Alternative Poetry Traditions: Chinese

Introduction: Popular Misconceptions

Chinese poetry played a key role in early Modernist theory, and remains immensely popular — in the many Chinese poets that continue to appear in English translation, and among Chinese readers themselves, who often prefer the classics to contemporary work. Historically, poetry was an important means of self-expression, social criticism and social advancement for the  governing scholar class, and even today provides some understanding of the Chinese world view. {1}

As always in generalisations, there is some truth in David Budbill's {2} assertion that 'Chinese poetry focuses on the actual, the things of this world, the here and now. It delights in the physical. It is humanistic and full of common sense and seldom touches on the supernatural or indulges in extravagant flights of fancy or rhetoric.' But only a little. Chinese poetry most certainly does find 'the great universal truths in the mundane' but that 'radically different aesthetic' doesn't necessarily entail that 'Much of contemporary American poetry, by Ancient Chinese standards, is pretentiously philosophical and mercilessly overwritten.' Chinese poetry is only simple superficially, though that simplicity can be all that western translations succeed in bringing across.
Like most poetry, Chinese poetry has complex rules that exploit the possibilities inherent in the language employed. Chinese poems are far more image-based than sound-based, of course, though the evocation of the sensuous world through vivid images — that great hope of early Modernism {3}  — is only a small part of how language actually functions, in Chinese and generally.  Imagery in Chinese poetry can be specific or general, simple or recondite, evocative of simple sensation or of deep thought. Images operate in Chinese poetry as characters do in its language, though with special rules and customs.

The uninstructed Chinese today cannot therefore pick up a collection of Tang dynasty poems and expect to fully appreciate them. He can read the words in most cases, but not necessarily understand them properly because poetry employed a literary language, wén yán, very different from the spoken language then, and sometimes from standardised Chinese today. Words have changed their pronunciation and/or been dropped, complex conventions were in play, and intricately woven into the poem's fabric were numerous allusions to other poems that only the Mandarin class would have been familar with. {4}

Finally, for those who'd see Chinese poetry as simple expressions of mundane matters, it is worth stressing that, in the three thousand years of its existence, Chinese poetry has expressed a wide variety of things, which are commonly grouped under eleven themes of life, namely love and courtship, the beautiful woman, the abandoned woman, eulogy and admonition, hardship and injustice, the wandering man, landscape, farming and reclusion, an imagined journey to the Celestial World, shamanist and Buddhist depiction of things, and remembrances. {5}

The Chinese Language

To understand its poetry we need to know something of the Chinese language and its literary traditions.

The foundation of Chinese is the character, a logogram where every symbol either represents a word or a minimal unit of meaning. In the literary language each character represented one word and its monosyllable sound, but a modern Chinese word can have two syllables (e.g. dianshi for television). The average Chinese today knows some two to four thousand characters, but many more exist: an eleventh-century dictionary listed over 53,000, for example.  {6} The earliest writings stretch back to 12th century BC divinatory texts written on bones and shells, and some of these are clearly pictograms, stylized drawings of what they represent. But many are not, and today only some 600 Chinese characters are pictograms of some sort. The sound associated with these early pictograms gradually gained an independence, however, enabling it to be detached and applied to new words constructed as  approximations of their pronounciation. Some word meanings were tangible objects, but others were abstract grammatical notions, like ‘completion of an action’. Today the vast majority of Chinese characters are simply phono-semantic compounds, constructed from elements once hinting at meaning and the pronunciation, but now no longer doing so. Their sound and meaning of each character has to be learned, though dictionaries help a little in this laborious business by listing words under their radical, the basic element from which each character is built. {7}

The radical is modified by additional characters, to extend or (more often) drastically change the meaning, beyond what could be guessed from its component characters. Generally, the additional character appears to the immediate left of the radical, but may also appear to the right, above or below. There is no pattern in this arrangement, and the new compounds (i.e. new words) simply have to be learned, sound and meaning. Characters are written in strokes according to strict rules (horizontal before vertical, etc.) and those rules have to followed if intelligibity is to survive the many styles in which the characters can be written, from orthodox script to everyday handwriting.

At its best, Chinese calligraphy is a high art form. The combination of technical skill and imagination, acquired by laborious practice, must provide interesting shapes to the strokes and create beautiful structures from them without any retouching or shading. Most important of all, there must be well-balanced spaces between the strokes. The fundamental inspiration of Chinese calligraphy, as of all arts in China, is nature. In regular script each stroke, even each dot, suggests the form of a natural object. As every twig of an actual tree is alive, so every tiny stroke of a piece of fine calligraphy has the energy of a living thing. Printing does not admit the slightest variation in the shapes and structures, but strict regularity is not tolerated by Chinese calligraphers. A finished piece of fine calligraphy is not a symmetrical arrangement of conventional shapes but something like the coordinated movements of a skillfully performed dance — impulse, momentum, momentary poise, and the interplay of active forces combining to form a balanced whole. {8}

Chinese is remarkably free of grammar as westerners know it, i.e. something governing the parts of speech and the relationship between them. We change the form of words to indicate tense (sing to sung), and function (verb sing to noun song), but Chinese does not. We use relative clauses, introducing them with markers ( if .... then), but Chinese does not. We make the word order important (he left her), but Chinese is less concerned with such matters, at least in its poetry, which cultivates ambiguity. Prose is much more precise, however, and there is nothing in English, even the most technical, that cannot be exactly said in Chinese.

