Whether by accident or design, the ancient cultures of Greece and China, though geographically at great distances from each other and politically, poles apart, present interesting parallels. One of many of these, would undoubtedly have to be surprising similarities in the foundational texts of both civilisations. Somewhere between 1000BC to 800BC, Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, came into being, on the extreme western coast of Asia (Minor). At roughly the same time, at the easternmost extremity of the same continent, during China’s Zhou dynasty, the seminal Classic of Poetry were collated.
The civilisations that the Greek and Chinese texts describe are, ostensibly, quite different. Homer’s world appears to be a warrior culture, in which individual strength is glorified and is comprised of tiny city states. Zhou dynasty China, on the other hand, though just as war riven, presents itself as a sophisticated civilisation, with knowledge of its long lineage, expert in the governance of large megacities and able to articulate an advanced appreciation of aesthetics. For this reason, various Chinese scholars such as Xu Yuanchong, compare Homer’s Iliad unfavourably to the Zhou dynasty’s Classic of Poetry on the grounds that the Iliad glorifies war and heroes, whereas the Classic of Poetry compendium sings in praise of peace and the common man.
This, I think, is missing the point of the Iliad, a complex and subversive work dealing with man’s thralldom to fate and the capriciousness of the gods, and ultimately the futility of glory, pride and martial valour in the face of intellectual rigour, and always, the sheer futility of it all, given the arbitrary manner in which the gods deal with their human wards.
In Hector’s farewell address to Andromache, for example, Homer has the great hero proclaim: “Where heroes war, the foremost place I claim, The first in danger as the first in fame.” Soon after, the Trojan warrior is killed and his body dragged around the Troy in a chariot. So much for military glory.
Zhou dynasty poems, as contained in the Classic of Poetry, present eerily similar themes. Take ‘a Border Song’, by Lu Lun:
“In gloomy woods grass shivers at wind’s howl./ The general takes it for a tiger’s growl./He shoos and seeks his arrow-plume next morn,/ only to find a rock pierced amid the thorn.”
Whereas the Homeric epics are dynamic in tone and relish in words, Zhou poetry on the whole is sparse and reflective.
Similarly, in ‘Starting for the Front,’ Wang Han writes: “With wine of grapes the cups of jade would glow at night;/ Drinking to pipa songs, we are summoned to fight./ Don’t laugh if we lay drunken on the battleground,/ How many warriors ever came back safe and sound?”
Fate is thus one of the key determinants of a soldier’s life. Wang Han’s sentiments come to be echoed in Patroclus’ retort to Hector, as Hector taunts him, while killing him:
“No, deadly destiny, with the son of Leto, has killed me,/ and of men it was Euphorbos; you are only my third slayer./ And put away in your heart this other thing that I tell you.
You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now already/ death and powerful destiny are standing beside you,/ to go down under the hands of Aiakos’ great son, Achilleus.”
As foundational documents of identity, the Iliad and the Odyssey, at the same time that they offered subtle critiques of the society they were portraying, were creating for the Greeks a sense of who they were and what values they should espouse. While the Iliad presented a Greek male as someone who carefully cultivated his sense of honour or τιμή, especially as a warrior, the Odyssey presented the values of peace-time, where such concepts as looking after one’s home, providing guests with appropriate hospitality and being loyal to one’s household and kin, were considered of paramount importance, not only to mankind, but also to the gods as well, considering that it was their values and their behaviour, that seeping down to mankind, were emulated and espoused by it.
A similar “top-down” world view can be found in Zhou poetry. For example, the King Wen cycle of poems, also plays a similar foundational role in Chinese society, setting the yardstick for the desired moral conduct of all those who would follow his example, proving instrumental in the development of Chinese political culture.
In the cycle, we are told that a wise ruler must order his kingdom by first making his home harmonious, reflecting the harmony of heaven. A good ruler, and a good man, must behave virtuously both in public and private, seeking order and justice at home and then in the sphere outside of it. Thus both ethics espouse a “trickle down” morality, even if the values which are to be espoused differ as much as the character of each society does.
In contrast with his Zhou counterpart, however, the Homeric hero seems to lack an inner voice, and relishes in combat, as can be evidenced in this battle scene: “And he pitched Pisander off the chariot on to earth/ and plunged a spear in his chest – the man crashed on his back as/ Hippolochus leapt away, but him he killed on the ground,/ slashing off his arms with a sword, lopping off his head/ and he sent him rolling through the carnage like a log.” The description is so excessively gory, that one becomes convinced that Homer is being deliberately subversive, turning the Mycenaean macho warrior culture on its head, even as he purports to celebrate it.
Du Fu, in his ‘Song of the Frontier’, on the other hand, presents the soldier as one who, while dutifully carrying out orders and cultivating martial prowess, despises war and seeks to compartmentalise it, removing it from the sphere of the pre-ordained: “The bow you carry should be strong/ The arrows you use should be long./ Before a horseman, shoot his horse;/ Capture the chief to beat his force!/ Slaughter shan’t go beyond its sphere./ Each State should guard its own frontier./ If an invasion is repelled, Why shed more blood unless compelled?” Nonetheless, both lineages are venerable and complement each other, thematically at least, even as they respond to their realities and prevailing mores differently.
Nostos, or the irrepressible desire for return home, is at the centre of the Odyssey. When Odysseus lands in Ithaca, he is so aged and changed by his travails, that no one is able to recognize him but his dog. A similar scene is played out in ‘Home-Coming’, by He Zhizhang: “Oh, I return to the homeland I left while young,/ Thinner has grown my hair, though I speak the same tongue./ My children, whom I meet, do not know who I am. “Where are you from, dear sir?” they ask with beaming eyes.”
Finally, compare the unsurpassable Li Bai’s ‘A Faithful Wife Longing for Her Husband In Spring’, where the suitor is elemental, to Penelope and Odysseus in the Odyssey:
“With Northern grass like green silken thread,/ western mulberries bend their head./ When you think of home on your part,/ already broken is my heart./ Vernal wind, intruder unseen, how dare you part my bed-screen!”
Whereas the Homeric epics are dynamic in tone and relish in words, Zhou poetry on the whole is sparse and reflective. When translating it, I am amazed at how polyvalent each character is, and how it is impossible to render all of its connotations into English or Greek without almost writing an essay in order to convey these. Any translation can in no way replicate the sparse rhythm and tonality of the original Chinese. Regardless, when engaging either with the Homeric epics, or the poetry of the Zhou dynasty, complementary within their contexts while simultaneously so deliciously diverse, whether as Greeks, or as Chinese, we invariably do as Du Mu, in his poem ‘Red Cliff’, ever in awe of the longevity and brilliance of western and eastern arms of world civilisation: “We dig out broken halberds buried in the sand,/ And wash and rub these relics of an ancient war.”