There’s a saying in Chinese: a painting is like a poem and a poem is like a painting. In Chinese characters, the worlds of poetry and painting come together in a written language.
Aesthetic Qualities: Chinese characters represents words through pictures and ideas. These pictures and ideas tell us lots about how the Chinese thought and how they still think about humanity, culture, society and political philosophy.
The word for “male” (男), for example, is depicted pictographically by a rice paddy field at the top and by a strong arm at the bottom. The word for “east” (東) was originally the picture of the sun rising from behind a tree. The word for “king” (王) is represented by three horizontal strokes for heaven, earth and humanity and a line connecting them.
These graphic qualities endow Chinese characters with layers of meanings and subtle undertones much like the strokes in a painting.
Concision: Classical Chinese is incredibly compact and concise. When reading Chinese characters, there is a visible and tangible silence and emptiness both in the spaces between the characters and in the absence of any regular grammar. In reading the Chinese poem, one sees a picture brought to life by one’s own imagination.
Classical Chinese poetry is, thus, especially terse and vivid:
床 前 明 月 光
Bed Before Bright Moon Ray
疑 是 地 上 霜
As if Is Ground Above Frost
举 头 望 明 月
Raise Head Gaze Bright Moon
低 头 思 故 乡
Lower Head Think Old Home
Before my bed the bright moon shines
So that it seems like frost on the ground
Raising my head, I gaze at the moon
Lowering my head, I think of my home
Metaphor and Allusion: Chinese characters are also etymological. Chinese characters instantly remind their reader of something from Chinese history, politics and from Chinese conceptions of geography. This makes Chinese characters especially adept at allusion and in making metaphors immediately visible.
Parallelism: Classical Chinese is monosyllabic. Each character represents one word and meaning, creating a word for word parallelism in poetry. For example:
Ancient wood without man track
Deep mountain what place bell
Visual Appeal: Chinese characters truly are an art form. The experience of writing Chinese characters is like the act of painting as seen most poignantly by Chinese calligraphy. In this way, Chinese poetry is both literature and fine art.
Thank you to Jan Walls for being my teacher and mentor.
Fairbank, John K. and Edwin O. Reischauer, China: Tradition and Transformation (1989).
Hinton, David (Trans.), The Selected Poems of Wang Wei (2006).
Cooper, Arthur (Trans)., Li Po and Tu Fu (Penguin: 1973).