So how does Chinese overcome these apparent shortcomings? By rather different approaches to language. Chinese does not distinguish between singular and plural nouns, for example, but employs specific indicator like dōu (all), zhèixie (these) or hǎoxie (a good deal): there are also measures, like tóu (head), zhang (stretch) or tiáo (long), etc. The word indicates possession: tāde shū (his book).  Chinese verbs are not conjugated, do not possess tenses, nor express mood (conditional, subjunctive, etc). Indeed only their ability to be preceded by bu distinguishes them from nouns. But the Chinese are not confused by this similarity, in fact distinguishing between active verbs and verbs indicating a state of being. Verbs are words that can use predicates, follow adverbs, take suffixed particles and take a modifer like hĕn (very or good). Chinese doesn't use relative phrases or clauses but generally modifies word order with time or place expressions: pùzi qiántou nèige rén (that man in front of the shop, but literally 'shop in front of that man', where qiántou is 'in front of'). Compound verbs are very common: ba shū nágĕi wō (hand me the book, but literally 'book take give me'). Conveyance travel usually includes the verb zuò, to sit: he shi zuò bus come de (did he come by bus, where shi is the verb 'to be'). There are no past tenses but the suffix le suffices: 'good afternoon' becomes 'have you eaten' (nĭ chīle fò le ma: a double use of le). The suffix gùo indicates something done in the past and so a successful conclusion: qĭng nĭ gùo lá (please come here). Through such elements — and there are a great many in Chinese — the language is kept flexible and expressive.

Chinese is always conscious of the context in which something occurs, and generally proceeds from the general to the particular: year before month, family before given name.  Antithesis is common, and indeed opposites run right through the language. Also stressed is 'direction', the ái (to come) and qù (to go) being used as appendages to other verbs. To 'look and see something' is kànjian (kàn is to look and jiàn is to perceive). Something like 'he didn't expect' becomes 'he think not arrive' in Chinese, which often uses suffices like qī (to rise) and zhù (to retain). The 'I cannot afford those things' becomes wō mǎibaqi nèixie dongxi (literally 'I buy not rise those things'). The phrase 'excuse me' is dùibuqi (literally 'face not up'). And so on: this small selection of examples can only provide a flavour of the language, which is immensely complicated in detail. {9}

Then there there is the sheer bulk of poetry that the Chinese, ever mindful of the past, have preserved: 48,000 poems from the Tang, 200,000 poems form the Song, and a million or more from the following Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Though poetry in later dynasties was a refined art, written almost exclusively by the educated class of China, essentially the scholar-officials we call Mandarins, the individual poets down history have been a varied lot: emperors, statesmen, military commanders, magistrates, hermits and a sprinkling of farmers and the manual trades. Many lived exemplary lives, but there's a good admixture of those who did not, particularly in the Yuan dynasty when common speech and attitudes crept into plays, music and poetry. But the class most active in poetry was always the scholar class who provided the country with an effective civil service system for almost two millennia.  Promotion was through merit and public examinations, but the official's duties were onerous, and performance was always subject to review. Each official had a titular office, indicating his rank but not his actual function, a commission for his normal duties, and additional assignments or honours. Councillors controlled only the civil administration because the division of authority made the military commissioner and the finance commissioner separate entities, reporting directly to the ruler, who took the important decisions. In doing so, he received additional advice from academicians and other advisers who provided separate channels of information and checks on the administrative branches. Similar checks and balances existed in the diffused network of regional officials. Local government by early Tang dynasty times had achieved a considerable degree of independence, but each prefecture was in direct contact with the central ministries. In the spheres of activity that the administration regarded as crucial — registration, land allocation, tax collection, conscription of men for the army and for corvée duty, and maintenance of law and order — prefects and county magistrates were expected to follow centrally codified law and procedures, but could interpret the law to suit local conditions. {10-12} Many poets naturally longed to be free of so intricate and sufficating a machinery of governance.

Apart from that tested in state examinations, poetry was largely written as a private diversion, for and by fellow bureaucrats, and so dwelt on the matters mutually important. The association of simple words with traumatic events (demotion, injustice, exile to distant provinces, etc.) gave them a poignancy that can only be vaguely imagined by us. Individual words also had connotations and symbolic values: the innocuous 'peach blossom' called up marriage and offspring, the cheeks of young women, return of spring and youthful vigour, and even the defeat of evil spirits. {13} We can grasp these connotations intellectually, but not always respond instinctively in the manner needed for poetry.

The educated Chinese also know their history, as we have to if their literature is to speak to us. {10-12, 14} Wide reading is required, with insight and imaginative understanding, without which a collection of Chinese art, manuscripts or coins, for example, remains an accumulation of lifeless objects.

The Chinese Language in Practice

China is a large country with diverse ethnic groups that speak many varieties of Chinese, called dialects but fact different members of a broad family of languages, many as distinct as French is from Spanish. Mandarin, the official language in China and Taiwan, is based on one dialect, that of the Nanjing dialect of Lower Yangtze Mandarin adopted by the royal courts of the Ming and early Qing dynasties.  But, even today, many dozens of mutually incomprehensible dialects still survive in local usage, despite the efforts to authorities to enforce one unifying tongue intelligible to all across the country. Vernacular Chinese appeared in the popular plays and novels of the Yuan dynasty, and the peasant-based Communist Party naturally sought to extend its use into important documents and policy statements, which had once been the preserve of the literary language. But the two languages, literary and vernacular, do not mix well. Wén yán, the literary language, tends to express one idea with one character, whereas the vernacular language isn’t so restricted. Conversely, the literary language also tends to be too ambiguous for water-tight legal and commercial documents.

