Norton & Company, 2018. 

Rouzer, Paul. Asian Topics on Asia for Educators || Great Tang Poets: Li Bo, Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu/at/libo/lb04.html.

Images:

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTj4pjtUsOkv7CGrm6_cN3WFnyQaznxdiSJN0-pPosR-B6wlcu6Iw&s

https://images.app.goo.gl/TjzGSaFDGrYSpc2V7

Sei Shonagon, “The Pillow Book”

Image of Sei Shonagon.

Sei Shonagon lived in an ear where men could have many women at their sides, all classified by hierarchy of importance to the Lord. She was a court woman who was well know among the her court and others for being a skilled writer and poet, even gaining the rivalry of others such as Murasaki Shikibu. While she may have written other note worthy pieces, Shonagon is well known for her work The Pillow Book.

In this piece The Pillow Book Shonagon recounts her time in the court, sometimes giving us a shot of court life and other times allowing us a glimpse into the culture that she was accustomed to. One of the moments we get a glimpse into is how superstitious the Japanese seem to be in their beliefs. In class we mentioned about how there was a gamification to the idea of the getting hit with as a stick in “2. Times of year.” Shonagon writes, “It’s miraculous fun when someone manages somehow to get in a strike…” It seems like harmless fun, but once someone gets struck, the court beings to laugh while the victim cries. It seems that while the gamification is clearly there, there is also this underlying belief that if one is struck with the stick surely they will be the next to have a child. While this is the eventual end goal, there is no real rush to get there as a court woman. Once you have a child all your fun is gone, you spend your days caring for the child rather than the court men.

In some ways this would explain the feeling of having so much time to create such details within the pieces she writes. She was known to have at least one child and thus would’ve had to spend much time watching over them versus visiting with the court men. While, yes, there are some piece about time spend with the court men, those could be reminiscent from the times she was without child, allowing her that free time to spend with them. Now however, she has become the observer, giving us the gift of seeing what she had seen through intricate details of the people and things around her. A prime example of this comes from a passage in “20 The Sliding Panels That Close off the North East Corner.” In this passage she describes the clothes His Excellency Korechika “wearing a rather soft and supple cloak in the cherry-blossom combination, over deep violet gathered trousers of heavy brocade and white under-robes.” If anyone has ever had a peek at what a traditional kimono looks like, they’ll be able to see this image that Shonagon has masterfully painted with her words. Similarly she takes the time to describe the type of clothing the women are wearing as well, which is equally as beautiful as what the men are wearing, “..we gentlewomen sat with our cherry blossom combination Chinese jackets worn draped loosely back from the shoulders. Our robes were a fine blend of wisteria and kerria-yellow and other seasonal combinations, the sleeves all spilling out on display below the blinds that hung from the little half-panel shutters.” Instantly the image of a traditional court room fills the mind, the face and bodies of the court women hidden leaving only the rivers of fabrics to be seen from the half opened blinds. These descriptions don’t diminish the true power of Shonagon’s skills, in fact they play hand in hand with her intellect.

In the same section as the above paragraph, Shonagon improvises a poem for her Lady. The piece is an adaptation of a poem written by a father to his daughter:

“With the passing Years

My years grow old upon me

yet when I see

this lovely flower

I forget age and time.”

Shonagon took this poem and on the spot changed the meaning with the simple switch of the line ‘flower of spring’ to ‘your face, my lady’ giving Her Majesty a great compliment while fulfilling the task she was given. Not only was Shonagon great with her use of words and the images she could paint with those words, but she had an intellectual view pushing forward throughout each of the pieces discussed and all of the pieces she wrote in her lifetime.

Works Cited:

 

Images:

Ukiyo-e Search. https://ukiyo-e.org/image/mfa/sc172375. Accessed, November 13, 2019.

Tes. https://www.tes.com/lessons/e28HLmMB_-lW8w/heian-period-kyoto-court-lasting-legacy-of-culture

Tao Qian & “The Peach Blossoms Spring”

 

Tao Qian was a Chinese poet (365-427) who is legendary in China, known as a major figure of China’s literary tradition and a noted recluse. The Norton claims that “no Chinese poet before or after him captures with more immediate emotion the simple pleasures of country life, the value of being true to one’s inner nature” (p.1091). He served for 13 years as a government official but suddenly resigned to become a self-sufficient farmer in peace (1091). To explain his unconventional decision Qian says “Whenever I have been involved in official life I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and belly”, quoted in the Norton (1091).

