- Created: 17 March 2017
(10) As the River Flows
To conclude this Talk on Poetry Appreciation I must share with my readers the many wonderful experiences I had with the river, in life as in poetry.
I first encountered a river in 1942, days after Hong Kong fell into Japanese hands, when I was brought to my mother’s native home, Village Beneath the Tall Mountain (太山下). Nearby flowed a big river with a rocky bed more than a hundred steps down from the banks. One of my mother’s younger brothers died there some years back while crossing it in the summer torrents. The story left a lingering fear in me for years. I was eight years old.
My second encounter was a happy and memorable one. During the three years that followed I spent a carefree time in two places. One is Village Beyond the Fields (田揹). The other is Guan Lan (觀瀾), which is now famous due to its Mission Hill Goff Course. A sandy river linked the two places, with pristine waters and golden sands. My only responsibility was to tend a family cow once in a while, leading it to glaze where grass could be found. In time, I learned to swim and catch fishes in the river, including finding where the fishes were and how to catch them. Swimming was a great joy in the summer where the river ran deep. I would climb up a tree and catch a bending branch before jumping into the flowing pool. Catching fish meant blocking a small section of the river where it ran shallow, then frightening the fishes to a corner before catching them. With a catch of 30 to 40 small fishes of various kinds, two or three of us would divide them in harmony. There was never an argument on who was getting a better share.
The river runs out of water in the winter, leaving a wide sandy bank in the river bed. We boys would gather dry wood to heat up a pile of dry sand, and use it to roast peanuts or sweet potatoes. Occasionally we managed to trap s wild piglet and roast it the same way for a sumptuous feast in the windy days. Once in a while, boys of the villages on the opposite sides of the river would engage in a battle, using rubber arches to send earth bullets to hit one another. Those were juvenile games rather than wars, although we learned to develop strategies to win.
As enjoyable were times of serenity in the midst of a heavy summer rain. I would climb up a tree with thick foliage, sit on a steady branch, and watch the small plain of paddy fields where the heat turned the downpour into wavering mists. Then, as soon as the rain stopped, I would jump into the river for a cool swim. It was the most refreshing feeling one could have in contact with Nature. Riding on my cow’s back is a lot of fun. Sometimes, the animal would play a trick on its rider, by brushing through a thorny bush to hurt his bare legs. It would usually get a good beating afterwards, and its red eyes would show tears, crying for mercy. And I learned to be humble, to regret my acts of revenge on a tame and helpful animal.
I left all that and my late father’s worthy estate behind in early spring of 1949, when I mounted a slowly running train at Tien Tong Wei Station, bounded for Kowloon. A great epoch of change was on its way. No one could know the consequences. The atmosphere in Hong Kong was not at ease either. A great influx of people was on their way to settle in the small British colony, fronting the Peoples’ Republic of China.
The local schools were overwhelmed by the sudden increase of students determined to learn English, fast. I enrolled myself in Pui Sun School at Laichikok Road, in a three-storey old building transformed into make-shift classrooms. It was a school of innovative learning, permitting any student to ask for a grade promotion when he/she felt ready. Like myself, most students were of over-age, starting to learn English from ABC. To my fortune I met a great teacher Mr. Li Xin (黎鑫), who had taught me how to learn, and to appreciate music and literature in the short time of eight months, when I advanced three grades. He played Bach’s Chaconne so great that I still hear it often in my mind today, sixty six years later.
Mr. Li left Hong Kong for China in the spring of 1951, “to help build a new China” he said. But he advised me not to follow him, but to study well and go to study abroad in future to learn more knowledge to help our motherland in the long run. He left his belongings with me except his violin. Inside his rattan luggage case was a pile of books, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Quietly Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov, both in Chinese translations. That started my long journey on the reading of world literature. Sadly, I received a letter from Mr. Li’s sister three months later, to let me know that he was executed on charge of being a believer of Trotsky ideology. No one knew what the problem was. But, in grief, my young mind told me that a rigid ideology would have no place for a man with great intellectual brilliance.
Those two books from Mr. Li led to my first encounter with the river in literature and poetry. They were epic novels, and both authors were awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in subsequent years. Along the Don, the Cossacks strived for a good life and struggled against one another during the long years around WWI and the Russian Revolution. The various communities along the big river tried their best to build a good life with dignity and happiness. But, all they got was a perpetual civil war and more struggles. As the years passed with the flow of the Don they so loved, they found themselves further removed from their originally shared goal.
