»  Parnassus:  Poetry in Review

February 2001

   All the Way to Chang-fêng-sha:  Some Translations of Medieval Chinese Poetry


Many years ago I was living in MongGok, a working-class district of Hong Kong, surviving as best I could by giving English lessons while in between times trying to master the Chinese language. Browsing in a small bookstore late one evening on my way home from a class, I came upon a cheap, locally-published volume with the title Tang Shi San Bai Shou, which translates as "Three Hundred Tang Shi." I knew enough Chinese to understand that this was a poetry anthology. Opening it I was pleased to see that it was, in fact, a parallel text, with an English translation following each poem. It was plain that the English words had been set in type by an alphabetically-challenged Chinese compositor; but through the fog of mis-spellings I could also tell that whoever had supplied them had taken some pains to make his translations into decent English poems.

Chinese-English parallel texts were not easy to come by in the 1970s, and locally-produced books were absurdly cheap in Hong Kong at that time. I paid the equivalent of fifteen cents for that one. I lost the book on my travels some years later; but for as long as it was in my possession it was a friend and companion — though a rather ragged one, as the binding fell apart almost immediately.

It was not, however, as good a study guide as I had hoped. My own personal approach to poetry is through memorization. If I feel, after a passing acquaintance, that I want to know a poem better, I learn it by heart. My plan was therefore to identify among the shorter poems a few that were particularly well-known to Chinese people (a thing I could determine from enquiry among Chinese friends) and commit them to memory.

The problem was that those English translations kept getting in the way. I made my own translations, of course, but they were for purposes of study only. I did not attempt to craft them into English poems because my goal was understanding, not literary production. Yet reference to the parallel English text proved invaluable. Chinese is not an easy language to read. Even when you understand the meaning and grammatical function of each word, you may still be at a loss to say exactly what a sentence means. The medieval poets had been educated in the older, classical style of written Chinese, of which one learned sinologist has observed: "The student of classical Chinese is sometimes led to conclude despairingly that … he is not dealing with a medium for the communication of new ideas but a mnemonic device for calling to mind old ones. Is it too much to ask that the writer indicate at least the subject of the sentence? he may ask. In the case of classical Chinese the answer is usually, yes." (Burton Watson, Early Chinese Literature.) Time and again I found myself resorting to the parallel texts for clarification, and in this way I came to know them quite well. Too well, in fact; I was dismayed to find that while I had the utmost difficulty retaining the Chinese in my head, I was in some cases, without having put forth any conscious effort, word perfect in the English versions!

This was the more odd because they were all in free verse form. Like most readers who came to poetry in the late twentieth century, I have seen far too much free verse. While I do not reject it out of hand like G.K. Chesterton ("Free verse? You may as well call sleeping in a ditch 'free architecture'!") I do find it much too easy to write and much too difficult to remember. I classify it, in my own mind, with other manifestations of the slack hedonism the human race seems to have fallen into — cost-free, effort-free and blame-free, lifestyles learned from a book, religion without scourgings, music without harmony, novels without imagination. Doing office work in Britain and the U.S., I have sometimes let slip in conversation that I am a reader of poetry. Invariably some colleague — most often a young woman — will appear in my cube an hour or so later with a sheaf of her poems for me to pass judgment on. Free verse, in nearly every case. Don't these people ever feel the urge to try a sonnet or a villanelle? Hardly ever: though at an investment bank I worked for once in New York I found enough like-minded souls to help organize a Grand Corporate Sestina-Off, which I won with a loose adaptation from Horace's Odes 2-iii. Understand, please, that I have never been dogmatic on this topic. I don't doubt that free verse can occasionally be very striking; I just think there is far too much of it about. Now, here I was in my tiny rented room, surrounded by the clatter of ma-jong tiles (Hong Kong people played ma-jong in every waking minute not spent working), twenty or thirty free-verse poems jangling about in my head, while the Chinese originals I was attempting to master — most of which adhered to formal patterns — stood around folornly like invited guests at a party that had been overwhelmed by uncouth gate-crashers.

