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The portrayal of China in Russian poetry: "Chinese Journey" by O.A.Sedakova

Tszou Sin'

Postgraduate of History of Modern Russian Literature and Contemporary Literary Process Department, Faculty of Philology, Lomonosov Moscow State University

119991, Russia, Moscow, Leninskie Gory str., 1










Abstract: The subject of the article is the reflection of Chinese culture in the poem cycle "Chinese Journey" by O. A. Sedakova. In spite of the relatively large number of studies of this cycle, a close reading of it, undertaken from the perspective of a bearer of Chinese culture, may reveal new episodes in need of commentary and evidence of Sedakova' profound knowledge of Chinese philosophy and classical poetry. Although the significance of Taoist ideas for Sedakova has been discussed, it is possible to point out images and ideas that have not been noted before and are related to Lao Tzu and the Book of Changes, also some details that can possess a symbolic meaning in Chinese culture. Thus, although the significance of the image of water for the cycle has already been noted, its connection with the ideas of Lao Tzu has not been explained; in the light of the ideas of Taoism, we understand the images of the path, heaven and earth. The study explains the symbolic meaning that Sedakova's images of willow, mountain, ladder, flute, and swallow have in Chinese culture. We conclude that Sedakova's poetry is based on the harmonious interaction of European and Chinese; this assessment has already been expressed in science, but we have reinforced it with new examples.


Sedakova, Chinese Journey, Russian poetry, poetic cycle, Lao Tzu, traditional symbolism, classical Chinese poetry, Chinese culture, Taoism, The Book of Changes

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

O. A. Sedakova, a poet, translator and philologist, lived with her parents in China as a child. Many years later, in 1986, Sedakova wrote the lyrical cycle "Chinese Journey", about which she says: ""Chinese" is like a journey to Paradise, to a kind of Eden state Why China? ... I can't say that my memories of China have remained clear. These are rather tactile, tactile sensations, smells..." [1].

This poetic cycle "has already become the subject of detailed research in science, researchers have considered it from different points of view, so it would be appropriate to preface our own observations with a brief outline of the history of the issue. The influence of Chinese philosophical ideas (primarily Taoist) on the worldview and the system of values in this cycle was discussed (see especially the works of N. G. Medvedeva and N. Chernysh). Some references to classical Chinese poetry and the use of symbolic images traditional to Chinese culture were identified. Thus, A. K. Zholkovsky sees Sedakova's reminiscences from Li Bo, manifested in the appeal to the images of "the moon, water, reflections in water, in particular, the moon and stars; wine, cups, bowls, drinking with friends, intoxication; friendship, love and parting with his wife or friends, including poets" [2, p. 240]. The very name of the cycle, its main lyrical plot the journey Zholkovsky also recognizes as inspired by the life of this Chinese classical poet, who was always wandering.

Zholkovsky rightly notes that "Sedakova's work with intertexts is not limited to the Chinese sphere, but interestingly connects Russian sources." For example, "the line and the stone to sink to the bottom <no less ... than. Ts.S.>, which in the context of Li Bo, apparently correlates with the image of a stone at the bottom of the river in the "Poems about a Clean River", is likely to have a Russian subtext "Three words" Innokenty Annensky" [2, p. 243]. The observations of N. G. Medvedeva, who analyzed another level of the cycle and spoke about the reflection of Taoism in the "Chinese Journey", are close to these observations of Zholkovsky over the actual verbal-figurative series of Sedakova's cycle: Russian Russian like Zholkovsky, Medvedeva writes about the combination of Chinese and European (Russian) in that Russian literary work, about how Sedakova's "synthesis ("interference", according to G. Gachev) of Taoist ideas about the world and Christian love for all living things" occurs [3, p. 66].

For our part, we will try to supplement the observations and considerations of Russian philologists with what is especially clearly visible in Sedakova's cycle to the bearer of Chinese culture.

For example, correct assessments of the great importance of Lao Tzu's texts and Taoist ideas for the "Chinese Journey" can be supported by new arguments. In addition to what has already been noted by Russian researchers, we will point out some more lines and images that are associated with the thoughts of Lao Tzu.

