The Chinese Influence on Japanese Short Form Poetry

by Robert D. Wilson

One of the first three civilization on earth, China, during a period of colonization, conquered the group Islands that’s today called Japan.  The Chinese introduced writing, literature (including poetry), Buddhism, Taoism, and the teachings of Confucius to Japan.  As years passed by, and after many wars, Japan became a unified nation ruled by a succession of Emperors thought by the Japanese to be gods.

Early poetry in Japan were written in Chinese, and later in Japanese.  Many of the great waka and Haiku poets  including Basho and Fujiwara no Teika made references to Chinese poetry especially those from the Tang Dynasty.  Some even copied lines and added lines of their own to them.

Some excerpts from Tang Dynasty poetry that influenced Japanese poetic thought and aesthetics:

Po Chu-i (translated by David Hinton)


At the south window, my back to a lamp,

I sit.  Wind scatters sleep into darkness.

In lone depths of silent village night:

the call of a late goose in falling snow.


but is there anywhere all this falling-blossom sorrow can be endured?

In the meditation hall: an old white-haired monk sweeping the shadows


Du Fu (translated by Burton Watson)


The cold cicada clings to its leaf in silence,

the lone bird slowly returns to it mountain.

Ten thousand directions caught up in this one sound;

my road — in the end where will it take me?


Lone crane, why so long going home,

the groves already thick with crow?


Wang Wei (translated by David Young)



to chase away

the poison dragon of emotion


Li Po (translated by David Young)


Referring to the moon, Li Po penned:

we celebrate for awhile

then go our own ways, drunk

may we meet again someday

in the white river of stars



The similarity in aesthetics, the use of Yugen (depth and mystery), the unsaid, imagery all remind me of Japanese poets influenced to by Buddhism, Taoism,  the teachings of Confucius, and animism.

Although China is a modernized nation in its urban areas, the cultural memories, ways of looking at  life, nature, through eastern eyes, the poetry written today by the Chinese in Taiwan or China, like the Japanese, they can’t escape their heritage, although Mao tried his best to.

One of the finest Chinese poets today is Wang Ping. I recently read some of Wang Ping’s poetry, prose, and the photos she’s taken, and I was shaken, the similarity between Japanese poetry and Chinese more than a chapter in a  textbook or Wikipedia.  The cover photo was photographed by Ping. A photograph not found on the average Japanese short form poetry journal, e-zine, or book. Simply Haiku has done that as well, but Ping’s chilling photograph of cracked earth  transcends seasons, indicative of the leprosy we call Global Warming. It’s nature seen through the eyes of of truth and sadness.

Also on the cover are two tanka by Ping who is only now studying the genre:

Do not move 

let birds stir in their nests:

Let pheasants—

fairies from this tattered earth

Carry the sun in our beaks

From the muck . . .

We raise our finger


Look at us, look 

at us, look at us

Wang Ping

Listen closely to what is not said in Ping’s two tanka, feel the meter, the power, and imagery.

The author of several books, some poetry, some prose, some containing both, her writing is mesmerizing, taking me to  world where silence and words take baths together in clay tubs of cloud.  

Must be told,

and retold till they blossom

between our lips, take root in the belly button, till the currents

of sap, thicker than blood,

roar in our veins

WANG PING was born in Shanghai and grew up on a small island in the East China Sea. After three years of farming in a mountain village, she attended Beijing University. In 1985 she left China to study in the U.S., earning her Ph.D. from New York University.

Her books include two collections of poetry, The Magic Whip and Of Flesh & Spirit, the cultural study Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China, the novel Foreign Devil, two collections of fiction stories entitled American Visa and The Last Communist Virgin, and a book of Chinese folk lore, The Dragon Emperor. Her books have been translated into German (Foreign Devil) and Dutch and Japanese (American Visa). Wang is also the editor and co-translator of the anthology New Generation: Poetry from China Today and co-translator of Flames by Xue Di.

The Last Communist Virgin was winner of the 2008 Minnesota Book Awards in the category of Novel & Short Story and the 2007 Book Award from the Association for Asian American Studies in the category of Poetry/Prose. The Magic Whip was a 2004 finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and received an honorable mention from the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, and Aching for Beauty was a 2001 Minnesota Book Award finalist and winner of the University of Colorado’s Eugene M. Kayden Book Award for “the best book in the humanities published by an American university press.”

Her writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 1993 and 1996. She is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Loft Literary Center, and Bush Foundation, and she was a recipient of the Lannan Residency Program in 2007.

She now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and teaches creative writing at Macalester College. Her current research is on China’s globalization and modernization, and she debuted in 2007 as a photographer with an exhibit on the impacts of the Three Gorges Dam, entitled Behind the Gate, which was followed by a second exhibit in 2008, All Roads to Lhasa, which examines the effects of the new railway into Tibet. 


About Robert D. Wilson