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Themes in Asian Literature

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Tara Mitra

on 29 June 2015

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Transcript of Themes in Asian Literature

The Main Theme
One of the most consistently appearing themes in Asian literature, and really, all literature, is the celebration of nature and life. From African folktales to transcendentalists, nature is often regarded as almost holy. Philosophers and religious figures both also tended to draw from nature, specifically reincarnation and the cycle of life, which includes death, birth, and aging. Asian writers often portray this in poetry among other forms of literature.
South Korea
It’s all right,
It’s all right,
It’s all right,
It’s all right–
the snowflakes fall in heaps,

even the sound of baby pheasants and quails
returning to their nests.

It’s all right,
It’s all right,
It’s all right,
It’s all right–
the snowflakes fall like fluffy cotton,
embracing even the sound of young girls with rosy cheeks
returning to their nests.

It embraces even the sound of all the fortunes returning home,
the crying,
the laughing,
the burdened ones
now getting up strongly.

To the big ones, big tear traces,
to the small ones, small laugh lines;
the sound of big stories and small stories
returning home, whispering softly.

It’s all right,
It’s all right,
It’s all right,
It’s all right–
the snowflakes fall constantly,
embracing even the sound of many mountains–
the Blue Mountains* returning home.
What we must accept as we journey through the world
Is that time will pass like the waters of a stream;
in countless numbers, 5
in relentless succession,
it will besiege us with assaults we must endure
They would not detain the period of their bloom 10
when, as maidens will,
they who were maidens encircled their wrists with gemmed bracelets from Cathay,
and took their pleasure frolicking hand in hand with their youthful friends. 16
So months and years went by,
and when did it fall -
that sprinkling of wintry frost on glistening hair as black as leopard 20 flower seeds?
And whence did they come -
those wrinkles that settled in,
marring the smoothness of blushing pink faces? 25
Was it forever,
the kind of life those others led -
those stalwart men,
who, as fine young men will do,
girded at their waists sharp swords, 30 keen-bladed weapons,
took up hunting bows,
clasped them tight in their clenched fists, placed on red horses saddles fashioned of striped hemp, 35
climbed onto their steeds,
and rode gaily here and there?
they were not many,
those nights when fine young men pushed open the doors, 40
the plank doors of the chamber where the maidens slept,
groped their way close to their loves, and slept with their arms intertwined with gemlike arms. 45
Yet already now those who were maidens and youths must use walking sticks,
and when they walk over there,
others avoid them, 50
and when they walk over here,
others show distaste.
Such is life, it seems, for the old.
Precious though life is,
it is beyond our power to stay the 55 passing of time.
How the Theme Appears
Throughout the poem, Okura uses several comparisons to nature. At the beginning, he compares time to the waters of a stream (line 3-4). Later, he compares youth to a flower's bloom. One of the most obvious comparisons, "that sprinkling of wintry frost on glistening hair as black as leopard flower seeds" (lines 19-21) represents age falling on the young, vibrant people. It would seem that he thinks of the life cycle of a human as parallel to that of a flower. While the direct comparisons show how beauty is represented by nature, the overall idea is a greater appearance of the theme. The whole poem focuses on the human cycle of aging. Humans, too, are part of the eternal chain of life and death; aging is only a part of that. Okura takes the perspective of an immortal spectator, watching humans grow and decline. While he finds more beauty in the young, flowering periods of life, he still notes the wilting decline of old age as inevitable.
I don't deserve to be the ocean blue
But I want thee to be the white beach sand
The sandy beach stretching calmly its hue
Under the crystal sun.

The comely beach of yellow sand
Extending to the rows of pine
So dreamily and quietly
For eons by the roaring brine.

Let me be the clear turquoise swells
That kiss ceaseless thy yellow sand
The gentle kiss that softly dwells
The quiet kiss that has no end.

I will kiss thee again, again
From here clear to eternity
Till none of this wide world remains
Before my heart can beat calmly.

There're times when I would fain surge in
As if to crush thy edges dear
It's when my billows roar passion
To drown thee in ceaseless love sheer.

I don't deserve to be the ocean blue
But want to be the turquoise sea
To sing eternal songs by thee
In endless love for dear thee true.