Some years later, in a much grander bookstore on New York's Fifth Avenue, I encountered Witter Bynner's The Jade Mountain. The reader must imagine a large light bulb going on over my head as I leafed through the book. Why, here were those very poems I had involuntarily committed to memory years before! The unknown Chinese compiler of my parallel text had simply used Bynner's translations for his purpose! (Chinese book publishers do not hold the International Copyright Conventions in very high esteem.)

But what exactly was this volume that Bynner and I had both stumbled on? How did it come to exist, and what is its status in the world of Chinese poetry? Why had Bynner decided to translate it, and how had he set about it? Some explanation is required.


"Tang" is the name of a dynasty — a line of monarchs bearing a common surname and descended from a common ancestor. In the case of the Tang the surname was Li, the common ancestor a gentleman named Li Yuan, whose dates are a.d. 566-635. The dynasty itself is traditionally dated as from a.d. 618 to 907. The word "Tang" has special resonance for the Cantonese of GuangZhou and Hong Kong (who pronounce it Tong) because it was under that dynasty that they first came fully under the sway of Chinese culture. They use Tong as a synonym for "Chinese," where northerners use Han, the name of an earlier dynasty. The Cantonese term for "Chinatown," for example, is TongYanGaai — literally "Tang-people-street." The association in fact goes somewhat deeper. The spoken language of the Tang dynasty — it is nowadays usually called "Middle Chinese" — was reconstructed in the mid-20th century by scholars, notably Bernhard Karlgren and Henri Maspero. (Karlgren, however, called it "Ancient Chinese." The most accessible, though somewhat dated, account of these scholars' work is in R.A.D. Forrest's The Chinese Language, London, 1948. Maspero, by the way, died in Buchenwald, whither he was shipped by the Gestapo because of his son's activities in the French Resistance.) It turns out that spoken Cantonese has diverged much less from Middle Chinese pronunciation than have the northern dialects. There is, in fact, rather straightforward evidence for this in Chinese poetry: verses that we know to have rhymed in medieval times still do so when read out by a Cantonese-speaker, but not in Mandarin.

Shi is a style of poetry — or, to be precise, a family of styles. (This word, by the way, is pronounced "shrr" in modern Mandarin.) Some very respectable lexicographers — e.g. Robert Mathews — have translated shi as "poem," but this really will not do. While it is not always easy — well, I do not always find it easy — to say whether a given work is shi or not, there are thousands of Chinese poems that are definitely not shi. Some are too long: while there is no prescribed limit, shi hardly ever exceed 100 lines. Some are too free: there is wide latitude within shi, but all shi obey some selection from a dozen or so basic rules encompassing rhyme, parallelism, patterns of tone, length of lines, placement of cesura, repetition of words, etc. Some conform to patterns or themes explicitly claimed by other, non-shi styles.

The title Three Hundred Tang Shi therefore tells us that this is an anthology of three hundred poems in the shi styles, all written during the Tang dynasty. The "three hundred" is approximate. Chinese people have, or at any rate in pre-modern times had, no very passionate attachment to numerical exactitude. (Another classic collection bears the title Nineteen Ancient Poems; it contains twenty-one.) The original edition of Three Hundred Tang Shi, compiled in the late eighteenth century by a scholar named Sun Zhu, included 310 poems. Later editors added or dropped poems at their whim, though the bulk of the collection remained unchanged. Bynner's The Jade Mountain contains translations of 294 poems. Sun Zhu said in his own original preface that : "This is but a family reader for children, but it will hold good until our hair is white." In fact the anthology has remained wildly popular in China down to the present day. Any Chinese home that has as much as a shelf full of books surely includes a copy of the Three Hundred Tang Shi.


