A Special Course by Ben Wang: A Ballad of Ballads: Li Bai’s Calling from Chang-gan 長干行

Spring 2024 Registration is Now Open!
Classes start on April 8, 2024!
Register by March 5 to receive $30 off tuition!

Calling from Chang-gan is a bildungsroman, depicting how an innocent little girl flowers first into a shy young wife, and then into a mature woman in love: it is love that ultimately transforms her into a fearless woman warrior hell-bent on doing anything and going anywhere for the return of her man.

This ballad of love, yearning and heartbreaks opens with symbolic spring, followed by summer when the lovers are at the height of their passion. As the lovers’ separation goes on, and as the narration turns to the advent and then the dark end of Autumn, the reader can almost see her alone staring at the butterflies flying in pairs, the green moss growing, with the west wind howling, the closing of yet another year without her love. No longer a young girl, this now a full woman is growing as her suffering from anxiety goes on. And at last, she breaks out of her early image as an ingénue, and shouts in the winter of her love story to her beloved that she’d do anything possible to see him again, even if it means her perish. With this image the pentasyllabic ballad closes.

Through the creation of this woman with an increasing intensity of her emotions: happiness, fears, heartbreaks, love, courage and resolve, Li Bai has crossed the barrier of sex and triumphed in assuming the role of the female protagonist as the first person in his writing to express her thoughts, feelings, yearning as she tells her story. What Li Bai has achieved in this aspect is quite unique, as few other male poets (if any) throughout the history of classical Chinese poetry have achieved. And hers is not only the voice of a woman of antiquity; it resonates as the voice of every woman in love: the name of this woman is far from Frailty, it ought to be Courage: Li Bai’s answer to Bellini’s Norma, Li Bai’s counterpart to Euripides’ Medea.

In terms of the fluidity of the poem, whose connections between lines are seamless and logical, it is essentially composed in the literary style of stream-of-consciousness, like many classical Chinese poems. (And not unlike what the great Jean Rhys achieved in her Wide Sargasso Sea.) The first five parts are remembrances pieced together in chronological order by this lonely woman. In Part Six, the final segment, however, from the image of a young, innocent girl at the beginning of the poem, looms now the shadow of a larger-than-life woman-warrior in love. The very last line is like a close-up shot of her with her mouth open to the widest, in her desperate calling to the lover, before the final fade-out: the end.

With this powerful transformation of the woman protagonist, Li Bai closes the poem. Yet its ending is in fact no ending at all, as both she and the reader know only too well that their potential reunion proves too vague and uncertain to look forward to. In the depths of winter this common story of a woman’s love ends, and so ends this uncommon poem. Is it possible or likely that spring will ever return to the woman? Li Bai leaves it for her and the reader to ponder the answer.

Now a few words on the tonal scheme of the work: Appreciation of this extraordinary ballad cannot be complete without a close listen to the sound effect of the ballad, for after all the word for poetry in Chinese consists of two characters: “shī gē 詩歌: poetry song, in English,” which clearly states the inseparable relationship between poetry and song. Although the tonal scheme of a ballad is far less rigorous than that of a pentasyllabic or heptasyllabic poem, Li Bai achieves true wonder with the sounds and tones, a musicality that is hard to find in other poems in Chinese literature.

In short, Calling from Chang-gan must be studied to be loved for its full beauty of the poetry set in its remarkable music. It will be a Ben Wang’s special course offered in the spring semester of China Institute, which starts in April 2024.

Tuesday, 6:30 – 8:30 PM
April 9 – June 11
10 sessions (20 hours)
$550 member / $590 non-member
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)
*This class will be taught in English.


6:30 - 8:30 PM
Instructor: Ben Wang


Ben Wang

Ben Wang: Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute, retired Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program.  A published writer on classical Chinese poetry and others, Ben Wang is an award winning translator both from Chinese into English and vice versa; He taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991.

Ben Wang teaches and lectures on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature, including the Book of Songs, the Songs of the South; Han, Tang and Song poetry; Yuan and Ming poetic dramas; Story of the Stone of the Qing; classical Kunqu Drama and Beijing Opera; Literati Painting. Ben Wang’s lectures on and translations of Kunqu dramas have been reviewed and acclaimed three times in the New York Times by the Times’ music and drama critic James Oestreich as “magnificent,” “captivating,” and “colorful.”

Since 1989, Ben Wang has lectured (extensively on the above-mentioned subjects)at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, New York University, Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s College in California, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions.

Latest publications in English:

  1. Forlorn in the Rain: Translation and Annotation of Selected Classical Chinese Poetry and Others; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: Oct. 2018
  2. A series of 4 books on the Forbidden City in Beijing, China:
    1. We All Live in the Forbidden City
    2. This Is the Greatest Place!
    3. Bowls of Happiness
    4. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?

    (Published by China Institute and Released by Tuttle Publishing; 2014, 2015, the series has garnered 9 US book awards, as of September 2016.)

  3. Laughter and Tears: Libretti from Highlight Scenes of 26 Classical Poetic Kunqu Dramas; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: 2009.

(January 2019)

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