Thus, the significance of the motif of water in the "Chinese Journey" has already been noted by N. G. Medvedeva, who wrote: "According to the frequency of use of words in the "Chinese Journey" are distributed as follows: water occurs 13 times in the cycle, sky 9, sun 6, earth 5, star 4. But, in addition to direct designations, there are many related or indirect ones. For example, the semantic series of "waters" includes a pond, lower moist azure, rivers, clean spring, ocean, surf, bottom, as well as a ship, raft, boat; "lands" shores, hills, terraces, sand, coast, gardens, land" [3, p. 59]. The Taoist meaning of the image of water, however, has not yet been commented on. Meanwhile Lao Tzu was saying: "The highest virtue is like water. Water benefits all creatures and does not fight [with them]. It is located where people would not want to be. Therefore, it is similar to the tao" (fragment 8).

In the second poem of the cycle it is said:

The pond says:

If only I had hands and a voice

How I would love you, how I would cherish you! ...

I don't need anything: after all, tenderness is recovery.

Sedakova's image of water, as in Taoism, is associated with the idea of tenderness as the highest value. There is a proverb in Chinese culture: (tenderness wins hardness), the source of which is the phrase of Lao Tzu: "Water is the softest and weakest being in the world, but in overcoming the hard and strong it is invincible, and there is no equal in the world for it" (fragment 78). About tenderness, Sedakova has, for example, the following lines:

With tenderness and depth

for only tenderness is deep,

only depth has tenderness,

In a thousand faces I recognize,

who saw her, who looked at her

from stone things, as from glass,

gentle depth and deep tenderness.

The words from the third poem refer to the central concept of Taoism, the path:

Haven't we wandered around enough,

to finally collapse

on the only cute,

not offensive to anyone,

not visible

the way?

Images of heaven and earth, which, of course, are universal and present in poetry of different times and peoples, are associated with Sedakova, as in Taoism, with ideas about higher values:


who talks to the guest and thinks about tomorrow's business;


who does the job and thinks he's doing it

he, the madman, does not know,

like a tame stork out of the bushes,

like a golden ball

it takes off by itself

into the sweet sky above the sweet earth.

The last line, as well as the general pathos of this poem, are comparable to the words of Lao Tzu: "Heaven and earth are durable. Heaven and earth are durable because they do not exist for themselves. That's why they can be durable" (fragment 7). Here, in particular, the value that is attributed to the ability to detach oneself from self-concentration, to exist "not for oneself" is important.

The seventeenth poem mentions the I Ching, an ancient Book of Changes, which contains early philosophical texts:

there 's everything in return

they throw fortune-telling dice on the Book of Changes.

(both in ancient China and still on the basis of "I-ching" people are engaged in divination).

The possible influence of the "Book of Changes" on the "Chinese Journey" was considered in detail by N. Chernysh; the researcher sees this influence primarily in the semantic composition of the cycle: "<...> hexagrams go one after another in pairs, where the first (even) side has characteristics of the Yang type (active, solar, active), and the second (odd), respectively, the characteristics of the Yin type (passive, lunar, receiving). The "Chinese Journey" traces the <...> principle of the <hexagram>: pairs of poems enter into a kind of dialogical relationship, like Yin and Yang, complement each other, and a common semantic unity arises" [4, p. 407]. Comparing the first phrases of the poems forming the cycle, Chernysh used the concept of "quanta of meaning", which Sedakova herself spoke about in an interview: "... In every thing, it is important to me where it begins and where it ends. Both sides are surrounded by pauses. It's like a quantum of meaning and mood. You need to be alone with him for a while, forgetting about everything else" [5].

For our part, let's pay attention to a more obvious thing: for the "Chinese Journey", such key concepts of the "Book of Changes" as heaven, earth, and a noble husband are very important.

In the "Chinese Journey" there are not only the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophy and symbolic images associated with these ideas, but also various details, details related to the specificity of Chinese life, including everyday life, described in classical Chinese poetry; note that some of these details were assimilated by Russian poetry long before Sedakova, in the Silver Age (for example, present in Gumilev's book "Porcelain Pavilion" (1918)): this is, for example, yellow wine (i.e. corn; sometimes yellow like the moon), long sleeves (tree branches are compared with them at Sedakova), etc. Among such specific images and themes is an ink drawing (gohua). The poetess, who loves Chinese fine art very much, defined the cycle as a whole as "an attempt at analog transparent drawing" [1]. Ink drawing is the basis of a complex metaphor in the tenth poem of the cycle:

A great draughtsman who knows no duty,

except for the duty of the playing brush:

and his brush penetrates into the heart of the mountains,

penetrates the happiness of the leaves

However, basically the imagery of the "Chinese Journey" is not so much specifically Chinese as universal in nature: swallows, butterflies, grain, sky, earth... While some of these images may have different traditional symbolic meanings in Chinese and European (in particular, Russian) cultures.

