Das Lied von der Erde was inspired by Die chinesesches Flöte, a translation by Hans Bethge of Chinese poems. Mahler was known to have had a contact who had wax cylinder recordings of Chinese music, but whether he actually heard these or not, Asian music was not unknown in artistic circles at that time. The wonder is not that things oriental were known, but that modern opinion judges things by modern standards and underestimates the past. One newspaper writer greeted this year's "Japanese" Prom with derision! But it's clear that many European composers were drawn to exotic worlds because they opened alternative horizons, whether inspired by Japanese or other forms. (Please see HERE for the role of Japanese music on Debussy). Orientalism showed how alternative tonalities and modes could exist and flourish. No orientalism, no modern music?
One interesting thing about Chinese poetry is that, like the Chinese language, it's not as dependent on strict syntax as western language is. Chinese is a tonal language, which (I think) you learn by assimilating sounds rather than learning grammar. Often no filler words like "the" or other denominators, etc. In Cantonese there are nine tones, each of which changes the meaning of a sound. "Ma" can mean "mother", "horse", even "marijuana" depending on tone and context. Chinese poetry too is meant to be read rather than spoken, so the very way the characters are set on the page is intrinsic to the concept.
Think too of painting. In western art, everything is filled in. In Chinese art, blank space is part of the composition, and there are different means of showing perspective. Just as in language and poetry meaning depends on interpretation. More depends on the sensitivity of the observer. It's a very different sensibility, but artistically very fluid and creative.
A great deal has been written of the poems used by Bethge and Mahler and their possible Chinese originals (please see Teng-leong Chew's commentary). There's also an adaptation of Das Lied von der Erde set in Mandarin (merely four tones) based more closely on original sources. Whole books could be written about the subject! But on a more basic level, the poems of Li Bai (Li Po) connect to a very Chinese concept, where a poet turns his back on material things, the better to contemplate the universal. Throughout Chinese literature, the artist is a lone figure, even when enjoying convivial pursuits like poetry parties. Though most lived scholarly lives, one ideal was living as a hermit, in the mountains at one with nature, abandoning the conformity and materialism of the world. Thus Li Bai was a "drunken" poet: in vino veritas, a loosening of inhibition. He could express himself under the guise of being drunk, or moonstruck. So somehow Mahler intuited how the drunk in Das Trinklied connects to the abnegation of Der Abschied.
There are a few details in Das Lied von der Erde which are culturally significant but often overlooked. In Das Trinklied, half hidden by the glowing haze of the goldnen Pokale is the image of the ape, howling at the moon over the grave. It's horrible but even more horrible to a Chinese. In Chinese culture, honouring one's forebears is almost the basis of society, and that means taking care of graves and memorial tablets. Whoever's interred in this grave really must have been fogotten, if wild apes can sit on it and wail. What's implied is the very end of civilization. Human beings write poetry, seeking wisdom. Apes howl and don't think.
That's why I'm so fond of Peter Schreier's performance (recorded with Sanderling) which really captures the implicit horror of the poet's situation. There's a tradition of using laid-back opera singers in Das Lied von der Erde, dating back at least to Patzak and Wunderlich. Perhaps wine connects to luxury in the west, so fruitily lush (deliberate pun) voices are often chosen, as if this symphony were a vehicle for a Mario Lanza bacchanale. But Li Bao wasn't a bon viveur: his drunkenness isn't droll, but had a deeper purpose, understood on a completely different level in Chinese culture. Das Lied von der Erde needs, I think, the inwardness of a Lieder singer who connects to the terrifying images and implications of death and annihilation. Engaging with these depths makes the Abschied all the more transcendent. You wake from a hangover with a woozy head, but what you don't wake from is death. So stuff the Maria Lanza wannabes and pray for a tenor who knows where Mahler is coming from and where he's heading.