So when the foam comes boiling white
And wind gusts in from everywhere,
Insatiably I'll kiss with might
'Cause I love so thy sand edge bare.
I'll just stoop, listening as the twigs and branches wither
Unless I resolutely break from this beautiful and reliant corolla
As all the fragrances, the bees, the butterflies, and the yesterdays are
Scattered by the wind. Only by rejecting the protective camouflage of green leaves
Will I be able to wait for the soil's fearsome blast

But if I choose to dwell on a mountain slope,
then the open wilds will be closed to me
If I settle at the seashore, then I'll lose the cleansing stream
Between heaven and earth, I float to find a suitable place
To settle, take root, and be fruitful
"In the Field Filling Up with Snow" by Seo Jeong-ju
Seo Jeong-ju is saying that all is right with the world. He isn't comforting the audience with "It's all right", but actually praising the season. The snowfall creates peace that calms those around it, including quails, children, and more. This poem portrays the beauty of nature, but specifically winter in Korea, probably in Gochang, where he lived.
Literary Devices
The repetition of "It's all right" sets the rhythm in this poem. Like in the Ballad of Mulan, the repetition creates a consistent beat to it. In this poem, it also connects the stanzas which all seem to be approximately the same length. Overall, the stanzas are like verses in a song, whereas "It's all right" is like the repeating chorus
Another notable literary device in the poem is the personification of snowflakes. When Jeong-ju portrays them as "embracing" the various sounds, he characterizes them as comforting beings, happy to console the sounds of the people and animals. With this subtle wording, he gives the snowflakes a developed character, and they become more than just inanimate ice particles.
How the Theme Appears
The theme of nature's loveliness appears mainly in how Jeong-ju characterizes the snowflakes. When he uses unconventional descriptions of the icy snow like, "the snowflakes fall like fluffy cotton"(line 13), he turns them into very comfortable, lovable figures. The people mentioned seem to calm down at the sight of them, whether they are "young girls with rosy cheeks" (line 14-15) or the mystical mountains. All of the hardships mentioned in the third stanza simply seem to fall away at the presence of the snowflakes, exemplifying how beautiful and awesome they must be.
Connected Experience
This poem reminds me of the relieving snow days that I got to have when I was younger. Instead of having to go to school and deal with all of the homework and stress of classes, I could just relax and build tiny snowmen. I always found snow beautiful, like many people, do, but also rain, clouds, and storms - some things that people might not like as much. There is beauty to be found in all nature, whether people see it at first or not.
Literary Devices
The parallel construction in these lines jumps out. It serves to use the two parts of the sentence as a sort of cause and effect statement, In the first line, Both lines use the same if-then format. Because of this, they can be associated with each other, so even though the mountains and the seashore are nearly complete opposites in terms of geography, they are both united as being unfavorable places to settle. Parallel structure also appears earlier in the poem with "As all
butterflies, and
yesterdays...." (line 5-6).
One of the less noticeable, yet also important devices here is a paradox. The fact that the "open" wilds are "closed" to him is illogical, and serves to emphasize how unfavorable and out of place it is.
Another tiny thing in this poem is the little bit of alliteration with "settle at the seashore" (line 16). It isn't some deep symbolism, but alliteration does give a nice rhythm to the poem, though it could be unintentional, as it was translated.
"Seed" translated by John Balcom
In the beginning of the poem, the author just wants to bask in the beauty of the wild. He talks about how the wind blows everything, including the past away. However, after that, the poem shifts to focus on settling down, and more specifically, how difficult it is to find the proper place. While he might want to peacefully settle down somewhere, he does not want to give up access to the wild, so he must drift around to try and find his perfect spot between "heaven", or the wild, and earth
How the Theme Appears
The poet spends the first half of the poem describing the nature around him. Such objects as the "beautiful and reliant corolla" (line 3-4), which is a flower, or the "cleansing stream" (line 17) are described in a flattering way. Because of this, the reader can infer that he thinks nature is truly a sight to behold. Later on in the poem, he explains that he is wandering between heaven and earth (line 18). In this context, heaven is referring to the open wild that he was describing earlier. He does not only adore nature, he finds it holy in a way. The theme of celebrating nature clearly appears in this work.
Connected Experience
I've never been much of a camper, but when my tenth grade literature class read
Into the Wild
, we had an optional experiment to go camping and try to find the same feeling that the protagonist did when he gave himself over to nature. This poem reminds me of that same feeling of serenity that he wanted to achieve. I've always been very attached to earthly desires, i.e. my computer, but I understood how he felt. Nature is truly beautiful when one can see it through a clear, focused lens, but it is dangerous, as the main character found out. That also connects to this poem, with the "soil's fearsome blast" (lines 10-11). I can definitely sacrifice some beauty for comfort, though I suppose it's not as poetic that way.
"A Lament on the Evanescence of Life" by Yamanoue no Okura
*This poem is intentionally spaced to reflect the structure and rhythm that the author originally intended, though it may be awkward to read in English.
At the beginning, Okura introduces the main theme: the passage of time and the inevitability of aging. The rest of the poem functions as an account of this. At first, he describes young women in bloom, but then mentions how, after years had gone by, they developed wrinkles and gray hair.
After that, Okura does the same with men, narrating their change from energetic young men who would actively love and fight to older men who must make use of walking sticks. At the end, he touches on the isolation the old feel from younger ones avoiding them and showing distaste.
He leaves us with the same message that he started with: aging is unavoidable.
Literary Devices
The most obvious literary devices used throughout the poem are rhetorical questions. Lines 17 to 25 alone contain two rhetorical questions. Functionally, they spark thoughts in the reader and emphasize ideas in the literature. In this case, Okura is highlighting the suddenness of the change from young to old. "And whence did they come" (line 22) is basically remarking, "When did that get there?" as an exclamation of surprise instead of an actual question of origin.