Sedakova, who remembers her childhood in China and has always retained a keen interest and love for him, and being at the same time a European poet and philologist, can, turning to images that are frequent in world poetry in the "Chinese Journey", combine Chinese and European meanings of a symbolic image.

This happens, for example, already in the first poem of the cycle, where in the first part a harmonious and simple picture in the spirit of gohua is proposed:

And I was surprised:

how calm the waters are,

how familiar is the sky,

how slowly the junk sails in the stone shores.

Homeland! my heart screamed at the sight of willow:

such willows in china,

washing away their oval with great eagerness,

for only our generosity

he will meet us behind the coffin.

Here the word junk is used for the only time in the entire cycle; subsequently, the word boat often appears. In European culture, a boat usually symbolizes the unpredictable fate of a person given over to the elements; in classical Chinese poetry, a boat is a symbol of longing: for the motherland, for wandering, etc. Sedakova's slowness of the junk's movement, the calmness of the waters and the sky are connected with the European symbolism of life as a "fragile boat among stormy waters" on the principle of contrast, and at the same time the connection of the image of the boat with longing for China and for her childhood is obvious.

Another potentially symbolic image present in this poem is the image of a willow (in general, in the "Chinese Journey" willows appear repeatedly, for example, in the fifth poem the lyrical heroine refers to "dwarf pines" and "weeping willows"). Here, apparently, it is also possible to assume the unification of Chinese and Russian symbolic meanings. For Russians, the emotional meaning of the willow image is already defined by the adjective "weeping" (this is the exact designation of the botanical species). "In China, when parting, it was customary to break off a willow twig and give it to the departing person as a keepsake. Therefore, a broken willow or willow branch symbolizes farewell, sadness in separation and homesickness" [4, p. 108]. Let us add that this custom was first described in the Shijing:

I remember the time when we went camping,

There was a green, green outfit on the willows;

Now we are going back to the house

Only snow flakes fly and fly...

[6, c.208].

Note that the pronunciation of the hieroglyph "willow" (li?) is similar to the word "stay" (li?): the mourner did not want his loved ones not to leave

In addition to the symbolic meaning of parting already noted by M. Khabibulina ([7]), the image of a willow in China still means hope for spring, a bright future (see, for example, in Wang Wei: yesterday's rain is still holding on to the peach flowers, and spring steam is already flowing around the green willow).

It is obvious to Russian researchers analyzing the "Chinese Journey" how important the motif of movement linking heaven and earth is in Sedakova's poems: "Therefore, the top and bottom in this world are connected by movement. It occurs vertically either from top to bottom, or vice versa. The pond descended from above / with a voice like the sky (2); the arms of the trees, falling, do not fall, / plunge into the water (3); a ladder is thrown from the sky (4); the heavens bow with reverence (10); a stone sinks to the bottom (13). Reverse movement: a mountain with the last hut in its lap (4); a stork like a golden ball / flies up by itself into the sweet sky above the sweet earth (9); willows grow near the water, the water follows the magnet of the star (13); the path is like a candle (16); the water of inspiration grows (17)" ([3, pp. 60-61]). Let's explain how this motif is rooted in the Chinese tradition.

In the fourth poem Sedakova created two important images: mountains and stairs, and in the culture of Taoism, and in ancient Chinese literature, especially in the poems of the Tang Dynasty, these two images are often found side by side and interact:

There, on the mountain,

who has the last hut in her lap,

and no one has walked higher;

whose forehead was not seen because of the clouds

and they will not say whether he is gloomy, cheerful,

someone happens and does not happen,

there is and there is not.

The size of a swallow's eye,

with a crumb of dry bread,

with a ladder on butterfly wings,

with a ladder thrown from the sky,

with the stairs that

nobody wants to climb;

smaller than bees see

and than the word is.

In Chinese culture, there is a proverb: (direct meaning: Chuang Tzu dreams that he turned into a butterfly), which has the following meaning: there is a lot of uncertainty in life. This can be compared with what Sedakova says: someone happens and does not happen, there is and there is not.

Under the influence of Taoism, the ancient Chinese believed that high mountains are ladders that are lowered from the sky; the mountains were called heavenly ladders, climbing high mountains is the way to become a celestial. The celestial is denoted in Chinese as , the hieroglyph? consists of two parts: a person (a) and a mountain (a), it is clear that for the Chinese, the celestial is a person who lives in the mountains, so most of the heroes of old Chinese legends are associated with sacred mountains.