Witter Bynner — he had by this time dropped his first name, "Harold" — first went to China in 1917, and stayed four months. Bynner was 35; his third book of verse was about to come out (I am not counting the 1916 "Spectra" hoax). On his return from the Far East he took up a teaching position at Berkeley, where he met a visiting Chinese scholar, Jiang KangHu. Together the two men set about translating the Three Hundred Tang Shi. Bynner knew no, or very little, Chinese. This was a true collaborative effort, carried out across almost ten years, Jiang explaining the poems and Bynner turning them into American verse. The full story of this partnership — including the fate of Jiang KangHu, who died as cruel and ignominious a death at the hands of the Chinese Communists as Maspero suffered under the Nazis — is told in the prefaces to The Chinese Translations, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978, as one of the volumes in The Works of Witter Bynner. It is also covered, though somewhat sketchily, in James Kraft's biography of Bynner, Who is Witter Bynner? (University of New Mexico Press, 1995). Kraft suggests that Bynner, a firm pacifist, turned to the Far East for inspiration in revulsion at World War One. By way of supporting evidence he notes that Bynner went back to Chinese sources again in World War Two, producing a translation of The Morality Classic in 1944 (Bynner's title is The Way of Life According to Laotzu).

In The Jade Mountain we therefore have medieval Chinese poetry put into English by a Chinese scholar, then set in verse by a non-Chinese-speaking American. Is this any way to translate foreign poetry? Well, the results speak for themselves. They have spoken to me, at any rate, very clearly and unambiguously. The Jade Mountain is a beautiful book, a true classic in its own small field. It is not without faults, of course; though they are more often faults of translation than of diction. The Italians have a saying that poetry translations are like mistresses: those that are faithful are not beautiful, while those that are beautiful are not faithful. This is less true with Chinese-English translations than elsewhere because of certain similarities between the two languages in matters of structure and word-order. (Japanese-English translations, for example, are quite a different story.) Burton Watson, in an introduction to The Jade Mountain included in the above-mentioned prefaces, takes Bynner/Jiang to task for "a few serious errors" but allows that, in such a large project, these lapses are rare. He adds that Bynner shows "almost impeccable restraint" in the matter of flourishes, grace notes and embroideries on the originals, a constant temptation for translators.

As a single illustration of Bynner's strengths as a translator I offer the following comments on his rendering of Li Po's "Song of ChangGan," which Ezra Pound translated as "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter." This is a longish poem — thirty five-character lines in the original — so I shall sample only the last four lines. The song is the lament of a woman whose husband has been long away from home on business. Here are the closing lines, as they would have been pronounced in Middle Chinese:

Tzau myen ha som Ba
Yu tziang shyu bau ga
Syang ngyang byet dhau yuen
Jhyek ji Jhyang Byung Shra

A literal, word-for-word translation:

Early late descend three Ba
Beforehand send letter inform family
Mutual greet not say far
Direct as-far-as Long Wind Sand

Some explanation is required. There is an implied "or" between "early" and "late," making the meaning: "No matter when you descend the three Ba, whether early or late." The three Ba are districts in eastern SiChuan Province, from which one descends the Yangtse rapids into the great southern Chinese plain. The penultimate line is an instance of the very typically Chinese grammatical trick called "topic-comment construction." Where you or I would most naturally say "I can't stand Debussy's music," a Chinese, in the 21st as well as the 8th century, would prefer: "Debussy's music — I can't stand it." The meaning of this line is: "Where the matter of our greeting each other is concerned, I won't say that is is far to go for me." Long Wind Sand — a better translation would be Ever-Windy Sands — is a town on the Yangtse, in the modern province of AnHui about eighty miles from ChangGan (a suburb of NanJing). Here, then, is Ezra Pound:

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-sa.

And here is Bynner/Jiang:

 … Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
All the way to Chang-fêng-sha.

Never mind that "please let me know beforehand," while very suitable for an inquiry to a manufacturer about a shipment of bathroom fixtures, does not correspond to the anguished yearning of a lonely woman; that "Kiang" means "river," so that "the river Kiang" is "the river River"; and that "Cho-fu-sa" bears no resemblance to either the medieval or the modern pronunciation of this place-name; just compare the way the two poets have deployed those critical three final syllables. Bynner's can be read in such a way as to make the woman's sighs — of longing, of hope and of weariness as she trudges the road — almost audible: "A–l–l the w–a–y to Chang! Fêng! Sha!" It is as decisive an ending as a poem could have; and in poetry, as in war, there is much to be said for decisive action. Pound's "As far as Cho-fu-sa" — wherever Cho-fu-sa may be — is pedestrian by comparison.