And there are also problems with the vernacular language itself. From the 1930s a standard national language, Guóyǔ, has been encouraged, but this ‘national language’ tends to be learned with its local pronunciation, simply because children come to school already speaking the local dialect, which they must slowly learn to associate with written characters of the ‘national language’. Not only is this Guóyǔ (Putonghua in Mainland China and Guoyu in Taiwan {15}) the official Mandarin in which classical poetry may be published today, at odds with the literary language, and with how that language will be locally pronounced, it is also the end-product of aggressive language reform. Words have been dropped or modified over the centuries, and the radicals of Chinese characters listed in Chinese dictionaries have been steadily reduced, though not always consistently. The Han dynasty dictionary of Xu Shen showed 540 recurring graphic elements, for example, which were reduced to 214 in Mei Yingzuo's 1615 dictionary. {16}  In modern times, Richard Newnham gives selections from 212 radicals, {17} but Rick Harburgh lists 182. {18}

Romanization is a further problem. Wade-Giles may be still the most widely-used system, but is difficult to learn. It employs many marks and accents, and the aspirated and non-aspirated consonants are not always clearly distinguished. The Gwoyeu Romatzyh system was designed in 1926 by Chinese scholars and writes easily, without marks and accents. Tones are indicated with spelling changes, but learning is again difficult, and the text not visually pleasing. Indeed, so baffling was it to the average Chinese that western intelligence services considered using it for encryption. The Yale system originated with America’s entry into W.W.II, and has many advantages: it is easy to learn, reads easily and the spellings are eye-sounds. Pinyin is the simplified, romanized system made official by the PRC, and has from 1979 been employed in external press releases and the like. It is easy to learn and writes easily, but, though designed for native Chinese use, does not show tones when employed internally. {19}

The Chinese response to romanization has been less than enthustiastic. Having arduously learnt to associate their native dialect with the written ‘national language’ Mandarin, something that takes many years, they have then to go through the whole process again by linking sounds to a pinyin that, though simplified, alphabet- and phonetics-based, may not match their local pronunciation. {20} Many authorities provide a comparison of pinyin and the Yale systems, {20} of course, and specialist works will also explain the differencies (often involving tones) between the languages of Tang and Song poetry and the standardised Chinese of today, but difficulties still remain. {21}

The Structure of a Chinese Poem

Classical Chinese poems differ in several features from European poems, and these features are crucial to comprehension and translation. The features changed as Chinese poetry evolved, and could be specific to the type of poem being written (see Evolution below) moreover, so that the following is only the briefest overview.

1. Ambiguity. Key aspects may be missing from the text, often the where, the time, the who did what to whom, etc. All these will be disclosed by seeing the poem in its cultural context, and by following the hints and associations of the words given — or disclosed as much as the poet intends. But the disclosure is part of the experience. Discretion, refinement, allusion — these are part of the cultural tradition, and readers were expected to work things out of themselves. Indeed that slow making sense of the words, and the shadowy ambiguities beyond those words, was part of the poetic experience. The lines in poetry served to suggest the shadowy and transient existence of the world apprehended through the senses, not the clear-cut, no-nonsense terms of a government decree.

2. Syntactical construction. The words of each line of the poem are arranged in one of two ways, as subject plus predicate or as topic plus comment.

Thus the first four lines of the poem Tao yao (Peach-tree tender) {22} run:

táo zhī yāo yāo
zhuó zhuó qí huá
zhī zĭ yú guī
yí qí shì jiā

The literal translation is:

peach_tree budding tender tender
vivid vivid its flowers
this girl going_to marry
fit her chamber house

Lines 1 and 2 have the topic plus comment structure. Lines 3 and 4 have the subject plus predicate structure. The sense has to be filled out: an English translation might be:

The peach tree, budding and tender,
Vivid and bright its flowers.
This girl is going to be married,
and fit for her chamber and house.

These two constructions, subject plus predicate and as topic plus comment, become much more complicated in later poetry, in Shi, Ci and Qu poems.
3. Parallelism. Lines commonly repeat themselves in Chinese verse, expressing the same meaning in a slightly different way or with different imagery. In four-line poems it was usual for the interior lines to show parallelism, but here line 2 repeats the freshness comment of line 1, and line 4 repeats the subject and predicate sense of line 3.

4. Progression. Chinese poems commonly showed a four stage progression, from qi (begin or arise) to cheng (continue) to zhuan (make a turn) and he (conclude or enclose). This is examined in the example below.

5. Rhythm, or, more exactly, semantic rhythm. In the early Shi (Zhou dynasty) poetry, of which the above is an example, the tetrasyllabic line forms two disyllabic segments, often designated 2 + 2. But as poetry became more ambitious, and the lines longer, a greater variety of measures became possible. In the Lyrics of the Chou (Period of Warring States) for example, the line often lengthens to a 3 +2 rhythm, where the 3 may be 1 +2 or 2 +1. In the first case the initial word is followed by a minor pause (.) and the second two words form a semantic binome: 'oh. whom linger'. The 'whom linger' is still two separate monosyllabic words, but the sense links them as a disyllable. After the third word may come a pause, indicated by the Chinese word xi, between topic and comment: 'oh. whom linger xi middle isle'.  {23} Much greater variety still  comes in later poetry, where the rules governing, for example, Du Fu's use of metre and tone would take several pages to explain properly, though I give a brief summary below. {24}

6. Rhyme. Chinese poems generally rhyme, often on even lines, but sometimes only approximately, by repetition of similar vowel sounds more than vowel and concluding consonant as expected in English verse. There was some sense in this looseness: Chinese poems have short lines, and poets did not want to be too restricted in word use. They were also conscious that pronunciation had changed over the centuries, and indeed differed between dialects across the country. Here, in our example, where the poem comes from the earliest anthology of Chinese poetry (The Book of Poetry: Shijing, Mao No. 6), there is no rhyme. Later poems generally do rhyme, and the rules can be very complicated indeed. In the Lüshi (new style) poetry of Tang times, the poet had to alternate level and oblique tones between and within the lines. A first rule demanded that the tones of a pentasyllabic line must appear as opposite pairs. A second rule required that the tonal combination of the first line be antithetically matched by that of the closing line of the poem. A third rule demanded a partial equivalence between two adjacent couplets. The matter is technical, complicated in detail, {22} but indicates how remote from simple heart-felt simplicity was Chinese poetry at the zenith of its powers.

