CLASSIC CHINESE POETRY

CLASSIC CHINESE POETRY

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Tang-era literary garden party
Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies is the Chuci (Songs of Chu, The Book of Songs), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semi-legendary Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.). Qu Yuan is one of the first individual poets whose work is still read today. He is best known for his piece called Li Sao, or The Lament. The songs in Chuci are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Shijing. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), this form evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. The era of disunity that followed the Han period saw the rise of romantic nature poetry heavily influenced by Taoism. [Source: Library of Congress; Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The "Shijing" (Classic of Poetry) is made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. The "Shujing" (Classic of Documents) is a collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It contains the best examples of early Chinese prose.

Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The early Tang period was best known for its lushi (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju (truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line. The thrree most famous poets of the Tang dynasty were Li Po (Li Bo, Li Bai, 701–62), Du Fu (712–70), and Bai Juyi (Bo Juyi Po Chüyi, 772–846).

“Classical Chinese poetry is the dominating lyric form of world literature. Mainstream shi (lyric poetry) is a genre spanning more than two millennia, with poems numbering in the hundreds of thousands — extant shi from the medieval Tang dynasty alone consists of 48,000 poems by 2,200 authors. Types of lyrical poems include odes, liturgical hymns, religious poems cast in dramatic forms, risqué folk songs, sensuous songs dedicated to nature and the seasons, dense ponderings of personal travail and romantic intimate landscape and figural paintings, and important collections that give them form.

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu
Books: “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabina Knight (Oxford University Press, 2012) ; “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press); “Anthology of Chinese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Fourteenth Century” edited by Cyril Birch; Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture,” translated by Stephen West, edited by Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)].

Main Types of Ancient Chinese Poetry: Shi, Fu and Ci

Classical Chinese poetry has the three main formal types: shi, fu, and ci. Shi can more or less mean "poetry" is generic sense but in in a more technical sense shi refers to a certain more specific tradition within the broader category of poetry, which references the poems collected in the Shijing. Shi poems are composed in ancient Chinese, mostly in four-character lines. There are various types of shi poetry, such as "old style" gushi and "new style" jintishi. [Source: Wikipedia]

Fu , often translated "rhapsody" or "poetic exposition", was form of Chinese rhymed prose that was the dominant literary form during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.– A.D. 220).. Fu are intermediary pieces between poetry and prose in which a place, object, feeling, or other subject is described and rhapsodized in exhaustive detail and from as many angles as possible. Features characteristic of fu include alternating rhyme and prose, varying line length, close alliteration, onomatopoeia, loose parallelism, and extensive cataloging of their topics. They were often composed using as wide a vocabulary as possible, and so classical fu usually include many rare and archaic Chinese words. They were not sung like songs, but were recited or chanted.

(pronounced “tsi”) is poetry written to certain tunes with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes, in fixed numbers of lines and words. It is set of poetic meters derived from a base set of certain patterns, in fixed-rhythm, fixed-tone, and variable line-length formal types, or model examples. The rhythmic and tonal pattern of the ci are based upon certain, definitive musical song tunes.

Li Sao

Li Sao ("The Lament", "Encountering Sorrow") is the best known poem from the “Book of Songs (Chuci). Dating from the Warring States period of ancient China, generally attributed to Qu Yuan, who died in 278 B.C., Li Sao features a poet despairs about being plotted against by evil factions at court and his resulting rejection by his lord and then recounts a series of shamanistic spirit journeys to various mythological realms, engaging or attempting to engage with a variety of divine or spiritual beings. It dates from the time of King Huai of the state of Chu. The poem has a total of 373 lines, and about 2400 characters, making it one of the longest poems from Ancient China. It is in the fu style. The precise date of composition is unknown, it would seem to have written by Qu Yuan after his exile by King Huai; however, it seems to have been before Huai's captivity in the state of Qin began, in 299 B.C. [Source: Wikipedia]

Qu Yuan manifests himself in a poetic character, in the tradition of Classical Chinese poetry, contrasting with the anonymous poetic voices encountered in the Shijing and the other early poems. The rest of the Chuci anthology is centered on "The Lament", the purported biography of its author Qu Yuan. The meaning of the title Li Sao is not straightforward. In the biography of Qu Yuan, li sao is explained as being as equivalent to li you 'leaving with sorrow' (Sima Qian, Shiji or the Records of the Grand Historian). Inference must be made that 'meeting with sorrow' must have been meant.