These lines also show Bynner's command of one of the minor techniques essential for good poetry translation: the skillful use of alien place-names to add just the right seasoning of content-free euphony to lines. The great grand-master of this technique — in poetry at large, not translation — was John Milton:

From Ároar to Nebo, and the wild
Of southmost Ábarim; in Hesebon
And Horonaïm, Seon's realm, beyond
The flowery dale of Sibma clad with vines,
And Eleálè to the asphaltic pool …
        — (Paradise Lost, Bk. I, 407-411)

I have no clue where any of those places are — but what splendid lines!


The Three Hundred Tang Shi is of great value as a primer in medieval Chinese poetry, but it is somewhat sniffed at by deeply literary Chinese people, who have been exposed to it from childhood onward and who approach it in their mature years with the same kind of weary condescension that a serious opera lover brings to a performance of La Bohème. For western readers who wish to range further afield in their explorations of translated Tang poetry there are now many excellent collections available. Three new ones have come my way in recent months, all of them very well done: The Selected Poems of Po Chü-I by David Hinton (New Directions, 1999), Burton Watson's Po Chü-I: Selected Poems (Columbia, 2000), and The Late Poems of Meng Chiao, also by David Hinton (Princeton, 1996). Hinton and Watson are both serious heavyweights in ancient and medieval Chinese literary studies, with shelves full of translated Chinese classics to their names. Hinton has, I think, a better reputation as a poet; he has previously published selections from the earlier Tang poets Li Po and Tu Fu, and from the revered ancestor of medieval Chinese poetry, T'ao Ch'ien (4th century). Watson is better known on the prose side, and as a presenter of Chinese literary topics to a western audience. His Early Chinese Literature (mentioned above) is an invaluable handbook to the oldest texts, which are more or less unreadable — even to an educated Chinese person — without special training. I must say, however, that I found Watson a more careful and fluent poet than Hinton in their renderings of Po Chü-I (whose name would nowadays be spelt "Bai JuYi"). I would not, as Hinton does, use "kernel" and "darnel" in the same line, nor would I say "strings sing." This is a matter of taste, however; possibly Hinton is striving for some effect that has escaped my attention.

Here, by way of illustrating some of the problems that face the translator of medieval Chinese verse, is the only poem chosen by both Hinton and Watson that also appears in in Bynner's The Jade Mountain. The piece, by Po Chü-I, is a quatrain titled "Invitation to Liu Nineteen" (that is, to Liu Ke, an old friend of Po's here addressed by a nickname). I first transcribe the poem as it would have been read out in Middle Chinese. The poem is in the five-syllable "cut-off" style, characterized by rhyme in the second and fourth lines and some optional patterns of tone and parallelism that, wisely, none of the translators has attempted to bring over into English. The apostrophe represents a glottal stop.

Lyok yi sin pei tziou
Hung nei syeu hua lyo
Myen lei tin yok syuet
Neng 'im 'it bei myo

Here is a perfectly literal rendering:

Green ant new unfiltered liquor
Red mud small fire stove
Evening comes heaven wants-to snow
Can drink one cup (question)

Bynner/Jiang translate this as:

There's a gleam of green in an old bottle,
There's a stir of red in the quiet stove,
There's a feeling of snow in the dusk outside —
What about a cup of wine inside?

Hinton gives us:

Green winged-ant wine fresh and unstrained
Warming over a red-clay stove. A small flame.
You've come late. Heaven's verging on snow.
You'll stay and share a cup or two, won't you?

Watson's version reads:

Green bubbles — new-brewed wine;
Lumps of red — a small stove for heating;
Evening comes and the sky threatens snow —
Could you drink a cup, I wonder?