7. Rhetoric. Far from simply letting images speak for themselves, Chinese poems, even from earliest times, employed various tropes, including metaphor, simile, synecdoche (part representing whole), alliteration, onomatopoeia and puns. {22}

8. Allusion. Chinese poems commonly allude to other poems on similar themes, not by only by selective quotation from older poets but weaving them into the lines so that the themes are emphasized, contrasted, undermined or subtly made to change their shape.

9. Imagery and its requirements. By Tang times, Chinese poems had accumulated many content words (shizi) with a marked visual aspect, the continual use of which evoked thought, emotion and even remembered scraps of history.  Lüshi poems particularly (as in the example that follows) tended to maximize the imagistic content at the expense of so called 'empty' words, though it is the latter that are needed for understanding in western poetry. Chinese in fact goes much further than the focus on images, the so-called Imagism of early Modernist poets like Ezra Pound. This brief but still influential movement adopted three requirements: the vers-libre principle that the single line is the unit of composition, the Imagist principle that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by simply naming them, and the lyrical principle that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds. {25, 26} Chinese poetry, in fact, works differently. There is the linkage by semantic needs noted in 5 above. And there  are rules governing the use of couplets, noted in 3 and illustrated further in the analysis below.

An Extended Analysis

With these points in mind, we can look a poem in more detail at Du Fu's 'Spring Scene':



As transliterated by writers, {27} the pronunciation is:

chūn wàng

 guó pò shān hé zài
 chéng chūn cǎo mù shēn
 gǎn shí huā jiàn lèi
 hèn bié niǎo jīng xīn
 fēng huǒ lián sān yuè
 jiā shū dǐ wàn jīn
 bái tóu sāo gèng duǎn
 hún yù bù shēng zān 

Zong-Qi Cai also gives the Middle Chinese pronunciation  {28}

kwok pò shān hé zài
chéng chūn căo mù shēn
(găn) shí huā jiàn lèi
hèn bjet niăo jīng xīn
(fēng) huŏ lián sān yuè
jiā shū dĭ wàn jīn
(baek) tóu sāo gèng duăn
hùn yowk pwot (shèng) zān

Which is similar to Alex Forman's own Middle Chinese rendering under a different transliteration system: {29}

kwek1 phè1 sran2b ghe1d dzèi1a
dzyeing3b tshywen3b tsháu1 muk1b syem3 
kám1a dzyi3d hwa2 tsàn3b lwì3c 
ghèn1 pat3bx táu4 keing3a sem3
phung3c hwé1 lan3b sam1b ngwat3a
ka2 syuo3b téi4 màn3a kem3x
beik2a dou1 sau1 kèing2a twán1
ghwèn1 yuk3c pet3a syeng3 tshrem3 

There is little disagreement on the words: {28}

1.    country   broken             mountain    river.                remain
2.    city         spring              grass         wood.              thick
3.    feel         time                flower.       shed                 tear
4.    hate        separation       bird.           startle              heart
5.    beacon    fire                 span.          three               month
6.    home       letter              equal.         ten_thousand   gold_tael
7.    white       head               scratch.      even                shorter
8.    simply     be_about_to     not.            able (to hold)   hairpin

. marks a minor pause between a monosyllabic word and a disyllabic compound. End rhymes in level tone occur in lines 2, 4, 6 and 8.  There are no end rhymes in oblique tone. We should know that the poem was written during the terrible An Lushan rebellion (755-763), that the city in ruins is the once splendid capital of Chang-an, and that a hairpin was used to hold the official's cap in place.

The first thing to note is the high concentration of content words: the only 'empty' words are 'even', 'simply', 'about' and 'not'. The content words call up emotions and thoughts from a past millenium of use, just as poetry in English uses 'heart', 'spring', etc. as a shorthand for the educated reader, though in Chinese the allusions are more complex and subtle. Lines 5-8 have the subject plus predicate structure. Lines 1-4 are composite, topic plus comment structure being followed by the subject plus predicate structure.

Unlike western Imagist poems, which break their syntactical connections, this poem (and Chinese poetry generally) strengthens them.

Every line here consists of a disyllabic unit and a following trisyllabic element. Between the opening and closing couplets, both in parallel, the interior two couplets must be parallel in theme and grammar. 'Feel' is parallel with 'hate', 'time' with 'separation' (one in time and one in space), 'flower' with 'bird' (natural world), 'tear' with 'startle' (emotional response), 'beacon fire' with 'home letter' (messages) 'three' with 'ten thousand' (numbers), 'month' with 'gold' (measures)

Parallel and non-parallel couplets alternate.

The poem shows the typical progression of Chinese poems. The required opening (qi)  sets the time, place and theme.What is human (country) is set against what is natural (hill and water). What is broken by men is set against what is unbroken in nature. The contrast between human destruction and nature's luxuriance is again implied by the second line.