The "The Lament" begins with the poet's introduction of himself, his ancestry, and some references to his current situation, and then proceeds to recount the poet's fantastical physical and spiritual trip across the landscapes of ancient China, real and mythological. "The Lament" is a seminal work in the large Chinese tradition of landscape and travel literature. "The Lament" is also a political allegory in which the poet laments that his own righteousness, purity, and honor are unappreciated and go unused in a corrupt world. The poet alludes to being slandered by enemies and being rejected by the king he served (King Huai of Chu).

As a representative work of Chu poetry it makes use of a wide range of metaphors derived from the culture of Chu, which was strongly associated with a Chinese form of shamanism, and the poet spends much of the "The Lament" on a spirit journey visiting with spirits and deities. The poem's main themes include Qu Yuan's victimization, his subsequent exile, his desire to remain pure and untainted by the corruption that was rife in the court; and also his lamentation at the gradual decline of the once-powerful state of Chu. The poet decides to leave and join Peng Xian, a figure that many believe to be the God of Sun, or perhaps an ancient shaman who later came to symbolize hermit seclusion.

Poets in Ancient China

Chinese poets have traditionally given themselves pen names like The Wanderer and participated in groups with names like the Crescent Moon Society. Qu Yuan (340-278 B.C.) is regarded by some as the father of Chinese poetry, One of his most famous lines goes: “Long did I sigh to hold back tears, saddened I am by the grief of my people.” He is still admired today.

The Dragon Boat Festival — usually held in June on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month — honors a patriotic poet — usually Qu Yuan — who is said to drowned himself in 278 B.C. in the Milou River. The day is celebrated with the eating of zongzi (traditional glutinous rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves) and dragon boat races. The largest and grandest boat races are held on the Milou River and Yueyang in Hunan and Leshan in Sichuan. To honor Qu Tuan's death zongzi are wrapped in colorful silk are thrown into the river as an offering to the poet's spirit. The silk is used to keep away the flood dragon, who is afraid of silk. There are a number of rituals aimed at preventing floods. The festival tries to appease the god of the streams — the Dragon — so that rivers will not overflow their banks and cause floods.

The famous Tang dynasty poet Li Po (Li Bai, Li Po, A.D. 701-762) is one of the most quoted Chinese poets in China and the West. In China Li is regarded as "the fallen immortal", "the immortal of wine" and the"banished immortal"— “an immortal who misbehaved in heaven and was banished to earth" — and is considered wild, eccentric and possessing special powers. Kaiser Kuo, a founder of China's first heavy-metal band Tang Dynasty, told the BBC: "He was quite a drunkard... and writing some of his best poetry apparently, while completely inebriated. You know, he's wild and associated with a kind of unbridled revelry, and yeah that's part of why I love him." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 9, 2012]

Chinese Poetry, Games and Flutes

During the Tang dynasty, when poets often sat beneath the moon and drank wine from cups floated on rivers and composed poems like: "The sun beyond the mountain glows/ The Yellow River seaward flows/ But if you desire a grander sight/ The you must scale a greater height." Poets sometimes played a game in which a cup was placed in a stream and a poet had to compose a poem before the cup floated by. If he failed he had to consume a glass of wine.

"Drinking menus" (chiu p'ai), also known as "drinking counters" (chiu ch'ou) or "leaves" (yeh-tzu), are used in playing drinking games and are generally made by printing poems and game rules (chiu ling) on cards that usually measure 5 x 3 "inches". [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw]

The Qiang bamboo flute is associated with“ci”. One of the best examples of this style was written by famous poet Wangzhihuan in the Tang Dynasty. "The Yellow River flows long as if it is among the clouds. There is a stretch of lonely city and a mountain with 10 thousand rens (an ancient measure of length that equals to seven or eight chis). The person who is blowing the Qiang bamboo flute shouldn't blame the willow, because the spring wind doesn't blow across the Yumen Pass. (It seems that there is no spring in the north out of the Yumen Pass)". This poem has traditionally been recited by children who just began to learn to read and write in the past.