The reader may take his choice from the three translations. My personal preference is for the Bynner/Jiang version, though I do not think any of the three is thoroughly satisfactory. That is a remarkable thing by itself: the poem is brief and straightforward in diction, and universal in appeal. It is surprising that it should prove so resistant to translation by experts into good English verse. The only semantic difficulty for the translator is those first two characters: the greenish rice residue on the surface of new-made, unfiltered rice liquor was thought to resemble the wings of flying ants, so this kind of liquor was called "green ant." The poem is sufficiently well known, however, that this point is explained in any Chinese text that includes it. The first two characters of the third line offer the translator a fielder's choice, since myen means "late" as well as "evening," and the syntax would not require a pronoun to carry the meaning "you've come late." Personally I prefer the interpretations of Bynner/Jiang and Watson, but no doubt Hinton can offer a sturdy defence of "you've come late" and I would not tangle with so learned a scholar. Yet I say again that it is astonishing that so brief and plain a poem should so stubbornly resist the translator's art, when much longer and more subtle pieces have been turned into effective English verse (including, I hasten to add, many in all the collections discussed here). From what I know of the work of Hinton and Watson, and from internal evidence in The Jade Mountain, I do not think that any of the three translators quoted above is likely to have underestimated the poem just because of its brevity and clarity; yet its inclusion in the Three Hundred Tang Shi and its popularity among Chinese readers testify to its power in the original. There is some intrinsic problem here.

The clarity of the poem is characteristic of Po Chü-I, who wrote in a plain and straightforward style. There is a legend about him — apocryphal I am sure: it is not recorded before the 11th century — that he was not satisfied with a poem until he had read it to an old woman pulled in off the street, to make sure she could understand it. Po is best known for a long (120 seven-character lines — it is the outstanding exception to the rules for length of shi poetry) narrative poem, the "Song of Endless Sorrow," concerning which there is a much prettier story, that is much more probably true. General Gao XiaYu, a rather rough-cut character, wished to hire the services of a pretty singing-girl (the talents of such girls were, of course, by no means restricted to singing). The girl told him: "I am no ordinary singing-girl. I can recite the 'Song of Endless Sorrow' from memory!" and put up her price accordingly.

The "Song of Endless Sorrow" tells of the tragic love between Emperor Li LongJi and "Precious Concubine" Yang TaiZhen. Lady Yang was popularly blamed for distracting the Emperor from his duties and thereby bringing on the catastrophe of the An LuShan rebellion (a.d. 755) The blame is not entirely fair; the rebellion arose mainly from the racial politics of the border regions, though palace intrigues certainly did not help. An LuShan himself was a Sogdian who spoke an Indo-European language; his given name would have been pronounced "Lyuk Shran" in Middle Chinese, cognate with Latin lux and with the name of Alexander the Great's Sogdian wife, Roxanne. At any rate, Lady Yang took the blame. The army refused to march against the rebels until she had been executed in public, and the Emperor had no choice but to agree. The rebellion is the best-known in Chinese history. It brought the Tang dynasty crashing to ruin from the very summit of its glory. The dynasty actually recovered and staggered on for another 150 years, but its confidence was decisively broken. All this happened seventeen years before Po was born, but was still vivid in the public mind during his youth as marking the beginning of a long and painful decline. Po's dates are 772-846, a span which saw eight emperors on the throne: two were murdered by palace eunuchs, one died from drinking an immortality potion (Taoist elixirs were often lethal), one attained the throne by fratricide, the other four were wastrels or weaklings.

Actually the "Song" is uncharacteristic of Po's work, and of medieval Chinese poetry in general, which has little narrative verse. It is in The Jade Mountain, but neither Hinton nor Watson includes it. Watson says it has been too often translated into English; Hinton says that it holds "relatively little interest for us at this distance" — an odd judgment, in my opinion. The poem was much loved in its own time and remains so today. I could once, like General Gao's singing-girl, recite it from memory; I find that now I have retained only the closing lines.

 … Earth endures, heaven endures; some time both shall end,
While this unending sorrow goes on and on for ever.