The required second couplet (sheng) is more complicated. By turning away from the exterior world and omitting obvious subjects, Du Fu allows several interpretations:

I feel this wretched time so badly
     that even flowers make me shed tears.
I hate separation so much
     that a bird startles my heart.

Feeling affected by seasonal flowers
     I shed tears.
Hating to see the separated bird
     my heart is startled by its call.

As I feel the wretched time
     the flowers shed tears.
As I hate separation,
     birds are startled in their heart.

Feeling the wretched time
    flowers shed tears.
Hating separation
     birds are startled in their hearts.

Each interpretation is equally valid and applicable, but distinct perspectives are offered on human suffering. In the first two interpretations, nature is indifferent to human suffering, a time-honoured view. In the third interpretation human suffering is part of nature. In the fourth interpretation man is part of nature and it is therefore nature rather than man that knows sorrow.

The third couplet exhibits the required turning away (zhua), here from nature to the human world. The beacon fire (warning of nomad invasions) is contrasted with the wished for message from home. The three months (a long time) is paralleled by the thousand gold taels (a large amount)  — which is linked to catastrophic events and so to a terribly long time.

The final couplet rounds off (he) the poem by paralleling the poet's careworn appearance, ravaged by time and grief, with a country equally affected. It's part of the Confucian vision of unity in man, country and universe.

The tone pattern is: {28}

1.     ḹ            ḹ                      -                   -                     ḹ
2.     -           -                       ḹ                   ḹ                     -
3.     (ḹ)         -                       -                   ḹ                     ḹ
4.     ḹ            ḹ                       ḹ                   -                     -
5.     (-)         ḹ                       -                   -                     ḹ
6.     -           -                       ḹ                   ḹ                     -
7.     (ḹ)         -                       -                   ḹ                     ḹ
8.      ḹ           ḹ                       ḹ                   (-)                  -

Where ḹ is an oblique tone, and - is a level tone. Tones were governed by strict rules. Simplifying a little {28}, the first demands the maximum contrast of tones within a line. In a pentameter line, this means the  tones must appear in opposing pairs: a pair of level tones (- -), a pair of oblique tones ( ḹ  ḹ ) and a single level or oblique tone to tip the balance. The second rule demands a maxiumum contrast between the two lines of each couplet. If one line is -  -  ḹ   ḹ  -, the following line must be ḹ  ḹ  -  -  ḹ. The third rule demands a partial equivalence between two adjacent couplets. If one couplet is -  -  ḹ   ḹ  - and ḹ  ḹ  -  -  ḹ., the following couplet must be something like - -  -  ḹ   ḹ  and   ḹ  ḹ  ḹ  -  -  . In practice, because these rules  can be so difficult to follow, a little licence was usually afforded the poet, as in lines 3, 5 and 7 show.

All the above features are integral to the poem's larger 'meaning', of course, and not an obstacle course that the gifted poet has somehow to navigate through.

Chinese poems are not always so complicated, but most are highly stylized and to some extent artificial.

Translation suggestions I will leave for the moment but simply observe that many translations of the above have fallen at the first fence, which is to accurately render the simple prose sense. In place of something like:

1. The country is broken, but mountains and rivers remain.
2. The city enters spring, grass and trees have grown thick.
3. Feeling the time, flowers shed tears.
4. Hating separation, a bird startles the heart.
5. Beacon fires span over three months,
6. A family letter equals ten thousand taels of gold.
7. My white hairs, as I scratch them, grow more sparse,
8. Simply becoming unable to hold hairpin.

We have (a composite):

A kingdom smashed, its hills and rivers still here,
Spring in the city, plants and trees grow deep. {30}
Moved by the moment, a flower's splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart. {31}
The war-fires have burned for three months.
Any word from home is worth ten thousand coins. {32}

My white hair is even scarcer from scratching.
And can barely hold a hairpin. {33}

 'Smashed' has the wrong connotations: China was torn apart by civil war not hit with a hammer. Line 2 misses the point: the city is abandoned to vegetation. Line 3 has the flower apprehending the moment.  Line 4 is over-visceral and seems not to understand that the poet feels abandoned and as fragile as a startled bird. It's not war fires (line 5 ) that have burned but beacons warning of approaching danger. The poem does not say 'coins' (line 6) but 'taels of gold': coins in Tang times were the low-denomination copper cash. Line 7 misses the parallel between ravaged poet and country, as does line 8, where the reference is to proprietary, to the Tang  bureaucracy destroyed by the war, and not to personal vanity.

The culprit is probably contemporary theories of poetry that make difficulty part of the meaning. Ezra Pound's renderings were very free, introducing the notion that the translator's sensibilities took precedent over accuracy. {34}  Arthur Waley's renderings were accompanied by notes indicating the structure of Chinese poetry though these structures were (understandably) not carried into his own renderings, which were quiet, accurate and pleasing — indeed are still pleasing, though introducing a preference for unimaginative prose in lesser hands. {35-36} To poetry entering a post W.W.I world, however, throwing off the shackles of constricting form, the Imagist approach was very welcome. Poets could argue that they were translating in a freer, more honest and contemporary manner. Academics could produce very pleasing renderings, hardly inferior to those of professional poets. And educators could point to the universality of the heart's affections, without any reference to tedious matters like rhyme, metre, alliteration and other leftovers from the European tradition. No doubt the new translations could be somewhat plebeian, but previous renderings were hardly inspiring, the Chinese originals all to often being bent into conventional English poems with contrived rhymes. {37}

