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Shooting for the Moon—Bringing Chinese Poetry to the Classroom

October 16, 2014

 

Before my bed the moon’s light shines bright, as if the floor was covered by frost. I lift my head and gaze at the moon, I let fall my head and think of home.

 

Besides being the home of the Jade Rabbit and Chang’E (and perhaps one day a few taikonauts), the moon has been a source of poetic inspiration for the Chinese since ancient times. The genre of moon poetry (咏月诗) is dominated by the work of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (李白). Of his 1000+ poems that still exist today, over 300 involve the moon. These poems are a great way to link cultural events like the Mid-Autumn Festival to language practice as well as to the history and literary culture of China.

Tang Dynasty Poet, Li Bai.

 

Poems can be difficult for language learners because of their often highly literary vocabulary and irregular (sometimes even intentionally rule-breaking) grammar. To use one famous example from American poetry, “Quoth the raven” isn’t exactly Standard English. However, as long as students have the proper support and aren’t tackling a poem too far above their level, reading poetry can become a great learning opportunity. Poems aren’t the best way to teach new vocabulary or grammar patterns, but they’re great for showing off learned vocabulary in a new context. With Classical Chinese poetry, it can be a really great time to discuss how the language has changed over time, and how some common Chinese characters may be used in very different ways in poems and proverbs.

Li Bai often used the moon as a link—between far away outposts and home, between memories and waking life, and between the ancient world and the present day. 《静夜思》 “Thoughts on a Quiet Night” may be Li Bai’s most well-known poem, or at least his most recited. It’s a good poem for students inexperienced with Chinese poetry due to its short length and universal theme of being homesick.  Here it is:

 


静夜思 Jìng yè sī

床前明月光, Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

疑是地上霜。 Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

举头望明月, Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè,

低头思故乡。 Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

A screen shot of a partial page from the Kangxi (17th century) printed edition of Siku 四库, Tang Poem 唐诗 anthology. Shows lines and commentary of Li Bai 李白 Moonlight poem "静夜思". Courtesy National Central Library, Taipei, Taiwan.

 

 

When presenting a poem like this, teachers should provide supporting information to help students get the most out of the poem. In addition to cultural background and vocabulary lists for less frequently used words, this may also include English or Chinese prose translations, highlighting different uses of common characters (like 明being used as a verb), and discussion questions. Depending on student level, teachers may want to point out some of the poetic devices used in the poem (rhyming guāng and shuāng, the 5 syllable meter, the use of tones, etc.). Teachers may also challenge students to write their own poems in a similar style. 《静夜思》 “Thoughts on a Quiet Night” can be readily found online and in many collections of Chinese poetry, but beginner and intermediate students may find the version in Cheng & Tsui’s Tales and Traditions Volume 3 the most helpful, with its vocabulary list, simple Chinese prose translation, and discussion questions. Tales and Traditions Volume 3 also includes several other classical Chinese poems, traditional love stories, wu-xia tales, and more. More advanced learners will find the version in our Li Bai and Du Fu (李白与杜甫) more useful, which includes an on-level analysis and explanation of the poem in Chinese as well as extended discussion, translation, and language practice questions. Plus, there are additional poems and essays that provide historical background on Li Bai, the Tang Dynasty, Chinese poetic techniques, and poetic genres. It’s a great way to introduce students to authentic Chinese culture and literature without overwhelming them.

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