I read War and Peace later that year when I changed schools to study at Wah Yan College on Nelson Street. When I read how the Duke spoke and recitee an ancient Russian poem to Pierre and Natasha as the family was gathering simple belongings to leave their ornate mansion to escape from war, I realized that revolutions were more actions of destruction than constructive attempts. I enjoy reading Tolstoy for many reasons. His fluid narration of complex human predicaments and misfortune was one, vivid even in translation. The other was his perception of the meaning of life and death, together with his lifelong practice of living a simple life with his own labour. These were so Chinese in orientation and depth. I was seventeen when I first read his novel. I have read it again and again at least ten times in the ensuing years as I found it in tune with so many other novels and poems.
The referred poem was by an unknown poet, probably a construct by Tolstoy himself. Here is my translation from the Chinese text:
“Life is like a river
From a quiet spring it begins to mutter
Down the valley it prospers
On an expanding plain it meanders
It roars while gathering speed
It chatters sharing needs
Draughts and floods it suffers
Gentle flows divide and scatter
Until at the estuary they again meet
To the sea they willingly fleet
Wars never generated peace among men
Peace keeps people loving in waters and on land”
A few months after my first reading, I was taught at school Li Yu’s famous poem, Happily Together (相見歡). Its beginning and ending lines we teenagers were so fond of singing and sharing:
“Whence in cycles of spring flowers and autumn moon will time stand still
Of past events how many should remain on my memory wheel
Did you ask how many sad memories I keep my consciousness on
They flow like river torrents in spring on and on
To experience the spirited Yangzi River in literature, I read the Romance of the Tree Kingdoms (三國演義) at about the same time. It was prefaced with the poem by Yang Shen (楊慎), his Immortal by the River (臨江仙). The poet gave his summation of the epic saga with these lines:
“To the east the Yangzi’s rumbling rapids incessantly roll滾滾長江東逝水
Its multiple froths reflect the deeds of many a hero浪花淘盡英雄
Rights and wrongs and wins and defeats all pass in peril是非成敗轉頭空
Hills remain green their foliage thrive perpetual青山依舊在
Crimson sunsets shine their brilliance monumental” 幾度夕陽紅
He concluded with his philosophic summation, expressed in Daoist cosmic terms:
“On the many events ancient and recent古今多少事
We dismiss them in our laughter as we drink都付笑談中”
These Chinese perceptions of life and time originate in Confucius wisdom in his The Analects (論語): “Once, Confucius was standing by the bank of a river watching the currents flow. He murmured: human affairs are like rushing water, which toils on incessantly, irrespective of day or night. (子在川上曰：逝者如斯夫，不捨晝夜)”。 On another page of the same book, Confucius uses water as the metaphor for human nature and action when he says: “A wise man delights in keeping company with water. A benevolent man delights in admiring hills. Wise men are active while the benevolent are tranquil. Wise men are happy while the benevolent live long lives. (知者樂水，仁者樂山，知者動，仁者靜。知者樂，仁者壽。)
Chinese poets have since used water and the river to express life, emotions, time, and love, creating numerous immortal songs. Quite a few have appeared in the previous nine talks, like Let’s Drink (將進酒)by Li Bai and his A View of the Mt. Heaven Pass,(望天門山) and Thoughts Away from Home on an Autumn Night.(秋夕旅懷).
Like Liu Chang Qing’s Written on New Years’ Day (新年作)expressing loneliness and yearning for folks at home.
Like Zhou Bang Yan’s Fragrant Courtyard – Summer Thoughts (滿庭芳_夏日漂水)
.Like Li Zhi Yi’s Song of Divination (卜算子) which harmonizes with a beautiful song.
LikeWei Zhuang’s The Ancient Capital (金凌圖).
Like Su Shi’s River All Red – To Officer Zhu (滿江红:寄鄂州朱使君燾昌)
Like Yang Wen Li’s Passing the Yangzi River (過楊子江).
Like Qian Qi’s The Returning Geese and Musical Soul of the Xiang River (歸雁，湘靈鼓瑟）, with the final two lines which painted the pastoral beauties of the Xiang, which had such an negative impact on modern Chinese history:
“No one can be found once the melody ended 曲終人不見
On the upper river verdant peaks silently stand 江上數峰青”
Do heroes make history? Or social events create heroes? These are questions with no universal answers. Nevertheless, heroes do learn, and they share their wisdoms with us by singing verses or uttering simple sayings. One American hero of my youthful time was General Douglas MacArthur who fought in WWII and the Korean War. Those were bitter wars. They began with no reason and ended with no triumph. Through his experience and observations, MacArthur left for us a number of insights about human nature, economy, relations, and the American ethos. They pertain to the international conditions of today with much accuracy. In perspective, MacArthur could have kept in mind what he had learned at West Point Academy where the liberal education reading list included War and Peace and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The latter book gave a spirited account of the brilliant and witty maneuvers of four of the most intelligent and self-serving warlords in Chinese history, together with Zhu Ge Liang（諸葛亮）, a legendary strategists of amazing talent. Their actions and thoughts must have precipitated a deep impression on the young cadet’s mind. So his most famous sayings in Korea were two: “We do not retreat; we just advance in another direction” and “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away (老兵不死，只悄悄地消失)”. Our reader can savor the Zen taste there. His insight about America is so poignant that they predicted precisely the new leadership and his policies today. He said:”Our country is geared to an arms economy bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and an incessant propaganda of fear.”
