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Lecture I — Literary Poetry and Its Patterns

Ladies and gentlemen, you will be greatly disappointed if you come here with the hope of getting thoroughly acquainted with Chinese poetry. I can offer you very little by way of information. I am no literary critic. My ignorance of the history of Chinese literature is profound. In spite of all my efforts to be accurate, errors may creep in of which I shall be totally unaware.

To me Chinese poetry is not material which I understand intellectually but it is an experience which approaches rapture. How shall I share this experience with you? Once upon a time there was a Chinese student who fell in love with a lady in a temple fresco. So he stood gazing at the wall, transfixed with beauty — a case of dementia praecox, your psychiatrists would declare. But in his vision he dreamed that the gates opened to him. He married the girl and lived happily for many years. At last he woke up to tell us the story. Now how should I tell you my story? My lady does not speak your language, nor any plain language. She hardly ever speaks without insinuation. Her grammar is atrocious. In fact she uses no grammar at all.

The rough, exotic, kaleidoscopic language structure of our poets has always been a stumbling block to one who attempts translation. Whether our poetry can ever be translated into any Western language still remains in doubt. I shall read you, for example, the English version of the very first stanza of the Book of Odes.

Hark! from the islet in the stream the voice
Of the fish-hawks that o'er their nest rejoice!
From them our thoughts to that young lady go,
Modest and virtuous, loth herself to show.
Where could be found, to share our prince's state,
So fair, so virtuous, and so fit a mate?*

*  J. Legge. She King, London, 1876, p.59.

It goes without saying no Victorian ever lived in the Far East twenty-one centuries ago. In the original the first stanza of the song contains only sixteen syllables.

The ju jiu (chu-chiou) is a water bird distantly related to the brightly colored mandarin duck. Guan guan (Kuan-kuan) is the call of the male for the female.

Guan guan the ju-jiu
From the islet in the stream.
A sweet retiring girl
The princely man will woo.*

*  Legge's prose version of the same song begins as follows:
Kwan-kwan, go the ospreys
On the islet in the river.
The modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady:
For our prince a good mate she.
The Chinese Classics, Vol. IV. Pt. I. London, 1872. p.1. This translation is fairly accurate, considering the politico-ethical bias in interpreting the classics then prevalent in China.

If it be necessary to render this stanza into conventional verse form, I for one would prefer the following doggerel:

From the islet in the stream
The ju-jiu calls, "coo coo".
A sweet, retiring girl
The princely man will woo.

But we have lost all the grace and motion of the original. The words no longer cut capers like:

Guan guan ju jiu
(Kuan-kuan chu-chiou)
Zai he zhi zhou
(Tsai ho chih chou)

More recently the trend of translation has turned to free verse. One can still breathe Chinese air in some of Arthur Waley's renderings.* A Japanese student of English literature, Shigeyoshi Obata has translated one hundred and twenty-four poems of Li Bai (Li Pai, or Li Po).** Like a true son of the Orient, he knows our beloved drunkard. Reading Obata gives one that touch of intimacy born of common understanding. Yet I wonder whether Mr. Obata has fully succeeded in interpreting Li Bai for the English reading public. With all his brilliant command of English, has he reproduced the color, the nuance, the graceful sweep of Li Bai's seven-syllable lines? *** Without any intention to disparage the service he has rendered us, I shall present one or two examples from his translations to illustrate how well-nigh impossible it is to really understand the Chinese poets through the medium of another language.


*     170 Chinese Poems, London, 1918; More Translations from the Chinese, New York, 1919; The Temple and other Poems, New York, 1923.
**   The Works of Li Po, London. 1922.
***  Li Bai is famous for his seven-syllable lines.

This is one of Li Bai's dashing little verses:

Here I give Mr. Obata's translation.

The Ruin of the Capital of Yue

Hither returned Gou Jian, the King of Yue, in triumph;
He had destroyed the kingdom of Wu.
His loyal men came home in brilliance of brocade,
And the women of the court thronged the palace
Like flowers that fill the spring.
Now only a flock of partridges are flying in the twilight.*


*  The Works of Li Po, London, p.75.