Evolution of Chinese Poetry

Given the sheer bulk and variety of China's poetry, any short history tends to a listing of celebrated names, a contentious matter. The Chinese themselves glory in the poetry of the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), but poetry equally good in its different ways was written long before and after. Poets commonly wrote in several styles, some extending what had been written centuries before and others initiating what would become important in later dynasties. Poems could be blunt commonsense, or explore the most nebulous of philosophic thought, which is highly developed in China. Some poems were no more than private musings, but others could be much more civic minded, indeed regarded as seditious by corrupt administrations.  Some poems kept to upright Confucian virtues, some gave vent to wild Daoist fantasy and some, possibly the majority, expressed the Buddhist virtues of compassion and resignation at the passing illusions of mankind. Perhaps the simplest approach is through a chronological listing of styles and their characteristics. {1}

Shijing: tetrasyllabic lines, rich imagery, unconstrained by elaborate rules, probably dates from Zhou times (1027-256 BC).
Sao: lyrics, often extended, somewhat resembles medieval European ballads.
Fu: rhapsodic rhymed verse, without parallels in western poetry.
Shi: songs both popular and ceremonial, tetrasyllabic and pentasyllabic: Six Kingdoms (AD 222-589) and Tang (618-907), later developed in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) times.
Ci: lyrics, lines of various lengths but strictly determined rhyme and tone schemes.
Sanqu: popular poetry of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) with close links to music and drama: line lengths variable but diction is more vernacular or colloquial.

The Chinese Outlook

In contrast to their European counterparts, most poets in China were busy officials in daily contact with the people and/or the governing classes. They were intimately familiar with the philosophy of the sages as that knowledge was tested in the civil service examinations and indeed made the five strands of the Chinese outlook on the world: spiritual existence, morality, harmony, intuition, and practice. {38}  In general, Chinese governments followed some version of Confucianism, Buddhism and/or legalism. The first stressed the inherent goodness of men, who could be persuaded by example, the second recognized the need for understanding in this elusory world of shadows, and the third focused on the evil in men, who had to be governed by coercion and savage punishment. Some poets, notably Li Bai, were more drawn to Daoism, which divined the life spirit in the world — elusive, individually expressed and liberating — which might also be espoused when scholars escaped the daily grind of officialdom, through recreation, retirement or periodic banishment from court.

From Daoism (or more strictly, Mohism) developed the Chinese interest in language, logic and science, more extensive than once realised, {39} but the Confucian notion of correct naming still prevailed. An emperor was only worthy of the title to the extent he behaved like one, and a similar propriety underlay a poet's use of words. Chinese poem use abstract notions in single words in ways European, at least modern European poetry, does not. How those words interconnected was a legitimate topic, indeed often explored in poetry, but poets never played fast and loose with language in the manner Postmodernism encourages. Words had a social purpose, and poets were guardians of that use. Words did not had a mystic self-rootedness in truth, however. Word usage in Chinese poetry changes, as would be expected over three millennia. Older words drop out, and each evolving style has its own has its unique patterns of word usage, with some words being more used than others. {40} Nor were poetry texts immune from being tampered with: {41} poems were continually being canibalized by later poets.

The early poetry  was not a primary means of transmitting knowledge otherwise inaccessible, but rather a way of resolving the inner stirrings of the mind and then channelling them into clear intent. {42} As James Lui summarises them, {43} the later Chinese poetry sought many ends: to encourage personal morality, reflect the people's feelings towards government and expose social evils, aspire to ya (refinement, correctness and elegance), imitate the ancients that also included wide reading, obey the metrical rules without becoming too ornate and artificial, and put more stress on theme than style. 

Implications for Contemporary Poetry

Occasionally — very occasionally — it is possible to give an evocative word-for-word rendering. An example is Du Fu's 'Deer Stockade': {44}

Emptiness. Mountains. No one unless
in these low voices overheard.
Sense falling into forest depths,
green in suncast mosses overhead.

The rendering here respects the basic structure (4 lines of five characters), the rhyme scheme, and the extended parallelism of the original Chinese, where:
Lines 3 and 4 repeat in reverse the meaning in lines 1 and 2: the world of the senses is an illusion. 'Overhead' repeats in reverse 'overheard'.
Presence contrasts with non-presence: clear in the first line, blurred in the second, more so in the third, and then sharply defined in the clear visual image of the fourth — achieved by sound patterning (e.g. diphthongs in line 2, 'e' sounds in line 3).
Ying alternate with yang elements. Permanence of mountain rising from impermanence (emptiness). That definite emptiness (no one) morphing into vague presence (voices). Dissolving again (sense is lost in darkness) and then regrouped in a definite image (suncast in mosses).
Vertical movement (looking up at mountain) pass to horizontal (voices heard followed by re-entering) and thence back to vertical (overhead).

In general, however, there isn't the happy match of English and Chinese to make that approach possible, when the next best might be something as traditional in English as the original is traditional in Chinese. For Du Fu's 'Spring Prospect':

1. A country broken, where only hills and streams remain:
2. a city spring where only trees and grass return.
3. A hurt that's palpable: the flowers flecked with pain,
4. and heart, a startled bird, that hates its homelessness.
5. For three months now the warning hill-top beacons burn,
6. and news of home is worth ten thousand-weight in gold.
7. I scratch this head and find but few, white hairs for sense,
8. which can't now plume the office they were pledged to hold.