Impact of Chinese Grammar on Poetry

Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: “The advantages of Chinese characters in avoiding grammatical specificity (advantages to poets, not necessarily to scientists or lawyers) can be analyzed primarily as absences of subject, number, and tense. Each of these three is worth a look. [Source: Perry Link, professor at Princeton University, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016]

“Subjectlessness. It is the norm in classical Chinese poetry, and common even in modern Chinese prose, to omit subjects. The reader or listener infers a subject. In the first line of our Wang Wei poem (“empty mountain no see person”), only a perverse reader would say that “empty mountain” should be the subject because it is a noun and comes first. Common sense hears the phrase adverbially and infers the subject to be an unstated human viewer. But how can one put this effect into Western languages that ask by grammatical rule that subjects always be stated? Most of the translators in Nineteen Ways supply an “I.” Eliot Weinberger points out, though, that when “I” is inserted a “controlling individual mind of the poet” enters and destroys the effect of the Chinese line. Without a subject, he writes, “the experience becomes both universal and immediate to the reader.” This point is correct and very important.

“Another way to handle the subjectlessness is to use the passive voice in English: “no man is seen.” But this, at least to my ear, again particularizes the experience too much. That marvelous sense of “both universal and immediate” remains lost. A third alternative is to leave the voice active and, following the Chinese, name no subject: “in empty mountains, see no person,” or something like that. But this often sounds broken or childlike, which the Chinese line certainly does not. Burton Watson’s “empty hills, no one in sight” is about as good as one can do.

“Numberlessness. Nouns have no number in Chinese. Weinberger notes that “rose is a rose is all roses,” but that formulation still leaves us too far inside Western-language number habits. “All roses” in English means the summation of individual roses, whereas in Chinese meigui, or “rose” is more like “roseness” or “rosehood.” (If you want to talk in Chinese about one rose, you may, but then you use a “measure word” to say “one blossom-of roseness.”) So, in the first line of Wang Wei’s poem, it is not quite right to think ofshan as either singular or plural, either hill or hills. The concept is more abstract. But what can a translator write? Hillness sounds odd and hillhood almost funny. Any attempt of this kind tends to exoticize, but the supple Chinese line is not at all exotic. (It is worth noting that Western views of Eastern expression as quaint have often originated not in Eastern languages themselves but in the awkwardness that results when rules of Western languages are applied.)

“Tenselessness. There are several ways in Chinese to specify when something happened or will happen, but verb tense is not one of them. For poets, the great advantage of tenselessness is the ambiguity it opens up. Did I see no one in the hills? Or am I now seeing no one? Am I imagining what it would be like to see no one? All these, and others, are possible. Weinberger’s insight about subjectlessness — that it produces an effect “both universal and immediate” — applies to timelessness as well.

“But the effect isn’t possible in a Western language, where grammar always forces a choice of one tense or another. For this reason I will quibble with Weinberger’s choice of English infinitives as his glosses for Chinese verbs. He lists ru as “to enter,” zhao as “to shine,” and so on, but I am afraid that that little “to,” which comes from English grammar, subtly reinforces the mistaken notion that Chinese verbs are, or should be, conjugatable things, when in fact they are not. Moreover, infinitives in Western languages can be nouns. On stage at the Met, to enter is to shine — one noun is another. I would prefer to say ru is “enter” and zhao “shine.”

Untranslatability of Chinese Poetry

In a discussion of the poem “Deer Fence” by Tang poet Wang Wei, Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Some of the art of classical Chinese poetry must simply be set aside as untranslatable. The internal structure of Chinese characters has a beauty of its own, and the calligraphy in which classical poems were written is another important but untranslatable dimension. Since Chinese characters do not vary in length, and because there are exactly five characters per line in a poem like this, another untranslatable feature is that the written result, hung on a wall, presents a rectangle. Translators into languages whose word lengths vary can reproduce such an effect only at the risk of fatal awkwardness. (Watson’s translation, above, does about as well as one can do; instead of five characters per line it gives us six English words per line.) [Source: Perry Link, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016]

“Another imponderable is how to imitate the 1-2, 1-2-3 rhythm in which five-syllable lines in classical Chinese poems normally are read. Chinese characters are pronounced in one syllable apiece, so producing such rhythms in Chinese is not hard and the results are unobtrusive; but any imitation in a Western language is almost inevitably stilted and distracting. Even less translatable are the patterns of tone arrangement in classical Chinese poetry. Each syllable (character) belongs to one of two categories determined by the pitch contour in which it is read; in a classical Chinese poem the patterns of alternation of the two categories exhibit parallelism and mirroring.