As a farmer, Qian experienced food shortages and other hardships, but felt that the “excessive formality” and “widespread corruption” of official life robbed him of his ability to pursue his inclinations such as: drinking wine, gardening and writing poetry (Britannica). From this we have been gifted with poems such as “The Peach Blossoms Spring” and “Twenty Poems After Drinking Wine”. Here, I will analyze and discuss Tao Qian’s highly-esteemed poem “The Peach Blossoms Spring”.

“The Peach Blossoms Spring” depicts a fisherman who accidentally stumbles upon a beautiful grove of peach trees in bloom which he explores until he reaches the foot of a mountain “whence issued the spring” (1093). The fisherman sees then a small opening in the mountain-side through which he can barely pass, but on the other side discovers an entire community of people: houses, gardens, children, old men and families who all welcome him with hospitality. The poem explains this secret community as refugees who fled from the Qin dynasty and had simply stayed there and grown quietly over generations since. Using the trope of a utopian society, Qian suggests spiritual benefit from withdrawing from society, particularly a tyrannous and harmful society.

Qian describes in detail the community behind the mountain wall to display the contentment that can be found when one follows their own path. He describes the daily trials of farming the land, the worthiness of self-sufficiency and the peaceful leisure in such a society where “Children wandered about singing songs, / Graybeards went paying one another calls” (p. 1094). This perfect utopia Qian creates is comparable to an imaginal realm that exists only in ideal. The element of a hidden opening to the community through a narrow pathway, hidden in a grove of peach trees adds to the ethereal tone of the scene. It feels as though the fisherman passes into another magical world.

Although the fisherman gets to experience this utopia, he does not seem to have received the desired effect from the experience. When the fisherman leaves, he is asked by the people to keep their existence a secret. However, the first thing he does upon reaching the city is report them to the magistrate. This points to Qian’s personal struggle over choosing his official life and the life of a recluse, or in other words, choosing to stay “convention-bound” or “rise up high to find my own kind” (Qian p.1094). As Qian’s verse describes the hidden community from the fisherman story, the reader gets a sense of the tranquil utopia that requires no societal rules or dictation, where “no king’s tax was paid” (Qian 1094). Qian’s life-philosophy becomes clear from his praiseful depiction of the community:

Although they had no calendar to tell / the four seasons still filled out a year. / Joyous in their ample happiness / They had no need of clever contrivance. / … The pure and the shallow belong to separate worlds: (Qian 1094)

The picture of happiness depicted in “The Peach Blossoms Spring” resonates with readers all over the world, as it did with me. Utopian literature is fascinating in its idyllic creation of a equal and just society in which, as Qian chose in his own life, one can follow one’s own inclinations. Qian lived in the Period of Disunion, the four hundred years between the Han and Tang dynasty, during which a long sequence of dynasties occurred in a short amount of time (p. 1091). In this time of uncertainty, Buddhism and Daoism were spreading rapidly, religious schools of thought quite different from the duty-driven and serving philosophies of Confucianism. These religious ideas made their way into much of Qian’s writing, including “The Peach Blossoms Spring”. According to the Norton, Daoism and Buddhism both sanctioned a retreat from public life, therefore encouraging Qian’s decision as well as influencing the utopian aspect of “The Peach Blossoms Spring” (p. 1091).

This cultural context gives even further insight into the themes of seclusion and public vs. private life and one’s reaction to the society which one is born into. “The Peach Blossoms Spring” is a timeless work that calls the reader to bring a level of awareness to their own existence and to separate oneself from one’s society, something that will always be useful in this corrupted world.

Works Cited:

Puchner, Martin, editor. “Tao Qian.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W. W.        Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1091–1092.

Tao Qian. “The Peach Blossoms Spring.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.    W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1093 –1094.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Tao Qian.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia            Britannica, Inc., 1 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Tao-Qian.