At the time I knew the poem well, I thought it ineffably beautiful. It really should be included in any representative selection of Po's work, such as I assume Hinton's book is intended to be. What we actually have, here, I think, is a case of the Yogi Berra Syndrome: "Nobody goes there any more — it's too crowded." Still, it is true that most of Po's verse is of a quite different sort — reflective, philosophical (in both the colloquial and the academic sense — he was a keen student of Buddhism) and often very personal.

Here he is, in Watson's translation, writing to his lifelong friend Yuan Zhen, whose young wife had recently died. Yuan Zhen was also a poet, and the friendship between the two men, and the poems they exchanged, were famous in their own time. Poetry was, indeed, their main form of communication. Both holding official positions in different regions, it was only at intervals of years that they could meet face to face. On one such occasion, in the early winter of 823, they went out walking together in HangZhou; their fame was such that huge crowds lined the streets to gaze at them. Yuan is represented in The Jade Mountain by just two poems, one of them a heartbreaking elegy to that same wife, whom he obviously loved very tenderly:

 … Today they are paying me a hundred thousand
And all that I can bring to you is a temple sacrifice.

Probably — I can find no confirmation — this is the poem Po is responding to. Well, here is Po in Burton Watson's translation.

I Read Yüan Ninth's Poem Mourning His Deceased Wife
    and Wrote This to Send to Him

Autumn moonlight on bed curtains, your night tears melting in darkness;
peonies in the garden — springtime ache of prolonged sorrow —
in this world, no medicine to cure these ills,
only the four chapters of the Lankavatara Sutra.

The confusion of seasons here (autumn moonlight … springtime ache) is only apparent. Yuan's wife had died in the seventh lunar month of a.d. 809, so that the depths of his grief can reasonably be associated with the fall; Po's poem was written in spring of the following year. The Lankavatara Sutra (Chinese LengJia Jing) is one of the classic texts of Mahayana Buddhism, very influential among Chinese intellectuals of Po's generation. Written around a.d. 300 and translated into Chinese at the beginning of the eighth century, it is a discourse on metaphysics — notably on the acceptance of the Void and the unreality of perception.


Meng Chiao is another case altogether. His was quite a different personality from that of Po Chü-I. For one thing he was not so clever. Po sailed through all his examinations and could have attained the highest office if he had been less protective of his own skin. (High office was hazardous to your health in the medieval world. The Chinese saying was ban jun ru ban hu — "To attend a prince is to wait on a tiger." I imagine it would have brought a smile to the face of Sir Thomas More.) Meng did not crack the official examinations until nearly fifty, and only got a good job at age 65 — whereupon he promptly died. He was desperately poor for most of his life. Poetry did not flow easily from him; he labored mightily to find the mot juste, and strove self-consciously to develop an original style. He is known to all Chinese people for a single much-memorized poem on the topic of motherly love, one that unfortunately strikes a western reader as mawkish. Bynner does as much as can be done with it.

A Traveller's Song

The thread in the hands of a fond-hearted mother
Makes clothes for the body of her wayward boy;
Carefully she sews and thoroughly she mends,
Dreading the delays that will keep him late from home.
But how much love has the inch-long grass
For three spring months of the light of the sun?

In later life — from the age of 55 — Meng shed his attachment to traditional forms and embarked on a series of long experimental verse cycles in a style which every Chinese person I have asked about it describes as "very difficult." It is this terrain that David Hinton has set out to explore in The Late Poems of Meng Chiao. As an example of what he found himself up against, here are the first two couplets of the "Cold Creek" cycle in Middle Chinese:

Shryang sei shui shryek dzin
Han Kei gen syem lin
Hang lim hiu kung gyang
Jyeu tsi dzan dzui shin …


Frost wash water color utmost
Cold Creek perceive fine fish-scale
Fortunate(ly) approach void empty mirror
Shine this wither(ed) decrepit body …