Another rhetorical device in the passage is a small simile. In the same little section, Okura writes about "....glistening hair as black as leopard flower seeds" (lines 20-21) turning white with "wintry frost" (line 19). Not only is it a blatant simile, but it is also another example of an author turning to nature as a means of description. Describing the hair this way evokes images almost as vivid as the vitality of the characters' youth in the poem.
Connected Experience
Luckily, I haven't had to experience the aging cycle that much, since I am still young, but I have been a captive audience. Through my life, I have seen smaller children grow up. I have seen them learn to read, write, talk, and misbehave. It is a fascinating thing to see actual people with personalities form from children who haven't yet experienced the world. However, I have also seen the other side of the spectrum. Many people in my mother's side of the family are doctors and nurses. Sometimes, going to visit them, I have had the opportunity to see elderly people on their last legs. Some are fascinating, full of life lessons and wisdom. Some, though, struggle through dementia or other complications of old age. They metaphorically wilt, just like Okura would characterize. Though it is sad, seeing them makes one strive to enjoy his or her youth more. While I still have mine, I would like to make the most of it.
"The Sea" translated by Thomas D. Le
Literary Devices
Throughout the poem, the author makes uses of many metaphors, namely comparing himself to the turquoise sea, and his love interest to the white sand. The tides become an unspoken symbol for kisses. As is common with the themes of Asian literature, he uses the natural objects like the shore, sea, and ocean to portray pure beauty at its finest. "But I want thee to be the white beach sand" (line 2) is a direct example of one of these metaphors.

"I will kiss thee again, again from here clear to eternity till none of this wide world remains" (line 13-15) is a hyperbole. "From here...to eternity" (line 14) emphasizes the longevity of his affection for the subject of the poem, and in this case, he expresses it through the eternal cycle of waves crashing against the beach.

There is also a slight bit of alliteration in the poem with "wide world" (line 14), which just makes the language flow even more beautifully than it did already.