I personally favour trying to render poetry as poetry, but modern translation practice deprecates traditional verse skills, and would probably note that the translation is rhymed throughout, but not in the simple way of the original, that the last line makes emphatic what is only implied in the original, and that the disyllabic-trisyllabic line structure is not preserved. And finally, perhaps most damning of all,  it's not in the contemporary manner of free form, however pleasing traditional renderings can be. {45}

That leaves reasonably faithful renderings in simple, unrhymed statements:

1. A broken realm, where only hills and streams remain.
2. Spring is in the city: streets thick with grass and trees.
3. Time makes its presence felt; flowers shed their tears.
4. Hurt by separation, the heart's a startled bird.
5. The beacon fires have flared for fully three months now
6. and news of home is worth a thousand weight in gold.
7. This old white head I scratch, but find the hair too thin
8. to grasp and hold in place a hatpin there.

But much is then left unexplained, most particularly the greatness of the poetry, that fusion of significance with flawless technique. The only really safe way, the academic approach, would be to give the unadorned words, a faithful prose expansion and copious notes. Even readers of small press productions, which commonly just print translation and Chinese on facing pages, are surely entitled to some sort of appendix, with relevant notes on context and allusion, and a guide to how far from a literal rendering the translation has digressed, (a requirement that applies even more to the approach rounding off this page).

Every age approaches translation slightly differently, commonly with the aim of either 'domesticating' it (so it is read comfortably and assimilated by the west) or 'foreignizing' it (preserving the original features of the text and so stressing the differences to western literature). {46} Much of the literary translation —  as opposed to academic renderings by sinologists —  has the first aim. It still follows the simplistic assumptions of early Modernism, without always realizing that, at least by Tang times, Chinese poetry was highly stylized, subject to innumerable rules, and more than a little artificial. Nor does it fully realize that by taking advantage of what doesn't exist in English (tones) or is so different in syntax and literary allusions, Chinese poetry operates in other dimensions altogether.  If these are not accommodated, as they generally are not, the translations shrink to a misleading 'basic English' that makes all Chinese poets sound pretty much the same. It's by exploiting these different dimensions that Chinese poets show their breadth and individuality, and these dimensions, because complex and formal, are not easily recoverable in today's 'free verse'.

Herbert Giles, for example, produced very pleasing translations of Chinese poems, but they were commonly fitted — by a sort of colonial conquest, modern theory suggests {46} — into forms quite foreign to the Chinese, requiring the original words to be deformed or partially omitted to meet the rhyme and stanza needs. Arthur Waley, on the other hand, adopted a rhymeless stress verse that allowed the key words to be emphasized, with much less violence to the original. Perhaps because so easy to write, it's still the style preferred in translation of Chinese verse today, though often one of minimal expectations. In less gifted hands, the translations become flat, even pedestrian, and it's fatuous to suppose such unpretentious jottings represent one of the glories of imperial China.

Waley is in fact clear on what can and cannot be done. His extensive Introduction spells out the intentions. No rhyme. No paraphrase but word-for-word renderings. No introduced words, but a stress verse that emphasizes the key Chinese words. He didn't translate Du Fu's 'Spring Prospect' but a poem from the same period is T'ao Ch'ien's No. 7. {35}

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,

Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.

Would you know how that is possible?

A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day:
The flying birds two by two return.

In these things there lies a deep meaning;

Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us. provides the background.{47}

 Settle home in person place
 But no cart horse noise
 Ask gentleman how able so
 Heart far place self partial
 Pluck chrysanthemum east hedge down
 Leisurely look south mountain
 Mountain air day night beautiful
 Fly birds together return
 This here have clear meaning
 Wish argue already neglect speech 

Their own translation is:

I made my home amidst this human bustle,
 Yet I hear no clamour from the carts and horses.
 My friend, you ask me how this can be so?
 A distant heart will tend towards like places.
 From the eastern hedge, I pluck chrysanthemum flowers,
 And idly look towards the southern hills.
 The mountain air is beautiful day and night,
 The birds fly back to roost with one another.
 I know that this must have some deeper meaning,
 I try to explain, but cannot find the words.

Three things should be evident. Firstly, Waley's rendering isn't entirely word-for-word. There has to be some rearrangement and interpretation for the translation to make sense. Secondly, the rendering is emotionally flat because the events depicted have little resonance with us. What's all this nonsense about picking chrysanthemums and birds flying two by two? As an original English composition, it would hardly merit inclusion in an amateur poetry magazine. And thirdly, the verse itself is undistinguished because only rarely do the English equivalents to the Chinese stray from the safe expedient of prose. To be successful, stress verse in particular require all sort of sonic adjustments, which today's insistence on everyday language makes difficult to implement.

I am therefore suggesting that Imagism's misunderstanding of Chinese poetry, fundamental differences between English and Chinese, the evidence of Pound's increasingly obscure Cantos, {26} and Modernism's philosophic incoherence, {48} all argue for a different approach. One way — and only one {44} — would be be to expand the Chinese lines to couplets, giving us more line space to work on the multiple meanings a poem may contain. Since 'Spring Prospect' has five characters to the line, the pentameter may be a sensible starting point. Rhyme is probably not important, but if we want to keep the end-rhymes on the original even-numbered lines, we can write:

1. In this our kingdom wracked by war we see
          but nature's streams and hills remain the same,
2. that spring returns to us, but only grass
          and trees now populate the thoroughfares,
3. that time is palpable, but in the tears
          of flowers they feel for us as we for them,
4. that heart which hates the separation has
           become a bird that's startled in its cares.
5. Continually, for three months now, the threatening
           beacons warn of what we do not know.
6. What gold we'd give to have some news of home,
          but nothing's brought to us, the trail goes cold.
7. How helplessly I curse this ravaged head
          and scratch its crop of hair, but what remains
8. is far too desolate and thinly spread,
           to plume the hat-pin it was pledged to hold.

