Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Corey Tesch on David Hinton's Visit

On Tuesday, April 6th, The Gunnery welcomed the renowned translator of Chinese poetry and philosophy, David Hinton. A few English classes and other interested students and teachers went to the Gunn Memorial Library to discover Chinese language, tradition, and culture, and learned how these themes built through poetry and philosophy that has lasted over 3,000 years.

A large portion of Chinese poetry is about nature; it is straightforward, and it is more based on things seen than things felt. While at first, to tell the truth, I did not have an immediate interest in this type of poetry, learning some Taoist philosophy and a bit about Chinese language filled in the blanks. According to David Hinton, the ancient Chinese regarded themselves as empty: the mind is just a mirror that reflects what humans see and feel around them. By learning this, it was obvious why so much Chinese poetry deals with the visual and natural aspects of the world. The ancient Chinese were aware of their place on the planet as humans, surrounded by and part of nature.

After learning a bit of Chinese history, the philosophy and influences evident in Chinese poetry were understandable. David Hinton taught us that the ancient Chinese, influenced throughout history by Taoist philosophy, saw the world as, in Hinton’s words, a “world-dynamic, generative organism.” Everything is self-generating, and changing constantly. In fact, according to Hinton, “The fundamental basis of Chinese philosophy is change.” The Chinese were humbled, because they kept it in their minds that they were part of nature, and it is useless to attempt to control nature and change. The Western idea that control is necessary, and the general feeling that change is often a bad thing, was not evident in ancient Chinese culture.

It is well known that the dragon is an important symbol of Chinese culture, even to this day, but it wasn’t until David Hinton’s arrival that my classmates I and understood what it meant. Hinton taught us that the dragon mostly represents change, and he showed us pictures and told us stories that used the dragon as their major theme. One picture was a dragon wrapped around a mountain, symbolizing that change is always happening, and nature has built the landscape that we see around us. While the ancient Chinese did not know about tectonic plates pushing together, they were still very wise to recognize that nature as a force built much of the world around us. David Hinton also told us a story that explained spring and winter for the ancient Chinese. During the winter, the dragon sleeps in the deep sea, causing a period of little natural prosperity. In the spring, the dragon rises from its sleep and causes the rebirth of nature. David Hinton even showed us pictures of an ancient bone with writings on it, thought to be an actual dragon bone.

David Hinton also taught us the significance of the way Chinese poetry is formatted, and how that plays into the poems’ meanings. While ancient Chinese poetry is straightforward, and almost constricted to be more specific by the format of the language, David Hinton described for us the grammatical openness in his book, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology: “words tend to have a broad range of possible connotation. This openness is dramatically emphasized in the poetic language, which is far more spare even than in prose. In reading a Chinese poem, you mentally fill in all that emptiness, and yet it remains always emptiness. The poetic language is, in and of itself, pure poetry.”

David Hinton’s presentation about ancient Chinese poetry and philosophy was very successful, as the students who attended took away with them increased knowledge and appreciation of the ancient Chinese and their long-lasting poetic and philosophical traditions. The Gunnery has recently announced that it will offer Mandarin as a language course in the 2010-2011 school year, furthering students’ appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture, language, and tradition.

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