“Weinberger knows all of this and sensibly begins his inquiry at step two — after all the untranslatables have been set aside. Now the question becomes: How can one make another poem from the twenty bundles of meaning that the Chinese characters offer? Weinberger criticizes, astutely if sometimes unkindly, almost every translator he cites. He says the images in Wang Wei’s poem are more “specific” than they are in a translation by Witter Bynner, and he has a point, but does he need to write that Bynner sees Wang Wei as “watching the world through a haze of opium”? Sometimes, too, Weinberger’s standards seem not to apply uniformly. He scolds Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley for writing that the voices in the hills are “faint” and “drift on the air.” These characterizations are not in the original, and for Weinberger are “a classic example of the translator attempting to ‘improve’ the original” and even show “a kind of unspoken contempt for the foreign poet.”

“Broadly speaking, the problems for a translator, especially of poetry, and especially between languages as different as Chinese and English, are two: What do I think the poetic line says? And then, once I think I understand it, how can I put it into English? Differences in translations sometimes arise from the first problem; most, though, come from the second, where the impossibility of perfect answers spawns endless debate. The letter-versus-spirit dilemma is almost always at the center.”

Translations by Peter A. Boodberg, a distinguished Sinologist at Berkeley, illustrates “that the further one goes with philology and literal translation, the closer one gets to the Chinese original. About a decade ago I heard a Sinologist at Princeton rise to express the view that only in translation can the deepest meaning of a Tang poem be brought to light. (The issue was dropped after someone else asked if the reverse were also true: Does Shakespeare’s profundity emerge only in Chinese translation?) Weinberger is contemptuous of the Boodberg approach (“sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD”) and is closer to, but not an extremist in, an approach that puts art at the center.

Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy and Art

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The literary arts and the fine arts both represent products of the human spirit, reflecting two sides of the same coin. Poets and writers use words to express and describe the world and their ideas, and artists rely on such visual elements as form, line, shape, and color to do so. Although the techniques may differ, the aesthetic experience they yield is often very similar. For example, when reading or hearing the lines, "I stop my cart to look at the late maple leaves; A frost has already set on the autumn blossoms," the colors and scenery appear as if looking at a painting. The lines "I stumble upon a peach blossom forest, lining the shores for hundreds of paces. No other trees are around. The fragrant flowers display their beauty, along with the scattered blossoms," vividly suggest the author's illusory world of ideal beauty. Since antiquity, artists have been inspired by literary works in their creations. In doing so, artist and audience alike can take delight in the literary and visual arts through a single masterpiece. As the literary great Su Shih (1036-1101) simply put it, "Painting is in poetry and poetry is in painting." [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“In the Chinese tradition, the literary arts and fine arts are inextricably bound together. The most notable example is the relationship between poetry and painting. Back in the 11th century, it was said that "Poetry is painting without form, and painting is poetry with form." It was at this time that paintings became known as "soundless poems". Su Shih once praised the poet-painter Wang Wei (701-761) with the following lines, "Savoring Wang's poetry is [like having] a painting in a poem. Looking at Wang's painting is [like having] a poem in a painting." Not surprisingly, the 11th-century landscape painter Kuo Hsi felt that an artist who captures the essence of a poem will naturally be able to convey it through a visual image. Under Emperor Hui-tsung (r. 1101-1125), lines of poetry were even frequently used to test painters at court. In illustrating the line, "Scattered peaks conceal an ancient temple," for example, most painters showed the tip of a pagoda, a roof, or even an entire building. The top candidate, however, depicted only a banner peaking out from the mountains, suggesting a temple concealed within the vast landscape. Hence, allusion is ideal for conveying the infinite possibilities of a poetic line. As scholar art became the mainstream of Chinese painting, artists not only described the natural world but also turned to art to express their feelings and ideas. Lines of poetry and writing provided an ideal vehicle for expression and illustration by artists, and "Painting is in poetry and poetry is in painting" became a distinctive feature of Chinese art. Influenced by the fusion of literary and visual arts, Chinese artists have produced countless works for their own expression and aesthetic enjoyment as well as for the appreciation of literary-minded audiences.