Wang Wei

A poet by mistake. Wang Wei lived during the Tang dynasty in China. When he was twenty years old he was suspected of collaborating with An Lushan’s rebellion against the Tang dynasty. With his brother’s aid he was able to clear his name. Wang Wei was close enough to An Lushan’s rebellion to use that as an inspirational source for his poetry, “While I was Imprisoned in Puti Monastery” is one of the few times that he does this. He also focuses on poems that are like his landscape paintings and have a focus on nature more than humanity. His poems also reference the path to enlightenment, Taoist imagery, and alchemy. He refers to the buddhist idea of detachment from all things or all things being empty like in “Zhongnan Retreat.”

(this is not Wang Wei’s art, but it is what one of his landscape paintings would look like.)

Zhongnan Retreat
In middle years I am rather fond of the Tao;
My late home is at the foot of Southern Mountain.
When the feeling comes, each time I go there alone.
That splendid things are empty, of course, I know.
I walk to the place where the water ends
And sit and watch the time when clouds rise.
Meeting by chance an old man of the forest,
I chat and laugh without a date to return.

As I am in my middle years I also have grown fond of the Tao, or a universal harmony in all things. When I go out into the world without my wife, kids, or honeydew list it is to go back to nature. The feeling of a connection bigger than yourself can be found there and this is what the poem speaks about, to me. Wang Wei’s feeling that comes, is one that I view as that feeling deep down that we all share from time to time as we get older. This is the desire to stand motionless and empty of thought. Have you ever caught yourself on a warm summer day, stopping closing your eyes and just feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin? That is the feeling. Does Wang Wei mean he literally walks to a place where the water ends or does he mean that he found a nice comfy spot and meditated and his mind is the place where the water ends? My guess is the latter because this is a poem about Taoism written in the Tang Dynasty. This poem hints to a few similarities to the myth and makes us believe that in meditating at the mountain top with a clear mind that Wang Wei also met Laozi like Yi Xi does.

The rest of the poem goes into Chinese lore about the Zhongnan mountain. “Yi Xi was an astronomer for the governor of Hangu Pass in the Chu Dynasty. Yi Xi builds his home on the mountain to watch the sky every day. One day he went to observe the sky and saw a purple mist coming from the east and an auspicious star-traveling westward. He saw these as signs that a saint would be traveling through Hangu Pass so he waited there for the traveling saint. An old man wearing a cloud patterned outfit riding a blue bull traveling westward on Hangu Pass appeared and Yi Xi invite the man into his home on the mountain. The old man traveling through the forest was Laozi who is the founder of Taoism and he taught Yi Xi his book Dao De Jing and then flew away.” (Dao De Jing & YIN XI: The Guardian of the Pass)

Gold Powder Spring
Drink each day at Gold Powder Spring
And you should have a thousand years or more:
To soar on an azure phoenix with striped dragons,
And with plumes and tassels attend the Jade Emperor’s
court.

This poem refers to multiple images of immortality. In Chinese alchemy gold was a way of attaining immortality so the Gold Powder Spring might be a reference to an old alchemic potion; although they also drank mercury, lead, and arsenic so I wouldn’t personally drink that potion. Golden pills were taken by the aristocracy in an attempt to achieve immortality, which did, in fact, poison them. This reminds me of the lesson in The Jātaka about not trying to avoid our fate. We see in the second verse the imagery of someone consuming something and them not becoming immortal but gaining more years to their life repeated in later tales like Journey to the West where Sun Wukong eats some heavenly peaches and it ads 3,600 years to his life per peach. Though Journey to the West had yet to be written in Wang Wei’s time, the monk Xuanzang who is the inspiration for the tale lived did exist during Wang Wei’s lifetime. The Jade Emperor is another figure we also here about in Chinese mythology he is the emperor of the immortals.

Works Cited:
Pucher, Martin, The Norton Anthology of World Literature: New York, 3rd edition, Vol B. 2012.
Doina. “WANG WEI – Great Chinese Poet.” TOUCHING HEARTS, 1 Jan. 1970, https://doina-touchinghearts.blogspot.com/2013/06/wang-wei-great-chinese-poet.html.
“Dao De Jing & YIN XI: The Guardian of the Pass.” Healing Tao USA, https://healingtaousa.com/articles/dao-de-jing-yin-xi-the-guardian-of-the-pass/.