Too heavy and prosaic when the original is terse, enigmatic and allusive? Compress, deepen the meanings with parallels and pararhyme:

1. A broken land where only hills
          and streams continue as the past,
2. a city spring with only grass
          and trees to tell of thoroughfares.
3. A grief that's palpable, with flowers
          reciprocating with their tears,
4. a heart that's startled as a bird
          that hates the homelessness of cares.
5. Uncertainty: for three months now
          the warning beacons flare and burn:
6. what gold to have some news of home,
           but nothing comes or no one's there.
7. I run my fingers through the hair
           that mark the ravages of age,
8. but find the crop too thin to plume
           or grasp the pin it used to bear.

Or something like that. A few phrases 'work', but most do not, and there is no modulated continuity of feeling through the precise placement of words that verse allows. I'm not therefore supplying a fair copy, which would only come after months of work on this and similar poems, but only suggesting approaches. We can quarrel with the interpretations, of course, and probably should, but we are spared the impossible task of making English behave as the Chinese language.  In short, the issue is this. We can stick to more to less word-for-word translations that reflect the terse nature of the original Chinese, but the bald words will convey little of the greatness of the original because English lacks the other features that the original also employs for success. Or we can expand the lines to probe, interpret and think about what the words are probably saying. Since the first approach has been tried for a century now with rather modest success, it may be worth putting Modernist views behind us and attempting things that work in the larger European tradition.

That was, of course, the intention of the styles Ezra Pound displaced. James Longenbach {50} gives the orthodox view, noting that:

'O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver’s loom,
Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow—
See! friendship fashions out of thee a fan,
Round as the round moon shines in heaven above,
At home, abroad, a close companion thou,
Stirring at every move the grateful gale.
And yet I fear, ah me! that autumn chills
Cooling the dying summer’s torrid rage,
Will see thee laid neglected on the shelf,
All thoughts of bygone days, like them bygone.

This translation, by Herbert Giles, sounds today like a mockery of Chinese poetry. But you must remember that when the translation was made, there was no other way for English-language poetry to sound: if the translation was going to present itself as a poem, rather than prose, then it needed to be metered. And since Giles was not a very good poet, this translation is ineptly metered.'

Perhaps we should just call it very dated in diction and style. Arthur Waley himself said of Herbert Giles's 'Chinese Poetry in English Verse' that it 'combines rhyme and literalness with wonderful dexterity'. {51} And Ezra Pound, though setting translation on new tracks, arguably ducked the essential requirements himself. Many of his translations were rather hit and miss: they were not faithful renderings, were not especially pleasing verse, and did not indicate why the originals were revered by Chinese readers. But the problem with the earlier translations (as Longenbach points out) was that, in transposing traditions, in making something that would sound to English ears as significant poems, Giles introduced all kinds of things not found in the original: words, images, commonplaces, rhyme patterns. Today's translation practice is against such licence, but has problems of its own. Modernism, it will remembered, championed a 'modern sensibility', which continually shifted the goal posts on word choice and made poetry deliberately difficult, fragmented and allusive, so that its explication by critics, poets and theorists became part of the subject matter. {49} Modernism's word choice was also slanted towards the non-literary, moreover — i.e. exactly the reverse of how classical Chinese poetry operates. It's hardly surprising that contemporary translations are apt to be mundane, flat and uninspiring, or that 'the translated text turns out to be hardly an English poem'. {52} 

Improvisation is part of translation since the match of words or phrases across languages will generally leave gaps to be filled. But to make 'improvisation' {52} an aim of translation introduces two dangers. The first is invention, of making up what doesn't exist in the original. The second is that great stress is placed on the translator's own gifts, on creating that meaningful fusion of sound, image and connotation. Following modern practice, we may write things like John Digby's recreation of Tao Qian’s poem 'Five Sons: Fruits from the Old Tree', where the crass diction (the Chinese are particularly reticent on sexual matters) and segmented narrative turn what was astutely crafted into burlesque. The translation starts: {53}
So be it
I’m old
beyond getting an erection
aching all over
thinning hair
sagging cheeks
almost toothless
and my neighbors
yell me how much joy
I have for being
blessed with five sons

This is no better nor worse than the work in many university presses, but it is not an adequate rendering. It has replaced Chinese poetry, the distillate of experience, and one refined through centuries of arcane rules and multiple allusion, with happy buffoonery — no doubt enjoyable, but a different animal. As I've tried to suggest in 'Spring Scene' above, the better approach may be the halfway house, where we restrict ourselves to what is actually said or implied by the original, but nonetheless use the full resources of verse — traditional, Modernist, contemporary — to explore its likely depth and significance. After all, poems have words chosen and organised for aesthetic purposes, and I'll end with a version of 'Spring Prospect' that makes no attempt to mimic what the Chinese does, or foreground images, but does remember that poems exist in a literary tradition:

This is the land of how it was
   where only hills and streams remain,
and with the spring there's now but grass
   and trees to crowd the thoroughfares:
a time that's brought to consciousness
   and bleeds through tears that flow from flowers.
So is the heart that was a bird
   now startled by its homelessness.
For three months now the beacons flare
   with unknown threat of coming pain:
what gold for news, but nothing's heard
   of those at home, the trail goes cold.
My fingers scratch at thin, white hair
   and rail against the helplessness:
what happened to the pin once there
   or office it was pledged to hold?

And so on. Lines have to be 'fought for' in translation as much as in original poetry. We also have to shape and place images in context if they are to generate emotion: simply presenting them, however faithful to the Chinese text, won't  be effective.


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Section 26.
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