“As mentioned by Lu Chi (261-303) in his "Essay on Literature," everything that exists in the world can be expressed with the tip of a brush. As the first work in this exhibit, viewers can also appreciate the beauty of this piece through Lu Chien-chih's calligraphic transcription from the 7th century. In China, the arts of writing, calligraphy, and painting were all done with brush and ink, revealing just how much they have in common. Since antiquity, calligraphers have taken joy in writing out verse and literature, forming a unique feature of Chinese calligraphy. Likewise, China's literary tradition has also inspired countless painters to take up the brush.

Chinese art with literary themes is divided into five categories; "Emotive Images" includes lyrical art inspired by such works as the poetry of Tu Fu, "The Songs of Ch'u", and "The Book of Songs"; "Sites of the Mind" introduces illustrations of such famous places in Chinese history and literature as the Prince T'eng Pavilion, the Yueh-yang Lookout, and the Red Cliff; "Ideas and Ideals" revolves around the reclusion and utopia found in such works as T'ao Yuan-ming's "Homecoming Ode" and the "Peach Blossom Spring"; "Words and Worlds of Imagination" includes works inspired by such writings as "The Songs of Ch'u" and the "Goddess of the Lo River"; and "The Three Perfections" of poetry, calligraphy, and painting shows how artists converted the immortal lines of writers into visual images.

Works are from a variety of media, including painting, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquerware, and carving. “Calligraphing "Essay on Literature" is a handscroll, ink on paper, 25.7 x 256.2 centimeters, by Lu Chien-chih (2nd half of 7th century), T'ang Dynasty. Lu Chien-chih was active under emperors Taizong and Kao-tsung in the T'ang dynasty. His calligraphy followed after that of his uncle, the famous calligrapher Yu Shih-nan (558-638). His calligraphy here is a transcription of the famous "Essay on Literature" written by Lu Chi (261-303). Reading "Essay on Literature" as a discourse on art in general, lines such as "Everything exists within the tip of a brush" prove to be an apt description for the unlimited possibilities of art. The essay here as transcribed as a piece of calligraphy reveals exactly this convergence of art and writing. Thus, it has been selected as the prefatory and first object in this exhibit. This scroll is similar in ways to Wang Hsi-chih's "Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering", and it includes 144 lines that appear as if they were done in a single burst of energy.

Ezra Pound and Chinese Poetry

The famed fascist poet Ezra Pound published versions of classical Chinese poems in “Cathay” in 1915 even though for the most part he couldn’t read of speak Chinese. According to the Global Times: At the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese scholars such as Wen Yiduo first began translating ancient Chinese poetry into English so it could be introduced abroad. In 1915, US poet and literary critic Ezra Pound published Cathay, a collection of 19 classical Chinese poems translated into English that is widely considered the first introduction of Chinese poetry traditions to the Western modernist school of poetry. [Source: Zhang Yuchen,Global Times, February 15, 2017]

Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: Pound learned some Chinese characters later in his life but in 1915 could base Cathay only on translations that others had done. His genius for language apparently got him close enough to the spirit of Chinese originals that he could correct mistakes in other translations “intuitively,” as Weinberger puts it. He stops short of calling Pound’s work “translation”; he endorses a phrase by T.S. Eliot, who leavened the question with gentle ambiguity when he said that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry in our time.” Whether translations or inventions, though, Weinberger finds Pound’s renditions “some of the most beautiful poems in the English language.” [Source: Perry Link, professor at Princeton University, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016]

“In the 1930s Pound became obsessed with the Book of Odes [Shijing], China’s most ancient collection of poetry and song (and, some say, guide to government). Convinced that the existing English translations of the Odes were “appalling” and “intolerable,” and that there must be a great pearl inside the closed oyster if only he could get there, Pound, then over fifty years old, began to study Chinese characters. He could now “play the game of pretending to read Chinese,” as Weinberger puts it, and unleashed his fecund imagination upon “pictographic” characters in ways that serious Sinologists knew to be utterly groundless. Professors wrote articles exposing Pound’s errors in both interpretation of characters and translations of poems.

“Weinberger’s implicit riposte, which I support, is: But do you do better? One can acknowledge a long list of Pound’s technical errors (Weinberger has some, too) and still point out that phrases like Boodberg’s “antistrophic lights-and-shadows” leave a reader much further from a Wang Wei poem than Pound does. Wai-lim Yip, a scholar of poetry who knows both English and Chinese well, notes that, despite the literal errors, in Pound “the ‘cuts and turns’ of the mind in the originals are largely preserved” and the “essential poems” are “luminous.” Could one say that of Boodberg? Options in the translation of poetry are complexly interconnected, and gaining something in one place almost inevitably means losing something in another. So here is a good rule of thumb: anyone who criticizes a given translation should be ready to offer an alternative that, all things considered, works better.

