Narrative

Quiet Night Thoughts Poem

“Do I have a poem… This is a classic, man. I learned this in Chinese school when I was younger. [Recites the poem in Chinese]

I’ll go line by line. Poems usually are like, same number of words each time, and only the last word rhymes, you know, you know, poetry.

And it’s umm… ‘I sit in front of the bed, looking at the moon,’ So it’s already a morose kind of tone. It’s night time, you’re sitting on your bed, no one else around you, it’s like praying, but they don’t do that in China. ‘Looking at the moon…’ I don’t remember what the second line means, forget the second line! [laughs]

And then he raises his head, looks at the moon, and then he lowers his head in sadness. And at some point, some of these words are about, like, he’s thinking of his family. I’m not sure which ones. So the fourth line, end of the fourth line or the second line is about thinking of his family.

And this poem was taught to me to teach me that, uhh… when you get into real life, you’ll be lonely [laughs], and you’ll think of your parents, and you’ll think of your home, and you’ll be like, ‘Man, I had it great!’

So this was a poem [laughs] to teach a spoiled brat to appreciate what he has. [laughs]

At least, that’s how it was presented to me when I was younger.

[Laughs]

This is like the classic Chinese, like everyone knows this one. If people memorize one poem, it’s like this poem, usually.”

Note: For a published version of this poem, see “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai, found easily on many online webpages and in: John Milford and Joseph Lau, Classical Chinese Literature – Volume 1, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Analysis: This poem is a memorized version of a very famous piece of Chinese authored literature from over a millennium ago. However, like the informant’s Chinese Zodiac performance, this somewhat original performance was also delivered with active animation, emphasis on humor, and mental translation into English. As such, some of the detail of the poem is lost, but the meaning conveyed by the poem remains, since that is what stuck with the informant over everything else. Versions of this poem are often used in  order to instill traditional values in Chinese schoolchildren at an early age, and it seems to have done that job very well with this informant in particular (who could not recall the whole poem, but definitely remembered its purpose, origin, and spread).

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