Dōngtiān de guāngmáng: The Beauty of Nature in East Asian Poetry

Original poetry, calligraphy, and painting (India ink over watercolor) by the author.

Though the Western canon of poetry is replete with representations of natural beauty, readers would be remiss to overlook the well-developed East Asian poetic tradition that focuses on this theme. This is particularly true with regards to the qiyan jueju/shichigon zekku form, a quatrain model based on Chinese-language characters that also inspired a unique body of poetry in the Japanese language.

Like Japanese haiku—perhaps the most globally popular East Asian poetic form—qiyan jueju/shichigon zekku, or qījué, requires brevity, but this limitation reveals the expressive power of character-based languages, which can often present more information in fewer lines when compared with alphabet-based languages. Furthermore, Chinese calligraphy often retains pictographic roots to complement the theme-based artwork that typically accompanies East Asian poems.

The recently completed original work that is reproduced above (“Dōngtiān de guāngmáng”/ “The Winter’s Glow”) is based on the qījué form and translates poetically from simplified Chinese characters as follows:

Winter sunset in the forested mountains…

With clouds forming in the cold air,

lanterns glow near warm pools

as falling snow melts to welcome spring.

Following the qījué form, the poem’s seven-character lines unfold to reveal a more nuanced meaning than is initially apparent; the imagery of cold and darkness shifts to a sanguine setting of hot springs where a warm glow suggests making the best of nature’s seasonal changes.

Perhaps as important as the poetic content in the present example is the accompanying visual representation, with simple watercolor work based on the poem’s first two lines. Turning to an example from the Chinese calligraphy, the characters at the end of the first full line, literally translated as “mountain forest” convey the pictographic roots of a three-summited peak (shān) beside the a pair of trees (lín). The calligraphic art of the writing itself is thus consistent with both the subject of the poem and the painting over which it is written in a manner of depicting natural beauty that would not be easily replicable in Western languages.

One may consider the true value of poetry to lie in its ability to illustrate themes with which readers can identify. By this criterion, East Asian poetic forms that may receive limited attention in standard Western textbooks are well worth perusal.


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