“Pound’s approach to Chinese poetry was deeply influenced by Ernest Fenollosa, an American who in the late 1870s and 1880s taught Western philosophy in Tokyo, where he developed a consuming interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry and art. Fenollosa died of a heart attack in 1908, and in 1913 his widow, Mary, agreed to hand all his private papers and manuscripts over to Pound. One of those papers, called “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” was the progenitor of some of Pound’s more durable views on the Chinese language. Fenollosa, and Pound following him, grossly exaggerated the extent to which characters are “thought pictures.”

“More usefully, though, the Fenollosa essay showed Pound what it could mean for poets that Chinese characters are free from inflections for number, tense, voice, and gender that are mandatory in Western languages. It seemed to Fenollosa that in Chinese, bundles of meaning just came along side by side. Grammar still had a place, in some simple rules of word order, but it did not affect the characters themselves and left much more room for poetic ambiguity. The meanings of Chinese characters, wrote Fenollosa, could “be like the mingling of the fringes of feathered banners.” Or: “A word is like a sun, with its corona and chromosphere; words crowd upon words, and wrap each other in their luminous envelopes until sentences become clear, continuous light-bands. For Pound, “luminous” became an important word, and later a Fenollosan understanding of Chinese poetry, through Pound, influenced the Anglo-American Imagist movement of Hilda Doolittle, Richard Aldington, and others. Later, it also had an effect on the American poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.

Nineteen Ways To View a Wang Wei Poem

In a review of the book “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways)” by Eliot Weinberger, Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: Wang Wei, one of the best Tang poets, and present it many ways: in Chinese characters, in a transliteration into modern Mandarin, in a character-by-character literal translation, and in seventeen different ways translators have tried to put it into English, French, or Spanish. “They find that none of the translations is perfect (there is no such thing as “perfect” in such matters), but that some are very worthwhile as poems on their own. Weinberger writes that a good poem contains “living matter” that “functions somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations that are relatives, not clones, of the original.” Now, in 2016, we have an updated version of the book, called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways), that offers sixteen additional offspring, three in German, for a total of thirty-four. [Source: Perry Link, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016]

“The title of the poem is “Deer Fence” (or Deer Park, Deer Enclosure, Deer Forest Hermitage, and others). Weinberger’s literal translation reflects the five-characters-per-line of the original:
“Empty/mountain(s) [or] hill(s)/(negative)/to see/person [or] people
But/to hear/person [or] people/words or conversation/sound [or] to echo
To return/bright(ness) [or] shadow(s)/to enter/deep/forest
To return/to shine/green/moss/above

“Of the finished translations, this one by Burton Watson is among Weinberger’s favorites:
“Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

“ Weinberger congratulates Kenneth Rexroth, whose translation inserts much more than” other translations,” for producing a “real poem” that is closest “to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original.” Most translators will agree that we should not try to improve and also that loyalty to spirit must sometimes outweigh loyalty to letter. But to look at a specific addition to a poem and decide which of these things it is doing is very difficult. At the literalist extreme, there is a school of Western Sinology that aims to ferret out and dissect every conceivable detail about the language of an original. The dissection, though, normally does to the art of a poem approximately what the scalpel of an anatomy instructor does to the life of a frog. Peter A. Boodberg, a distinguished Sinologist at Berkeley fifty years ago, translates Wang Wei’s poem titled “Deer Wattle (Hermitage)” this way:
“The empty mountain; to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking — countertones
And antistrophic lights-and- shadows incoming deeper the deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses — going up
(The empty mountain…)

“Although he is critical of nearly everyone’s translation in Nineteen Ways, Weinberger wisely adopts the position that “quite a few possible readings” can all be “equally ‘correct.’” Dilemmas about translation do not have definitive right answers (although there can be unambiguously wrong ones if misreadings of the original are involved). Any translation (except machine translation, a different case) must pass through the mind of a translator, and that mind inevitably contains its own store of perceptions, memories, and values.

