From my name to modern poetry

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Wanyu Zheng

This week’s readings are apparently an extension of those of last week. When Barthes mentioned that “Myth is a pure ideographic system” (Barthes,126), I can’t help but think of my name in Chinese ideographic characters. He uses ideographic system as an equation to myth, and I want to reversely describe the “mystery” of Chinese ideograph. When you see the name “Wanyu”, you see nothing but a hard-to-pronounce word, while in fact it runs like “莞雨” in pictography. Modern Chinese characters have transformed into a distortion of the original implications of early pictographic languages, take my name for example, “莞”(wan) and“雨”(yu) are not linked but two different characters: in my name,“莞”(wan) means a slight smile, “雨”(yu) means rain. From the shape of these two characters, “雨”(yu) still possess the original symbol of rain with four spots/drops under a roof; while“莞”(wan) carries the meaning of smile yet originally means a particular grass, which is a signifier that has multiple signified. This well fits in Barthes’ claim: “The relation which unites the concept of the myth to its meaning is essentially a relation of deformation.” (Barthes,121)

How do we identify cultural semiotics then? Since Western and Eastern people’s language systems are quite different from each other, do they actually have different cultural semiotics? I hardly think so, since language is not culture. “We understand culture as the nonhereditary memory of the community, a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions.” (Lotman, 213) Let me illustrate a poem that resonances people across borders:

I climbed the door and opened the stairs
Said my pajamas and pull on my prayers
Then turned off the bed and crawled into the light
All because you kissed me goodnight

This anonymous poem upsets the intrinsic rule of linguistic, or to say syntax, but still touches upon your emotion. No matter in English or in Chinese, the poem possesses awry syntax but impressive meaning, the character’s ecstasy is hidden in the jumbled sentences that structure such a beautiful piece. The memory of natural human emotion, love is inside us regardless of cultural backgrounds, relative constraints and prescriptions. Although culture may “appear as a system of signs” at first, the continuous memory of some cultures may turn out the same. This nonhereditary memory is always beyond nation, race and language; it works as a whole.

In college I took a course called Modern Poetry Studies. During the first class, the teacher (Leng Shuang) asked us to read modern poetry of Europe and America before reading any modern Chinese poems. He did not at first introduce us the famous “New Moon” school poet Xu Zhimo, but recommended T.S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke. He later explained that the reason was that modern Chinese poetry in a great degree mixed the poetic image of both Western poetry and classic Chinese poetry: We might already understood the meaning of “plum blossom” as a classic image in Chinese culture, but was not enough familiar with the implication of the lonely “wind flag” in Rilke’s poem. “Although people always assumed there was a great divide, there has never been a crack between the classic Chinese literature and modern Chinese literature.” My teacher said. He illustrated this idea with a famous modern poem, In the Mirror, composed by Zhang Zao, who wrote this best-known poem in age 22.

In the mirror   by Zhang Zao

As Long as there are thoughts that bring regret
plum blossoms fall:
watching her swim to the other shore, perhaps
or climbing a pine ladder,
there’s beauty in dangerous things.
Nothing beats watching her return on horseback,
cheeks warm with her shame,
head lowered, answering the Emperor.
A mirror always waits for her.
Let her sit at her usual place in the mirror
look out the window.
As long as there are thoughts that bring regret
plum blossoms fall and cover the southern mountain

When it goes to its basic typological features, the poem has a deep meaning of time going by, reminding me of Escher’s paintings which always filled up with the symbols of running time and the circle of life. A mirror can either stand for the change in space and time, or the change of the person’s emotion. To take a closer look, the words “plum blossom”, “southern mountain”, “horseback”, “mirror”, “emperor” are all classical poetic image/element in China, while the other words “swim”, “pine ladder”, “shore”, “dangerous’, are exogenous to ancient Chinese literature but more often occurred in modern western culture. There are just a few sentences building these scattered scenes, but a whole movie is built in the poem. I find the poem fascinating since its author Zhang Zao tried to use modern language to present the ancient artistic conception. This is such a great trial to recall the forgetting memory in one’s community by using current cultural semiotics.


Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45).
Irvine, “Introduction to Meaning Making, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics“. (Read section 5)
All because you kissed me goodbye,
In the Mirror,