4 AAS 322 – #4 Feb 17 – M K Hom
On Reading Chinese American Poetry
“Threads” (author identity omitted for discussion purpose)
There is no way to show it No way to even break it or Burn it or throw it away. It is with me, and yet There is nothing I can say and nothing I can do that Will make it work.
It is with me. A fish swimming in silence A fruit ripening on a tree A bulging in the back of my mind Like a fat insect caught on threads.
Intrinsic approach: analysis of internal evidence in the aesthetic manipulations of language (word use) and images in the narrative and the use of symbol and metaphor to bring forth to solidify an abstract idea(s) that was hidden beneath the surface, disguised by the use of words and images.
Qualitative analysis: analysis of the images as presented in words as symbols and metaphors to convey the idea
Quantitative analysis: analysis of the words, such as frequency of use, to convey the message
Extrinsic approach: Application and analysis of external information, such as biographical profile of the author, the time period, environmental setting and socio- political conditions when the piece of writing was made, etc., so as to add enable a potential interpretation and further understanding on that piece of writing beyond the intrinsic constraint of language use.
Analysis of “Threads” – Intrinsic approach:
Qualitative analysis: identify the uses of certain words and their meaning:
First stanza—words used to identify an abstract emotional constraint: “no way to show, … break … burn … say … nothing I can do to make it work.” – what are the images imbedded in these verbs?
Second stanza – words used to represent a concrete images: “fish swimming in silence”, “fruits ripening on a tree” Do the images make any sense?
(what else can a fish do besides swimming? Can fish make noise while swimming ? This image conveys the notion that it is a “natural” phenomenon.) “fruit ripening on a tree” as a concrete only reinforces the idea of naturalness. “fat insect caught on threads” – a concrete images to describe an emotional constraint– the loss of self and control beyond one’s control over something natural in one’s life.
Quantitative analysis: identify the frequency of use of certain words.
Since “Threads” is a short poem with only two stanzas, the recurrent use of a word is an indicator of a feature thematic concern.
Multiple use of words in this poem to convey a matter of grave concern in one life: “it”: 6 “nothing”: 2 “no way”: 2 “It is with me”: 2
By combining both the qualitative and quantitative data, a reader can confidently provide a critical assessment that the voice in this poem is venting an emotional and desperate frustration in an integral of one’s life–something innate and natural, yet unpleasant and impossible to get away.
Beyond this intrinsic analysis, one can also apply an extrinsic approach to further understand the significance of the writing. There are many possibilities in this area. For example:
1. What if you as the critique have the information that this poem is written in the late 1960s? At San Francisco State? And the person participated in the Third World Student Strike on campus?
2. What if you have the information that the poet was madly in love but lacked recourse to express this romantic emotion to the loved one?
3. What if you have the information that the poet was Asian? A Chinese American or a specific ethnic Asian as the Civil Right Movement becomes institutionalized under the Civil Rights Acts?
4. What if you have the information that the poet was a closet gay/lesbian person?
By combining both the intrinsic and extrinsic elements, you may come up with a very meaningful convincing analysis of a rather short poem such as this one, “Threads”.
These writings were products of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco Chinatown. Its presence dispelled the misperception and myth of early Chinese immigrant in America as a population of illiterate laborers. Yes, they were poor and deficient with their English ability and many with little if any formal education, but they were expressive and prolific in their native language, and conversant in the folkloric tradition. These
rhymes demonstrate that Cantonese folklore tradition; they came to America brought along their folklore narratives to America. In 1911, 1915 and 1917 three anthologies of Cantonese folk rhymes were published in San Francisco Chinatown, totaling about 2,000 rhymes written by the Chinese immigrants in North America. Because of language barrier, early Chinese American Studies specialists were not familiar with this Chinese immigrant creative endeavor in America and, like the Angel Island poems, these three anthologies were overlooked.
In the late 1970s, Marlon Hom found these anthologies in his research project on trans- Pacific Chinese American family maintenance during the exclusion period. From these anthologies, he selected 220 rhymes and translated them into English; and the bilingual anthology Songs of Gold Mountain was published by the University of California Press in 1987. A paperback edition followed, for textbook use.
The rhymes collected in the three anthologies of Gold Mountain Rhymes have a formal
structure, a folksong format popular in the Szeyup 四邑 (“four counties”) regions of the
Pearl River Delta, particularly in the Taishan 台山 and Kaiping 開平 counties. Nearly 99% of the early Chinese immigrant population in America came from the Pearl River Delta area, with those of the Szeyup origins constituted to about 75% of the Chinese population in America.
This particular rhyme format is still extant today; local writers still use it for their creative writings in addition to its oral narrative tradition. The rhyme has a rigid format, composed of 46 syllables/words in eight lines of irregular length, each line ends with a rhyme scheme based on the Cantonese phonetics. Commonly known as the “46-syllabic
song 四十六字歌”, it was written and sang at mostly weddings to celebrate the newlyweds before the 1950s. Hence it was also known as the “Rhymes from next room
夾房歌”, that is, friends and relatives would improvise and sing the rhymes in the next room to tease the newlywed couple in their wedding night.
However, this “wedding-teasing rhymes” have evolved to an entirely new poetic genre
now commonly called the “Gold Mountain Songs 金山歌” written in North America by Cantonese Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s. There were also a variety of thematic contents focusing mainly of the Chinese immigrants experiences, both personal and collective, upon arrival in America.
Back in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, this 46-syllabic Cantonese folk rhyme also changed after the 1949 communist revolution. The cultural apparatus of the new local government have adopted it to create folk rhymes to praise and glorify the new Chinese government and the communist revolution.
And in 2007, it was again used by the local government to celebrate and promote Kaiping county in the Szeyup emigrant region being designated as United Nation World Cultural Heritage site for the unique architectural features established by returnees from their overseas sojourn, especially from the Americas (from Canada to Central America).
In 2018, local government again used Hom’s book, a bilingual translation of the folk rhymes published in America in 1911-17, as reference and selected some rhyme from the book to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kaiping’s UN World Heritage designation, and a few rhymes/songs from Hom’s Songs of Gold Mountain anthology was put into local folksong musical scores, and performed in the commemorative event, along with a CD available for sale. In a curious sense, it is interesting that this 46- syllable folksong was brought over to America by the early Chinese immigrants and it became a creative literary endeavor in the early Chinese American community, with a publication of three anthologies in the 1910s in San Francisco. It develops into a genre
commonly known as the “Gold Mountain Rhymes”金山歌 with new narrative contents. And finally, it returned to Szeyup, its origin in the Pearl River Delta, with recognition as a Chinese American literary creation.
A selection of rhymes on immigration during the period of Chinese Exclusion (1882- 1943) is included in the Class reader as the assigned reading.
A CD of Songs of GM, by Kaiping office of Culture
1. If you are interested in a critique of the Gold Mountain Rhymes as collected in
Hom’s book, see: Sau Ling Wong’s essay collected in the book Entry Denied edited by Sucheng Chan.
2. If you have any questions regarding the Class Reader reading, please email me for clarification and explanation. Again, please do not send class-related email in the evening or at night or during the weekend. Teachers are not paid to work 24-7 on demand. Respect the teacher’s personal time and space.