In terms of rhythm, every single line except for "I don't deserve to be the ocean blue" (lines 1 & 21) is composed of seven syllables, and many of the stanzas have some form of rhyme in some of the lines.
How the Theme Appears
The entire poem expresses the author's wish to express his love for the poem's subject through becoming an eternal part of nature. The adjectives he uses are all positive when referring to the environment. Words like "calmly" (line 3), "comely" (line 5), "dreamily" (line 7), and more all show his opinion of nature as very serene, almost ethereal.
The main link between nature and love is the biggest aspect that ties this poem into the greater theme of beauty in nature that appears so often in Asian literature.
The poem exemplifies how strong and eternal their love is for each other, but it also portrays the longevity of nature itself. Years upon years could pass, but the tide would still continue to crash against the beaches every day. The author sees that, and for that reason he chooses this aspect of nature to symbolize his love in the poem, showing the theme off very well.
Connected Experience
Past just the traditional themes of beauty, nature, or other such things, this poem relates to endurance. While it is neither as lovely nor as poetic as this poem, Vietnam has its own history of endurance. With a cultural history lasting well over 25,000 years, Vietnam was home to some of the earliest civilizations, and has carried through under a plethora of different names and rulers ever since. But despite its longevity, Vietnam has fallen under Chinese rule for a total of four times and 1008 years combined. After that, the country was torn apart by French occupation, religious pressures from Europeans, and the Cold War and the other conflicts that followed. However, through all of that, the country has managed to maintain their culture, customs, and history. It is unquestionable that Vietnam has been hurt in its past, but it has had an astounding ability to rebound and persist despite that. No one event in its history, but instead the entirety of it portrays this.
Clearing Rain by Du Fu
The sky's water has fallen, and autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind has blown ten thousand
This morning's scene is good and fine,
Long rain has not harmed the land.
The row of willows begins to show green,
The pear tree on the hill has little red flowers.
pipe begins to play upstairs,
One goose flies high into the sky.
*A li is a Chinese unit of distance equal to approximately half a mile
*A hujia pipe is a reed flute invented by the nomadic people of Central Asia
In Clearing Rain, Du Fu portrays a scene of the rain clearing, as one might expect. At first, he describes the sky, now empty of water. Along with that, he portrays the clouds and the wind, all having calmed down since whatever storm blew through the land. After that, he paints a picture of the plants, from the willow trees to little red flowers on a hill, all pleasantly existing in peace. At the end, Fu caps it off with descriptions of the life on the land, including a goose and a musician. The casual nature of things after the cleared rain suggests a very serene feeling.
Literary Devices
Though the poem is rather short, it does have a few good literary devices in it.

In Line 2, the mention of a wind blowing "ten thousand
" is a hyperbole,showing how far away the wind is from the town that it once blew through. Functionally, this adds to how Fu characterizes the wind as an event that seems like it happened years ago, even though it was only in the morning.

Also in Line 2, the words "western wind" are a small alliteration, adding to the rhythm of the poem. Though it did not translate well into the poem, in the original Chinese translation linked below, Fu's lines had a subtle end rhyme to them.
How the Theme Appears
Throughout the poem, Fu uses descriptions of nature to depict a scene of serenity and peace after a storm blew through a town. Because he uses nature to portray this, the theme is very evident in his work. Saying that the "morning's scene is good and fine" (line 3) shows his opinion of nature as a good and fine thing. While the poem is about the rain clearing and moving on, he does not demonize the storm. In fact, he even points out how "long rain has not harmed the land." (line 4)
It is clear that the nature after the rain represents peace to Fu, and he uses those descriptions accordingly in the poem, following a common theme of Asian literature.
Connected Experience
The poem is all about the calm
the storm. When I was younger, I would travel with my family down to Florida for spring or summer breaks. We would always stay near a certain beach there, though it has been ages since we went last, and I cannot remember the name. One year, when I was seven or so, we were shut into our hotel room while a huge storm passed by. I have never been a fan of lightning, and that day was no exception, so I spent most of the night trying to block out the noise and sleep. Luckily, it must have ended somewhere around midnight, and I got to sleep. The next morning, we woke up early to go and pick up shells along the beach. It was one of the things that my father and I would do together, though my mother and brother preferred to sleep in. When we went out that day to the beach, we found more than just shells. There were baby turtles every where! I was confused. I thought that after such a horrible storm, the turtles would have been in danger, but they were perfectly fine, crawling off towards the sea in sections marked off for tourists. In that sense, it relates to Du Fu's poem. Nature bounces back to a state of serenity, even after a storm.
by Tara Mitra
Full transcript