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Synaesthesia in Literature and Poetry – a Glance of Chinese Literature History

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Synaesthesia can be a powerful technique in poetry and novel writing. It is a form of figurative language works which brings out lively and strong imagery.

Synaesthete Orhan Pamuk, the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, describes his view on the relation between sensory and novel in his book “The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist”:

Here is one of my strongest opinions: novels are essentially visual literary fictions. A novel exerts its influence on us mostly by addressing our visual intelligence–our ability to see things in our mind’s eye and to turn words into mental pictures. We all know that, in contrast to other literary genres, novels rely on our memory of ordinary life experiences and of sensory impressions we sometimes do not even notice. In addition to depicting the world, novels also describe-with a richness that no other literary form can rival-the feelings evoked by our senses of smell, sound, taste, and touch. The general landscape of the novel comes to life-beyond what the protagonists see-with that world’s sounds, smells, tastes, and moments of contact.

This article explores how synaesthesia related techniques have been used in Chinese literature, mainly poetry, from ancient to recent history.

Classic of Poetry – Shih-Ching

The oldest collection of poems in the world literature is the Classic of Poetry Shih-Ching. It is translated as the Books of Odes. The poems were compiled over a period of several centuries of ancient China, but most poems came from Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC), the longest lasting dynasty in Chinese history.

Zhou Dynasty has produced some greatest scholars and philosophers in Chinese history such as Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, and Laozi, the founder of Taoism. The period saw major advancement in Chinese literature and poetry. The poems in Shih-Ching were not complex. They were based on normal people’s stories and folk songs, and were often endearing and romantic. The concerns of the dynasty and politics were often expressed through those poems as well.

Whilst metaphors and allusions were frequently used, there was little evidence of the use of synaesthesia sensory mixing technique in ancient Chinese poem writing. The East Wind Sighs was a good example of the poetry style at the time.

The East Wind Sighs
The East wind sighs, the fine rains come:
Beyond the pool of water-lilies, the noise of faint thunder.
A gold toad gnaws the lock. Open it. Burn the incense.
A tiger of jade pulls the rope. Draw from the well and escape.
Chia’s daughter peeped through the screen when Han the clerk was young.
The goddess of the river left her pillow for the great Prince of Wei.
Never let your heart open with the spring flowers:
One inch of love is an inch of ashes.

Tang Poetry and Song Poetry – Development of Chan (Zen)

Two other dynasties in Chinese history during which poetry flourished were Tang Dynasty (618AD – 907AD) and Song Dynasty (960AD – 1279AD). Some most well-known poets appeared during those periods. Among them were the famous Li Bai and Du Fu from Tang as well as Su Dongpo and Lu You from Song.

The concept of Chinese Four Arts was introduced in Tang Dynasty. The Four Arts were considered as must have skills for a gentleman scholar. They were Qin (a stringed instrument), Qi (chess), Shu (Chinese calligraphy), and Hua (painting). A unique art form which blended poetry, calligraphy and painting, like the work in the attached image, became popular.

Tang Poetry was regarded as the pinnacle of Chinese poetry. The effect has been far reaching. Many poems have used object personification or person objectification techniques. Romance, separation, nature, travel, friendship, home sickness and social justice were common themes. Li Bai’s poems below provide some insights of the style from that era.

Sitting Alone on Jingting Shan Hill

A flock of birds is flying high in the distance,
A lonely cloud drifts idly on its own.
We gaze at each other, neither growing tired,
There is only Jingting Shan.

Seeing off a Friend

Green hills above the northern wall,
White water winding east of the city.
On this spot our single act of parting,
The lonely tumbleweed journeys ten thousand li.
Drifting clouds echo the traveller’s thoughts,
The setting sun reflects my old friend’s feelings.
You wave your hand and set off from this place,
Your horse whinnies as it leaves.