“Weinberger — rightly, in my view — pushes this insight further when he writes that “every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life.” Then he goes still further: because a reader’s mental life shifts over time, there is a sense in which “the same poem cannot be read twice.” Here, too, I agree. But I feel Weinberger goes a bit too far when he writes that the possible word combinations in a translation are “infinite.” Perhaps we can say that possible interpretations in receiving minds are infinite, since gradations of their differences can be infinitesimal. But “word combinations” in a translation cannot be infinite.

Book: “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways)” by Eliot Weinberger, with an afterword by Octavio Paz (New Directions, 2016]

China’s Ancient Poetry Game Show

In China, there is a popular game show on ancient Chinese poetry. Zhang Yuchen wrote in the Global Times in 2017: “Game show “Chinese Poetry Conference”, which just completed its second season on China Central Television (CCTV), has brought ancient Chinese poetry back into the public spotlight.The literary talent of the show's host, competitors and panel of experts wowed audiences in China, reigniting the nation's passion for ancient Chinese poetry. Competitors from all different walks of life took the stage on the show, even including some foreign competitors.[Source: Zhang Yuchen,Global Times, February 15, 2017, globaltimes.cn ]

“Dylan Walker, a student from the US, recited a seven-word poem by Mao Zedong on the show. Talking about Mao's poem, Wu said the poetic description of the Long March set his heart afire. He also explained how Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bai's "In The Silence Of Night" first moved him and inspired him to learn ancient Chinese poetry on his own. In recent years, the appearance of culture-themed TV programs have inspired a wave of foreign students to start learning about traditional Chinese culture or even come to China. "TV shows like Poetry Conference can help accelerate the spread of ancient Chinese poetry overseas, even though it is still hard for our foreign friends to understand the Chinese language," Kang Zhen, a professor at Beijing Normal University and one of the show's judges, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

“This is not the first time a cultural TV program has captured the public's attention. As early as 2001, CCTV's Lecture Room, a program that invited scholars to give live lectures on their areas of expertise, made some scholars such as Yi Zhongtian, Yu Dan and Meng Man - also a judge on the poetry game show - extremely popular. Additionally, shows such as Chinese Characters Dictation Conference, Chinese Idioms Conference and Chinese Riddles Conference all kicked off fads dedicated to traditional Chinese culture.

“But each time, these fads faded away after a short time. So how will the traditional culture wave kicked off by Chinese Poetry Conference fare? According to data from CCTV, the number of viewers of the 10-episode first season of Chinese Poetry Conference reached 1.16 billion. The show currently holds a score of 8.5/10 on Chinese media review site Douban. Meanwhile, another culture-themed TV program, Letters Alive, the Chinese version of Britain's Letters Live, also has a high score of 9/10.

“Wang Liqun, one of the four judges on Chinese Poetry Conference, called the success of the show a "rebuff" of the "fun first" rule that is widely followed by most entertainment shows. "Television channels currently believe in a 'fun first' rule that has led to celebrities dominating most variety shows. Chinese Poetry Conference, by contrast, invited ordinary, talented and knowledgeable participants, which is a fresh breeze for the entertainment industry," Wang wrote in a post on his personal blog.

Book of Songs

The Classic of Poetry, also Shijing or Shih-ching, translated variously as the Book of Songs, Book of Odes, or simply known as the Odes or Poetry is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, dating from the 11th to 7th centuries B.C.. It is made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. [Source: Library of Congress, Wikipedia]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The “Classic of Odes” (also known as the “Book of Songs”) is a compilation of popular and aristocratic songs dating from the early Zhou period. The popular songs are said to have been collected on the orders of the early Zhou kings as a way of gauging the feelings of their subjects. Thus, even the songs that are thought to have their roots in folk songs and poetry are likely to have been modified by a scholarly official and may not be in their original form. Nonetheless, the songs give us a rich and varied view of the lives and concerns of commoners and of the elite of the Zhou dynasty. The compilation had taken on roughly the form that we see today by 544 B.C.. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: The “Book of Songs” appears to have been the first text to be identified as a source of wisdom so great that it needed to be learned by all the elite. It is the founding text of the standard “Canon” of the later Confucian eras. The Zuo Commentary to the “Spring and Autumn Annals” (the “Zuo zhuan”) portrays its pivotal role in the discourse of patricians, and the “Analects of Confucius” presents it as a core of the syllabus that Confucius taught his followers...The collection was, from an early date, believed to represent not only the finest poetry of China (set to the finest melodies, now long lost), but was also thought to hold withinit the subtle sentiments of its sagely authors. Young patricians were, from perhaps the sixth century on, expected both to memorize the entire “Poetry” and also to know how to cite it in order to convey, with an unmatched elegance and moral authority, their most subtle intentions.