Epic times are very educational for youngsters growing up. In my final year of high school when we had many concerns, Father Morahan offered an optional course in Poetry Appreciation at lunch breaks. A dozen students took the opportunity and had a harvest for life. Poetry appreciation is contagious when deeply felt. Today, more than half a century later, I still remember vividly how he stood there in his big flame and square face, eyes half closed, as he recited The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W. B. Yeats in the soft Irish accent:
“I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made
Nine bean-rows will I have there a hive for the honey-bee
And live alone in the bee-loud glade
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore
While I stand on the roadway or on the pavement grey
I hear it in the deep heart’s core”
The mood and sound were felt even when we did not understand the words. For me who had a memorable experience of a rustic life, hearing it narrated in rhythmic English was both an enjoyment and a vanity, feeling that I had ascended the high platform of world class literature. Looking back, that was for me the most effective initiation to the appreciation of poems in foreign languages.
Poets in all cultures have the same close affinity with water, however it moves and wherever it goes. Water is life in its infinite variations of forms and meanings. If human life is divided into body and soul, then water is equally intimate to both, giving them meanings in continuity and confinement. As an example, here is At the River by J. W. Goethe:
“Flow on, ye lays so loved, so fair,
On to Oblivion's ocean flow!
My love alone was then your theme,
But now she scorns my passion true,
Ye were but written in the stream;
As it flows on, then flow ye too!”
And Thomas Campbell’s The River of Life:
“The more we live, more brief appear
Our life’s succeeding stages;
A day to childhood seems a year,
And years like passing ages.
When joys have lost their bloom and breath,
And life itself is vapid,
Why, as we reach the Falls of Death
Feel we its tides more rapid?
Heaven gives our years of fading strength,
And those of youth, a seeming length,
Proportion’d to hear sweetness.”
I began this Talk with the Don in Europe, and I would like to end with the Nile in Egypt. The Nile is the longest river on earth. Its 4250 miles course can be seen from the satellite, just as our Great Wall. Egyptians venerate the Nile as their umbilical core, because it floods often, leaving black silt to turn the desert into cultivating land to feed the huge population. The papyrus that grows plentiful on the banks and the delta are used to make paper and boats, enabling the people to built a great civilization from ancient times until today.
My first visit to Egypt was in 1963, accompanied by my Egyptian colleague Hilda Ness when we were researchers at the Toronto Education Center. The highlight was to attend a concert featuring Verdi’s Aida opera performed at the open terrace in front of the Sphinx Temple. It was a grand sight under a yellow moon when 100 soldiers appeared singing the Triumphant March.
My most memorable visit was in 1991, when I conducted a seminar at Cairo University and toured the desert to Alexandria with my friend Professor Hushen Chokonam who was an archaeologist and a poet lover. I had the opportunity to learn quite a lot about Egypt in its ancient glory and contemporary complexity. It is not easy to know how ancient Egyptians were able to accumulate so much wealth and power to build such a formidable civilization, as marked by the construction of the pyramids and the Sphinx in the desert. Even today, farmers along the banks of the Nile are still farming small plots, using primitive tools and methods. More remarkable is the richness of language and literature. I learned that about half of the ancient Egyptian literature is still to be interpreted because of linguistic obscurities. Prominent in what we now have are Odes, Vedas and legends which reflected a greater knowledge of the world beyond Egypt, geographically and cosmically. Ancient Egyptians view literature as a source of spiritual nourishment. Scholars wrote a lot of eulogies to record the beauty and power of the Nile and its merits, and to honor a variety of deities who blessed the people and their events.
In literature, a lot of attention was paid to the safety and ventures of the soul after death. In The Book of the Dead, the Sun God Ra was greatly glorified for his power and guidance on leading human souls. It contains 192 spells, which are poems or sets of words to help the deceased Monarchs and nobles in their afterlives.
My Professor friend sang a number of the spells to me while we were on a camel ride in the desert on a moonblind evening. One of them left a lasting imprint on my mind with beauty and optimism. I present it here to conclude this series of Ten Talks for Poetry Appreciation:
“What gates and chapels they built are now fallen
Their gardeners and soul priests are gone
Their undiscovered headstones submerged in water
Their very graves forgotten
But their fame lives on in papyrus rolls
Containing such beauty and nobility
And they who wrote them stay in our memory
To the end of time and for eternity”