Image of Photograph of Tim Clissold and of cover of his book Cloud Chamber

China's ancient poems for the modern era

The China Centre lecture on Tuesday 22 February 2022 was given by Tim Clissold, Senior Research Associate of the China Centre, Jesus College, and author of three books on China, including Mr China.

Tim Clissold’s lecture addressed the nature and depth of cross-cultural knowledge in China and the West. He argued that the depth of interest and knowledge of Western culture in China greatly exceeds that of the Western interest in and knowledge of Chinese culture. He suggested that there may be a competitive advantage for China in ‘knowing more about us then we know about them’.

He argued that the distinctive features of the Chinese written language have been a powerful unifying force within Chinese culture since the Ancient World. It has formed the cement that has linked together the scholar-official class for over 2000 years.

Tim Clissold argued that poetry constitutes a key aspect of the Chinese literary tradition, reaching its zenith in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). He emphasised that in China ‘poetry is everywhere’, including in public spaces and in the speeches of government officials. He used examples from Tang and Song (AD 960-1279) Dynasty poets to illustrate the universality of the issues that they addressed, including the plight of war refugees, homelessness, poverty, tax evasion, de-forestation, substance abuse and the end of life. He read a group of Chinese Tang and Song Dynasty poems organised in line with the principles of quantum physics, which named the six smaller particles (quarks) as: up, down, strangeness, charm, beauty and truth.

The Q&A session including discussion of the following: the role of Chinese poetry during the Cultural Revolution; the relationship between calligraphy and Chinese poetry; Mao Zedong’s poetry and calligraphy; the impact upon Chinese culture of the difficulty of writing Chinese characters; the commonalities between Chinese and Western culture as revealed in Tim Clissold’s discussion of quarks and poetry; the significance of the slogans for the 2008 Olympics (‘One world, One dream’) and the 2022 Winter Olympics (‘Go forward to face the future together’); the impenetrability of national cultures, including both British and Chinese; the significance of the fact that historically over 95% of Chinese people were illiterate; and the importance of writing Chinese characters for understanding Chinese culture.

Tim Clissold graduated in Physics and Theoretical Physics from Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1982. He has lived and worked in China for nearly thirty years and published three books on Chinese business, society, history and classical poetry. He is fluent in written and spoken Chinese and has travelled extensively into remote regions of China. His most recent book, Cloud Chamber, will be published in 2022 by the Commercial Press of China, China’s oldest publisher. For many years, Tim Clissold has specialised in cross cultural dispute resolution, developing and implementing practical solutions to intractable conflicts that have occurred between Western and Chinese organisations.