The three sacred mountains Penglai, Fangzhang and Yingzhou are often mentioned in ancient Chinese literature, especially in poetry. For example, Cao Zhi's poem "The Way to Heaven" says:

With the help of magic shoes, I catch up with the celestial, I caught up with him at Mount Penglai.

The magic water from the mountain flows in a white wave, the orchid and fragrant osmanthus are almost connected with the sky.

The black leopard walks under the mountain, the kun <the magic bird of Chinese legends> fly over the mountain.

The wind lifts me up the mountain, here I seem to have seen all the celestials.

Penglai Mountain is directly named here.

Mountains staircases to heaven are also in the poems of Du Fu, Wang Wei and Li Bo. Let 's give examples from Li Bo:

I'm on the stairs, green clouds around me, such pictures of nature will allow me to forget my longing. ("Up to the tower flowers scattered in the city of Jin")

When dawn comes, I will go to the mountain, I will hold a mallet in my hands and climb the cloud ladder. ("Farewell to the hermit monk")

Only when the good fellows died here under the collapse,

Steps of stone slabs rushed up to the sky.

("The roads to Shu are Difficult", S.A. Toroptsev lane)

It can be seen that in Li Bo's poems there are different stairs: flying, cloudy, etc. Li Bo wandered all his life, he wanted to look for a path that would allow him to become a celestial, so he climbed various high mountains, where even no one dared to climb, but he did not achieve his goal, which he expressed in the poem "Looking into the wine":

Song tzu is resting in Jinhua Mountain, An qi lives in Penglai Mountain.

They are all ancient celestials, where are they now?

Our life is as short as lightning, instantly turned into an old man.

Heaven and earth do not age or change, but our facial features change.

I have wine in front of me, but I don't want to drink it.

Life has convinced Li Bo that there is no way to the deity, but wine has given him comfort: when he is drunk, he feels close to the deity. Since Li Bo loves to drink wine, he is accepted as one of the members of the eight drunken celestials. Wine is the most important image in Li Bo's poems. In the thirteenth poem Sedakova wrote:

...than drunkLi Bo to look in

in a wine as yellow as the moon

Of course, they wrote about the motif of wine in Li Bo before us: "In the poems translated by A. Akhmatova and A. Gitovich, the motif of "wine", already indicated in the titles ("Bringing wine", "I drink in the mountains with a hermit", "I drink alone under the mountain"), is one of the leading ones" [3, p. 60].

We will also explain the Chinese subtext of the images of the flute and the swallow.

The fourteenth poem of the cycle begins as follows:

The flute answers the flute,

not bone, not wood,

and the one that the mountains hold

in their caves and crevices

Sedakova's flute here, as we can see, is metaphorical, not made with hands, the poetess talks about how the wind howls in the mountains; but this metaphor also grows out of the image of the flute, a musical instrument, which is common in classical Chinese poetry. So, poets introduce the image of a flute to express their longing, for example, in the poem "Melody of Liangzhou" () Wang Zhihuang has famous lines:

The Yellow River flows far away, as if to the clouds, around the bastion there are high mountains.

Why does the bamboo flute complain about the willows, because the spring wind cannot reach the Jade Gate in any way.

And Li Bo has a jasper flute:

With the official Wang Qi, I listen to the flute melody in the Yellow Crane Tower

I was transferred to a lower position in the Changsha region, I often looked west at our capital Chang'an, but did not see my home.

In the tower of the Yellow Crane, a jasper flute is played, in May plum flowers fall in the city on the river (our substring)

Sedakova often refers to the image of a swallow, which is also typical of classical Chinese poems. This typicality has already been noted by researchers, but its meaning has not been revealed (see, for example, in Medvedeva: "swallows are a detail that also has a specifically "Chinese" color (swallow nests were eaten, by the way, N. Gumilev mentions them in his cycle)" ([3, p. 58]).

and a swallow on a teaspoon

brings up the height:

heart drops, healing infusion.

The image of the swallow has three important symbolic meanings: first, the swallow is a symbol of the beginning of spring, in the poem "Po Zhen Tzu: landscape in spring" (: name of the type of melodies) Yang Shu () wrote that the swallow arrives just in the middle of spring, and after the flowers fall Pears, the Qingming Holiday is coming. ().

Secondly, swallows fly in a group or a pair, so a pair of swallows encourages a person to strive for ideal love. Yan Jidao had lines: a man stands alone among the falling flowers, swallows fly in pairs in the drizzling rain ().