“Originally, all the poems were set to music, and the music was considered as central to the aesthetic meaning of each poem as the words. By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.. A.D. 220), however, the music had been lost. In other texts” we “see references to the singing of these odes by courtiers employing them in diplomatic discourse and we will encounter instances of the poems “performed” by an orchestra of musicians. The importance of the music to the cultural role of the songs cannot be underestimated. Depending on your musical taste, imagine, if the music were lost, how incomprehensible might seem the cultural influence of “La Traviata,” “Jingle Bells,” “My Way,” or “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).”

Han Poetry by Wang Can

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: ““The poet Wang Can (A.D. 177-217) lived during the chaotic last years of the Later (Eastern) Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220). He was recognized early in his life for his exceptional intelligence and for his remarkable memory — talents which brought him the respect of older, important officials and contributed to his success in life as an official, poet, and master of the game of “weiqi” (known in the west as “go”). Throughout Wang Can’s life, the Han empire was dominated by generals who were at war with one other, each attempting to control the person of the Han emperor. Early in the reign of the last Han emperor, Xiandi (r. 189.220), Wang Can fled the western capital, Chang’an (near modern Xi’an), to avoid capture by the rebel forces that had taken the city. He fled south of the Yangzi to take refuge there with Liu Biao, the strongman who controlled the south. Although he stayed with Liu Biao for fifteen years, Wang Can was dissatisfied, as Liu Biao did not appoint him to any significant positions. When he had an opportunity, Wang Can left the south to join General Cao Cao, the strongman who had taken control of the north. Cao Cao rewarded Wang with respect and high-ranking positions. Wang Can died of illness while on a military campaign in 217. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

““A Song of Seven Sorrows” is a particularly famous poem. In the poem, the “Tomb of Pa,” which Wang Can climbs as he leaves the city, is the tomb of the Han Emperor Wan — an emperor during whose reign the empire flourished and was at peace. The poem “Falling Stream,” which he mentions in the poem’s closing lines, is one of the poems in the “Book of Songs” (also known as the “Classic of Odes”), a compilation of poems and songs from the Zhou dynasty. In “Falling Stream,” an anonymous Zhou poet compares his emotional reaction to the fall of the Zhou capital to the cascade of cold spring water falling down over rocks.

“A Song of Seven Sorrows” goes:
Again I abandon the capital and depart.
Consign myself to the barbarians of the South.
My close kin all face me in sorrow, dearest friends follow and cling to my robes.
As I leave the city gates, I see nothing before me, save white bones covering the level fields.
On the road, a starving woman, who hugs her child, then abandons him in the weeds.
She turns to hear his screams and howls, then wipes her tears and goes on alone — , saying ‘I hardly know where I shall die!, How can I look after both of us?’, I drive on my horse, abandon her and depart, for I cannot bear to hear her words.
Southward I climb the Tomb of Pa, turn my head, look to the city.
I know now how the poet of ‘Falling Stream’, moaned and felt his heart break within!
[Translated by Paul Rouzer, [Source: “An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911", edited and translated by Stephen Owen (New, York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996)]

““With the Army V” goes:
I kept faring down roads choked with weeds, with a trudging pace, my heart in sorrow.
When I looked around, no hearth fires seen, all that I saw were forests and mounds.
City walls grew with brush and briars, footpaths were lost, no way to get through.
Canes and cattails to the broad bog’s end, reeds and rushes lined the long stream.
A cool breeze blew up at sundown, and swept my boat gliding swiftly along, Wintry cicadas sang out in the trees, and the swan ranged, brushing the sky.
The traveler’s sorrows were many;, I could not stop my falling tears.
Then at dawn I crossed the borders to Qiao, where cares melted, I felt easy and free.
Roosters were crowing on every side, millet swelled the level fields.
Inns and lodgings filled the hamlets, men and women thronged the crossroads.
Unless in domains ruled by a Sage, who could enjoy such blessings? The Poet once praised a “happy land” — , though a stranger here, I still wish to stay. [Translated by Stephen Owen]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021


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