Alternative Poetry Traditions: Chinese

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}

chinese poetry translations cover

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.

Chinese and Chinese Poetry

Like most poetry, Chinese poetry has complex rules that exploit the possibilities inherent in its particular language. Chinese poems may be more image-based than sound-based, but 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. They can read the words in most cases, but not necessarily understand them properly because poetry employed a literary language, wén yán, 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 familiar 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 represents a sound, and/or a minimal unit of meaning. In the literary language each character represents 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, stylised drawings of what they represent. But many are not, and today only some 600 Chinese characters are pictograms of some sort, these being no more obvious than the etymology of English words is to us. 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 to their pronunciation. 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 both meaning and pronunciation, but now not fully doing so. Today's sound and meaning of each character has simply to be learned, though dictionaries help a little in this laborious business by listing words under their radical, the basic sound and meaning from which each character is built. {7}

The radical is modified by additional elements, which extend the sound and meaning, often beyond what could be easily guessed at. Generally, the additional elements appears to the immediate right of the radical, but may also appear to the left, above or below. There is little pattern in this arrangement, and the new compounds (i.e. new words) simply have to be learned, sound and meaning. Such meanings can also be rather vague. The character for water may indicate a body of water, for example, running or still, but also actions performed by and with water. Characters are written in strokes according to strict rules (left before right, top before bottom, etc.) and those rules have to followed if intelligibility 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 skilfully 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 periodic sentences, with multiple relative clauses, but Chinese does not. We make the word order important (he hit 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. Word order is important, and Chinese has rules and expectations that govern practically everything, from simple expressions to complex phrases. Chinese does not distinguish between singular and plural nouns, however, but employs specific indicator like dou (all), zhèixie (these) or haoxie (a good deal): there are also measures, like tóu (head), zhang (stretch) or tiáo (long), etc. The word dé indicates possession: tade shu (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 hen (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 shu nágei wo (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' (ni chile fò le ma: a double use of le). The suffix gùo indicates something done in the past and so a successful conclusion: qing ni 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 qi (to rise) and zhù (to retain). The 'I cannot afford those things' becomes wo maibaqi 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}

But key point for its poetry is the flexibility of Chinese, which can be written without the regimentation by grammar that English requires. The poetry record is also much longer and larger than ours: three millennia and 48,000 poems from the Tang, 200,000 poems from 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 the less exalted. Many lived exemplary lives, but there's a good wedge 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 suffocating 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 paintings, ceramics 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 by 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 is not so restricted. Conversely, the literary language also tends to be too ambiguous for water-tight legal and commercial documents.

Classical Chinese has also been replaced by a simplified Mandarin for everyday purposes. The simpler characters may or may not remain the same, but the more complicated characters involving many strokes of the pen or brush have been recast into something easier to write and remember. Pronunciation is the same, but collections of pre-modern poetry may now be printed in simplified Chinese, i.e. not as they were originally written.

Changes extend into the vernacular language itself. From the 1930s a standard national language, Guóyu, 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 Guóyu (simplified characters in Mainland China and traditionally-written characters in Taiwan {15}) at odds with the literary language, therefore, 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, it may not show tones when employed internally. {19} More importantly, most Chinese vowels and many consonants are quite unlike their English equivalents, so that tourists faithfully enunciating the pinyin characters as the letters would sound to British or American ears will not be understood.

The Chinese response to romanisation has also been somewhat mixed. Having arduously learned 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} Chinese children now generally learn Mandarin and pinyin together, of course, and childrens books may indeed be printed in pinyin alone. Many authorities also provide comparisons, of pinyin with the Yale systems, {20} etc., and specialist works will also explain the differences (often involving tones) between the languages of Tang and Song poetry and the standardised Chinese of today, but difficulties 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 by Tang times were expected to work things out for themselves. Indeed that slow making sense of the words, and the shadowy ambiguities beyond those words, was part of the poetic experience in the Du Fu poem analysed below. Poetry often 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 zhi yao yao
zhuó zhuó qí huá
zhi zi yú gui
yí qí shì jia

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.