A more exact though perhaps cruder rendering should run like this:

Gou Jian, the King of Yue, has crushed Wu and now returns.
His loyal men have come home all clad in brocade.
The women of the court like blossoms throng the spring palace.
Now only the partridges are flying.

The main emphasis of this comparison lies with the phrase chun dian (ch'un tien), spring palace. The women of the court were indeed as beautiful as flowers but it was the palace that was flushed with spring. It might have been summer or even winter when the King of Yue returned. The triumphal entry, the brocade on the men, the embroidery on the women, the wine and the dance — these made the palace a spring palace to our poet. I realize very well that spring palace does not make much sense in English but that is exactly my point. "Women — like flowers that fill the spring"? That was not what Li Bai wrote. That would not be good poetry for us Chinese.

Let us take another little poem in seven-syllable lines, according to Obata, one of the most famous poems in all Chinese literature and he is right.

Obata's translation:

The Yo-Mei Mountain Moon

The autumn moon is half round above the Yo-mei Mountain;
The pale light falls in and flows with the water of the Ping-chiang River.
Tonight I leave Ching-chi of limpid stream for the Three Canyons.
And glide down past Yu-chow, thinking of you whom I cannot see.*


*  The Works of Li Po. p.59.

The influence these four lines have exerted on Chinese literature is surprising, considering their simplicity and naivete. For us the first line counts most, counts for everything perhaps, for in it the inimitable Li Bai bubbles over. In the original it is composed of seven characters which only genius could have welded together.

E Mei Mountain moon half disc (of) autumn.

"The autumn moon is halt round". So it is, but what of it? Li Bai gives us a half disc, a semi-circle of autumn. The vividness and tangibility of an E Mei Mountain night is thus thrust upon us. I feel as if Dame Nature had cut a slice of pumpkin pie and put it right in front of me. Yet half disc autumn must sound very queer to you. How can I help that?

Mr. Obata, I am sure, has labored very hard to make Li Bai intelligible to you. To us intelligibility is not the key to the understanding of poetic genius. One has to feel it. Translation can at best tell us something about poetry and the poets. After all, are we not all attempting the impossible in thus trying to rehaberdash poetry? I remember, as a college student, fresh and foolhardy, I once tried to dress up Lord Byron in a Chinese jacket.

The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece,
Where burning Sappho loved and sung ...

I stopped at "burning Sappho", nonplussed. The truth is the women in our poetry do not burn. Too often they are scorched. They smolder and go to pieces. But burning is scandalous.

In these few lectures, therefore, I shall make no pretense to translate Chinese poetry. I shall give exact rendering word for word, when my purpose is to re-create the original mood or impression. Where a point of poetic diction is involved, I shall then speak jargon, echolalia, like an idiot. I shall resort to transliteration where such is necessary. I shall make a hodgepodge of your grammar.*


*  When the lectures were given, I chanted the poems in the original, with intonations which suit my temperament. This privilege I must give up in print.

Have you ever been in a situation where grammar, instead of being a tool, actually becomes a burden? Does poetry sometimes emerge naked, or is she always decently attired in grammar? It is needless to go so far. I am merely insisting that being a barbarian does not always involve a handicap. Some of you may have heard of pidgin English. It goes somewhat like this: "Horse have two eye. No eye, no can see. No can see, no can go." Do you understand me? Can you not see with your mind's eye a native of the conglomerate city of Shanghai perspiring his intelligence upon you? Now try to turn it into good grammar and how insipid it becomes! "A horse has two eyes. Without eyes ..."

I am now going to introduce you to Chinese poetry with proper ceremony. I shall open the main gate for you and guide you to the reception hall where the panels are ornately carved and the chairs are adorned with ivory figures though they are quite uncomfortable to sit upon. You may want to see the tea garden, the sewing room where old women gossip, the nursery where babies make love to each other. You must be officially introduced, however, as befits guests of honor. Let the worst be got over. Then we shall become intimate.

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