Long Yearning (Sent Far)

When the beautiful woman was here, the hall was filled with flowers,
Now the beautiful woman’s gone, the bed is lying empty.
On the bed, the embroidered quilt is rolled up: no-one sleeps,
Though three years have now gone by, I think I smell that scent.
The scent is finished but not destroyed,
The woman’s gone and does not come.
Yearning yellows the falling leaf,
White dew beads the green moss.

Under Tang Dynasty’s rich cultural environment, philosophy and spirituality once again have prospered. Through the influence of Taoism, a Chinese style of Buddhism called Chan has emerged. It has further spread across Asia especially Far Eastern Asia and was adopted by Japanese as Zen.

The literary period for Chinese Chan thrived in Song Dynasty. Chan (Zen) focused on meditation and insight into Buddha-nature. Zen poetics which reflected this philosophy employed a stronger use of sensory comparing to the prior period.

In short, a classical Chinese poem has been transitionally valued by some critics for its “resonance,” which is seen to bring language out of its cognitive structures and topographical certainties into the intuitive, supranational, or what Snyder might call language’s “wilderness.” By the sixth century, Chinese poetics had already formed a wide variety of terms that signal this importance of poetics “resonance.” An inchoate theory of resonance is grounded early on in the terms like yiyin (lingering sound), yiwei (lasting flavor), congzhi (double meaning or multivalence). But these terms are given a strong sotereological utility in Zen poetics, which one will not find in prior Chinese poetics.’ – Excerpt from: Jonathan Stalling. “Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry.

One section of a Zen Poem “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” by Dongshan Liangjie (807-869) provided some evidence of the above statement.
Like the taste of the five-flavored herb,
like the five-pronged vajra.
Wondrously embraced within the complete,
drumming and singing begin together.

Penetrate the source and travel the pathways,
embrace the territory and treasure the roads.
You would do well to respect this;
do not neglect it.

Natural and wondrous,
it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment.
Within causes and conditions, time and season,
it is serene and illuminating.

Qing Dynasty – Dream of the Red Chamber and Literature

Unlike Classic of Poetry Shih-Ching in which most poems were based on folk songs and stories of commoners, by Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), poetry belonged more exclusively to the upper class.

China at the time reached high levels of literacy. Four Arts have become the cultural identity for scholars and noblemen. The Qing emperors prided themselves in their superior skills in poetry and instruments. Chinese Opera has flourished and literature has reached a new height.

Dream of the Red Chamber, which has been regarded as the greatest classical novel in China, was produced in Qing Dynasty. The sheer complexity of portraying approximately 40 major and 500 minor characters was mind blowing. The author Cao Xueqin’s writing was to perfection. The book was rich in colour, fragrance, taste and sound. Poetry flew through the whole book with fluency and delicacy which left readers with more yiyin and yiwei.

The translation of this masterpiece has been a significant challenge. Although there have been some great attempts, no translated work could remotely match the original piece.

To illustrate synaesthesia in literature and poetry for Qing Dynasty, I have found a more appropriate example:
As exemplary illustration, I cite the poem entitled “Recited While Sick” by the Manchu noblewoman Mengyue (Qing dynasty), who was also widowed early. Mengyue fully exploits the attributes of femininity conventionally associated with women’s illness and the spatial location of the inner quarters in her self-representation:

Not aware that my fingers have turned slim, I find the dust heavy,
Surprised by the robe’s length, I didn’t realize that my shoulders had grown thin.
With empty mind, I quietly chew over the flavour of the Odes and History,
In the silent room, I frequently smell the fragrance of ink.
Since ancient times the zither strings have emitted unusual sounds,
So many wild phrases when I put the brush to write pure poetry.
From the flavour experienced in illness I attain true inspiration,
I savour slowly the hidden leisure beyond things.

- Excerpt from Paolo Santangelo. “From Skin to Heart: Perceptions of Emotioins and Bodily Sensations in Traditional Chinese Culture”

Like any form of artwork, poetry is a way of expressing feelings and concerns. The technique of using synaesthesia in writing is becoming more and more popular. Synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes are benefiting from this style of writing for its added resonance.


English translation sources for poems cited in this article:


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