Sharing the language of love

February 18, 2016

Love is an emotion we all recognise instantly. And when we gift each other affection through words, we share in a very human exchange of eternal emotions, where the language is love and needs no translation.

Valentine’s Day is a day I particularly like. But in China, we do not stick to the 14th of February; instead we celebrate Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. According to folklore, Niulang, a poor farm boy, fell in love with Zhinu, daughter of a heavenly king. The couple married and had twins, but when Zhinu’s father discovered their love, his queen came down to Earth to take Zhinu home. But the King also took pity on Niulang and the children and every year allowed the couple to be reunited on Qixi.

Now we mark the day, praying for happiness, and looking up to the heavens to see the stars Vega and Altair (Zhinu and Niulang, respectively) move towards each other.

Chinese lovers will write poetry too, just as those do in France, Russia or the UK. After all, poets have written of romance and courtship for generations and across all cultures. And even when they express their deepest feelings through symbolism and coded language, the central message remains crystal clear.

It does not matter if we do not share cultural references or if we live hundreds of years after the poem was written. Indeed, the more poetry I read – in any language, or translation, from whatever time in history – the more I am struck by similarities which cannot be easily explained.

In Looking at the Moon and Longing for a Distant Lover, written by Zhang Jiuling about 700AD, the references to love, dreams, and a desire to offer one’s lover the impossible (“a handful of moonlight”), are echoed centuries later in WB Yeats’ poem: He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven.

In The Beauty by Du Fu (written in the 8th century), the poet describes his love as “A Young Woman of Matchless Beauty”, a concept picked up by Lord Byron in his famous ode, She Walks in Beauty Like the Night, 11 centuries later.

Du Qiuniang, who wrote The Coat with The Golden Threads during the period of the Tang Dynasty, is clearly warning the young to love while they still have beauty and energy (“Don’t wait till the flower falls and pick a bare twig!”) as clearly as Robert Herrick, in his 17th-century poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, with its familiar first line: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

Translations of these Chinese works can be found in the British Museum’s book Chinese Love Poetry, edited by Jane Portal, each accompanied by a phrase of Chinese calligraphy and an illustration for the Museum’s own collection.

This combination – poetry, calligraphy, painting – is known in China as the Triple Excellence, but the words can be enjoyed as much alone, as they would be in Western poetry. And we can enjoy them not just on Valentine’s Day or Qixi, but all year round.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation