The jueju conspiracy

Roland CHANCE, reportedly, has an interesting theory on the origin of the haiku: stolen from China! Incompetent rips-off of jueju (絶句) from the Tang and Song dynasties.

I am sure Jueju has higher artistic quality than Haiku. Though Haiku has fewer syllables than Jueju, it doesn't mean that Haiku is more concise than Jueju. If [Bashō's famous frog haiku] was translated literally into Chinese, only a line of Jueju, seven Chinese characters, would express that, "蛙跃古池击水声" (a frog makes a water sound when it plops in an old pond). On the other hand, I believe that Haiku developed from Jueju. We can see the shadows of ancient Chinese poems in some of Matsuo Basho's Haiku. Let's compare his Haiku about autumn with a poem from the Song Dynasty and a Qu (a Chinese poetic genre) of the Yuan Dynasty in the following:

A crow
has settled on bare branch--
autumn evening.

By Matsuo Basho
A Jueju (Song Dynasty):

A sailboat returns dimly from far away,
The fading sun is setting in the west bay.
How many jackdaws disperse about the sky?
Flying towards the shore on a tree to stay.

by Liu Zi
Translated by Shifang Zhang
And a Qu (Yuan Dynasty):

Tune: Sky-pure Sand

Dried vines, old trees, evening crows;
A small bridge, a flowing water, men's home;
An ancient road, west winds, a lean horse;
Sun slants west:
A heart-torn man at sky's end.

by Ma Zhiyuan
I wonder if it was coincidence that these three poems had the same artistic conception, or did Basho write this Haiku after studying these two Chinese poems' inspiration? According to the literal translations of the Haiku, I am sure that the artistic quality of Matsuo Basho's Haiku cannot compare with the two poems and neither can its free translation with creativity. His Haiku can't surpass the Jueju of Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Changling and Bai Juyi. Matsuo Basho's fame can't compare with any of them in the world. On the other hand, there are different tones in Jueju in specific order, antithesis and Chinese characters with ingenious and profound nature but there is none of these in Haiku. The Chinese translations from Haiku are better in poetic flavour and artistic quality than original Haiku because of the advantage of Chinese characters.

Editorializing aside, the underlying claim is not entirely crazy. Bashō was as familiar with the Chinese classics as the rest of the Edo literati, and references to those classics appear in his works all the time (if footnotes in modern editions are to be believed). Even that famous first line of Oku no hosomichi, "The sun and the moon are eternal voyagers; the years that come and go are travelers too" (Helen Craig McCullough) is a reference to a poem in the Guwen zhenbao 古文真寶, which was apparently compiled a century or two after the turn of the millennium and transmitted to Japan a few generations after that.

Here's the Japanese original of the line quoted above:


And here's the comment on this passage from Saryūan Riichi 蓑笠庵梨一's 1778 Oku no hosomichi sugagomo shō 奥細道菅菰抄, the earliest printed companion book to Bashō's work (though not the earliest companion work!)


In the second part of the Guwen zhenbao [fudge], in the poem "On feasting in a peach and plum garden on a spring night," the movements of heaven and earth and the path of the moon and the sun are likened to a voyage as follows: "So, like, heaven and earth are an inn where the myriad creatures lodge, light and shade [i.e. day and night] are eternal travelers."

And this is not an obscure poem, either; it's Lǐ Goddamned Bái. There is absolutely no way that Bashō thought he was pulling a fast one here. He was simply paying his respects to his artistic forefathers, in the way prescribed by the Japanese literary traditions of the time. (Apposite quotations from Chinese classics were to Edo writers as cryptic Steve Miller Band lyrics were to Golden Period Stephen King.) And, of course, the Chinese tradition itself relies heavily on quotation and allusion to earlier works.

So, where the above-linked analysis goes wrong is not the idea that haiku took imagery and even phrasing from Chinese poetry. There is no doubt in my mind that this happened (although I don't know about the specific examples provided; "birds come home to roost in the evening" is not what you would call a fresh or obscure idea). The error is, rather, the idea that this has anything to do with the artistic value of haiku. To say that haiku are inferior to jueju because they present less information explicitly, or because their internal structure is less intricate, is to miss the point of haiku entirely. (To say that haiku "developed from" jueju is also a stretch, unless you are using "developed from" in the very broad sense in which Howl "developed from" Dante's Inferno.)

That said, I am sympathetic to the barely-submerged subtext of the essay, which is "How come haiku are so famous but no-one cares about jueju?" But I fear that the answer is as he surmises: "Jueju can’t get a foothold in West because it has the same form as a quatrain. Haiku has come into the international poetic world because of its unique pattern."

Popularity factor: 5

Leonardo Boiko:

Mr. Chance clearly is not a fan of pomo trends, or he’d be lauding Bashō for his intertextuality.

As a fool who somehow decided to become a scholar of Japanese literature, I have to say I feel quite daunted by all the references to Chinese works (not to mention earlier Japanese works) which themselves allude to earlier works and so on, in a head-spinning fractal ouroboros which I guess probably ends on undecipherable allusions to long-lost oral traditions. It’s like being a child with no idea about what the adults are talking about! Sometimes it feels that to _truly_ understand Jap. literature I must become proficient not only Japanese and Old Japanese but also Classical Chinese and kanbun and man’yōgana and whatnot, which will probably take three lifetimes… I hope I can get by without drawing Sanskrit into it (please don’t mention bonji)…

On the bright side, at least I find all this stuff terribly interesting :)


I think sometimes that the maze of references was what got me into the field in the first place (even if I fled literature for history, where you can try to pretend China doesn't matter all that much, no really, I don't know why you would think--oh hey, look over there, ninja!). I loved starting multi-book series in the middle, or walking into a movie halfway and trying to figure out what was going on.

Or at least, this is what I tell myself when I'm stuck with another unidentified quote from one of the dynastic histories. (When the authors aren't
I also feel the "why doesn't anyone care about this awesome


I know the words 絶句 (zekku) and 起承転結 (ki-shou-ten-ketsu), but had no idea that they came from a form of poetry.

In other news, I have the amazing ability to pay little attention to what really matters...

L.N. Hammer:

Not to worry Peter -- as long as you keep an eye on that ninja skulking through the history book, you should do fine.


Yes, the exploration is very rewarding, but it can be hard to know where to start. You just have to resign yourself to accepting that the first few books in the tradition that you read will mostly go over your head in terms of quotation (except for what's footnoted), and gradually expand from there...

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