We are a long way here from "Evening comes heaven wants-to snow." What on earth is this poem about? It helps a little — though not much — if you know some of the deeper connotations of the Chinese characters. That hang for example signifies not just any old good luck, but particularly the good luck that comes from being visited by the Emperor. So hang lim means approximately: "Like an Emperor trailing good fortune, I approach …" Still, with a stack of reference books in both languages and a half-hour's concentrated effort, I could not make much headway with these four lines. Difficult verse, indeed. Here is David Hinton:

Frost rinsing water free of color, delicate
scales appear in Cold Creek. Come to this
hollow mirror of emptiness with delight,
I find a spent and sullen body shining back
there …

There are three questions to be put to these lines. Are they good English poetry? Do they convey the poet's meaning? Do they give some idea of the very advanced techniques he is using? On the first point, I have been a little unfair to the translator. He has rendered "Cold Creek" as 120 lines of English verse, and while the lines I have quoted are not unrepresentative, you really have to spend some time with the whole thing to get a feel for it. I have done this, and while it is not altogether free of kernel-darnel lapses, and by no means — by no means — easy reading, I believe David Hinton has made something of value. On the second point I must be agnostic, since I have no very clear idea what the poet's meaning is. I called for assistance on my wife, a well-educated Chinese, and was relieved to find that she didn't, either. As to technique: in his introduction, Hinton describes this late work of Meng's as characterized by "symbolist poetics, thick linguistic density, and ambiguity." These things he has succeeded in duplicating. One of my schoolteachers used to say of Keats that "his lines practically read themselves." I guarantee that nobody will ever say that of Meng Chiao's late poems, nor of David Hinton's renderings of them. Yet reading these lines, though it requires effort, is not without rewards. I actually believe Hinton has done better with Meng's knotty symbolism than he has with Po Chü-I's frank simplicities. At the very least it must be said that whatever the effort required to read these poems with pleasure, it surely cannot compare with the effort David Hinton must have expended on translating them.


It would be interesting to know — I confess I do not know — whether Chinese people are as well served by Chinese translations of English and American poetry as we have been by Arthur Waley, Witter Bynner, Amy Lowell and the many other poets who have turned their attention to this field. I can offer only two data points. The first is from the early 1980s, when I was working as a college teacher in northeast China. I came upon a Chinese translation of some of Shelley's poems. The "Ode to a Skylark" began like this (the transcription here is into modern Chinese):

Ni hao a, huan-le-de jing-ling!

It happened that a second foreign teacher had just joined the college staff, an Englishman like myself, but with no Chinese at all. He had just learned the basic Chinese greeting  ni hao a — "How do you do?" For a while we had fun greeting each other, when we met around the college, with: "Whassup, blithe spirit?"

My second data point is much more recent. Last week I had lunch with Dong YuYu, now a senior editor and formerly the literary editor of GuangMing Daily, a major Chinese newspaper with an intellectual readership. Were Chinese translations of English and American poetry much read in China nowadays? I asked him. No, he replied. Some such had been produced in the 1960s and 1970s, like the Shelley I had come across, but the standard was not high. Now, since the Deng XiaoPing reforms of the past 20 years, nobody read much literature any more. Everyone was too busy trying to make money. He did not know of anyone currently translating poetry into Chinese. He doubted, in fact, that anyone was reading poetry at all. The only books that sold much in China nowadays were textbooks, especially anything to do with computers.

While understandable — and if you don't understand it, try living in desperate poverty for a couple of decades — this seems to me very sad. The glorious tradition of Chinese verse, that began with Confucius collecting the folk ditties of his people, continued through Po Chü-I musing in his thatched hut on Mount Lu, and was picked up and brought to the west by Waley and Bynner, has now quiesced. No doubt there will be an awakening, a hundred or five hundred years from now — the tradition revivified, perhaps, by infusions of translated work from the world beyond the Wall. Until then we must rest content with what we have, and be thankful we have so much, and that it has been transmitted to us, across mountains and oceans, across revolutions and wars, across languages and cultures, defying cruelty and ignominy and Death himself, with so much — so very much! — loving care.