Thirdly, in ancient China, a swallow like a postman transmits a letter. For example, Ou Yangxiu has the lines: With tears in my eyes, I leaned alone on the terrace and asked the returning swallows: did they meet you on the road when they arrived? ().

Therefore, it can be argued that not only Chinese philosophy and the most recognizable images of Chinese culture, but also the less obvious tradition of Chinese classical poetry and Chinese symbolism turns out to be the basis of O.A. Sedakova's cycle "Chinese Journey", and familiarity with this basis helps to understand the work.

1. In words, not by words. (2003). Olga Sedakova answers Dmitry Bavilsky's questions. Topos, 18 March. Retrieved from https://www.topos.ru/
2. Zholkovsky, A. K. (2009). "Is it really...?" (Olga Sedakova, "Chinese Journey", 13). Zholkovsky, A. K. New and Modern Russian Poetry. P. 233-246. Moscow, Russian State University of Humanities
3. Medvedeva, N. G. (2008). Image of China in the Russian poetic tradition (N. Gumilev, O. Sedakova, I. Brodsky). Bulletin of Udmurt University. History and Philology Series, 1, 53-71.
4. Chernysh, N.A. (2016). Olga Sedakova's Journey through the «Book of Changes». Olga Sedakova: Poems. Meanings. Readings. P. 401-434. Moscow: NLO Publ.
5. Sedakova, O. . Poetry – confronting chaos. Interview from 28 May 2010. [Electronic resource.] Retrieved from https://omiliya.org/article/olga-sedakova-poeziya-protivostoyanie-khaosu-olga-balla.html?ysclid=lg0yulp2a5183280703
6. Shijing (1957). Selected Songs. Transl. by A. Shtukin. oscow.
7. Khabibulina, M. (2021). China in Russian: the image of willow in O.A. Sedakova's cycle «Chinese Journey». Young Scholar, 1, 107-114.

Peer Review

Peer reviewers' evaluations remain confidential and are not disclosed to the public. Only external reviews, authorized for publication by the article's author(s), are made public. Typically, these final reviews are conducted after the manuscript's revision. Adhering to our double-blind review policy, the reviewer's identity is kept confidential.
The list of publisher reviewers can be found here.

The article submitted for consideration is "The image of China in Russian poetry: "The Chinese Journey" by O. A. Sedakova, proposed for publication in the magazine "Litera", is undoubtedly relevant, due to the author's appeal to the study of the peculiarities of the representation of China in Russian poetry. Taking into account the interest in studying the Chinese language and culture in our time, the work is relevant and is designed to fill in the gaps that exist. Despite the fact that this cycle has already been the object of research, the author turns to other aspects. The article is innovative, one of the first in Russian linguistics devoted to the study of such issues. The article presents a research methodology, the choice of which is quite adequate to the goals and objectives of the work. The author turns, among other things, to various methods to confirm the hypothesis put forward. The lyrical cycle "Chinese Journey" by O.A. Sedakova was taken as the source of the research material. Theoretical fabrications are illustrated with language examples, as well as convincing data obtained during the study. This work was done professionally, in compliance with the basic canons of scientific research. The research was carried out in line with modern scientific approaches, the work consists of an introduction containing the formulation of the problem, the main part, traditionally beginning with a review of theoretical sources and scientific directions, a research and final one, which presents the conclusions obtained by the author. It should be noted that the conclusion requires strengthening, it does not fully reflect the tasks set by the author and does not contain prospects for further research in line with the stated issues. The bibliography of the article contains 7 sources, among which works are presented exclusively in Russian. We believe that referring to works in foreign languages on related topics would undoubtedly enrich the work. Unfortunately, the article does not contain references to the fundamental works of Russian researchers, such as monographs, PhD and doctoral dissertations. Technically, when making a bibliographic list, the generally accepted requirements of GOST are violated, namely, non-compliance with the alphabetical principle of registration of sources. The comments made are not significant and do not detract from the overall positive impression of the reviewed work. Typos, spelling and syntactic errors, inaccuracies in the text of the work were not found. In general, it should be noted that the article is written in a simple, understandable language for the reader. The work is innovative, representing the author's vision of solving the issue under consideration and may have a logical continuation in further research. The practical significance of the research lies in the possibility of using its results in the teaching of university courses on literary theory, as well as courses on interdisciplinary research on the relationship between language and society. The article will undoubtedly be useful to a wide range of people, philologists, undergraduates and graduate students of specialized universities. The article "The image of China in Russian poetry: "The Chinese Journey" by O. A. Sedakova" may be recommended for publication in a scientific journal.
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