That comment on a structure is a powerful feature of Chinese poetry, most useful and largely missing from idiomatic English. The two constructions, subject plus predicate and as topic plus comment, also 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 Du Fu 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 only rather than the vowel and concluding consonant expected in English verse. There was good reason for 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 the example above, where the poem comes from the earliest anthology of Chinese poetry (The Book of Poetry: Shijing, Mao No. 6), there is clear rhyme, which later becomes rather complicated, as, even more so, become the rules regarding the associated tones. (More on rhyme below.) In the regulated new style poetry of Tang times (Jintishi), 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 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. Such poetry was read in public, of course, indeed was expected of educated officials, as though impromptu on important occasions, but the literary language was nonetheless a dead language, intensely conservative and backward-looking  — something translators need to remember when casting their renderings into aggressively contemporary forms.

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.  New style 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. {25-6} Chinese poetry, in fact, works rather differently. There is the linkage by semantic needs noted in 5 above. There are many expectations, styles and traditions. And there are strict 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  Chinese-Poems.com writers, {27} the pronunciation is:

chun wàng

 guó pò shan hé zài
 chéng chun cao mù shen
 gan shí hua jiàn lèi
 hèn bié niao jing xin
 feng huo lián san yuè
 jia shu di wàn jin
 bái tóu sao gèng duan
 hún yù bù sheng zan

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

kwok pò shan hé zài
chéng chun cao mù shen
(gan) shí hua jiàn lèi
hèn bjet niao jing xin
(feng) huo lián san yuè
jia shu di wàn jin
(baek) tóu sao gèng duan
hùn yowk pwot (shèng) zan

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 (AD 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 notice is that this is a poem in the so-called 'recent-style Shi poetry' (Jintishi) in the Wulṻ type ( five characters) of the Lṻshi form (eight lines). What we should notice next 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 millennium 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 (more strictly show similarity, analogy and/or contrast in these features). '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.     O           O          X         X           O
2.     X           X          O         O           X
3.    (O)         X          X          O          O
4.     O          O          X          X           X
5.     (X)        O           X          X          O
6.      X         X            O         O          X
7.     (O)        X           X          O          O
8.      O         O           O         (X)         X

Where O is an oblique tone, and X is a level tone. Tones were governed by strict rules. Simplifying a little, 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 (X X), a pair of oblique tones ( O O ) 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 X X O O X, the following line must be O O X X O. The third rule demands a partial equivalence between two adjacent couplets. If one couplet is  X X O X X  and O O X X O, the following couplet must be something like X X X O O  and  O O O X X. In practice, because these rules  can be so difficult to follow, a little licence was usually afforded the poet, as lines 3, 5 and 7 show.

It's also worthwhile noting that the tones applying to words used in Tang and Song poetry do not invariably correspond to modern pronunciation. In fact the first, ping (平, also called ge: see below) or level tone of pre-modern Chinese poetry corresponds to the first two tones of today's standard Mandarin pronunciation *, and the pre-modern second tone (shang (上) corresponds to the falling-rising tone that is today's the third tone of modern pronunciation. That leaves qu (去), the third or falling tone to correspond to today's Mandarin fourth tone, and the entering tone,  ru (入), to make up the rather different pre-modern fourth, which is now unrecognised or lost in modern Mandarin (but kept in modern Cantonese). All entering tone words ended with an unaspirated p, k or t consonant.  Commentaries on Jintishi poems, and even general works on Chinese poetry, generally list words pronounced with the entering tone. Finally, in what will seem over-complicated to the common reader, but is nonetheless important in translation, the ping was classified as the pre-modern ge or level tone, while the other three (shang, qu and ru) counted as the oblique or inflected tone, ze. {30} Even this, unfortunately, is a gross simplification, but complications are probably better left to exegesis as needed in individual translations.{4}

(* But note that today's Mandarin first tone yī and second tone yí were level tones. And today's Mandarin third tone yǐ and fourth tone yì were oblique tones. {31}) Regulated verse did not allow a word to be used more than once in the poem. To add to the difficulties, words in the Han and earlier dynasties were not necessarily pronounced as they were in Tang times. There had come a shift in pronunciation between these two dynasties, i.e from early to middle Chinese, so that pronunciation of early poems is further cut off from the modern pronunciation, even though the written characters remain the same. {32}

Rhyme is another vexing matter. Most poems rhyme, commonly in regulated verse on level tones concluding even-numbered lines. Short poems may use the same rhyme throughout, but longer poems may be broken into verses marked by a change in rhyme. Rhyme is easier in Chinese verse than ours because most words do not end in a consonant, thus requiring only a correspondence in vowels. But that correspondence may also be quite broad or approximate, as pronunciation was not constant across China, as is still the case today (outside pinyin). But the devil is in the details. The vowels in the entering tone noted above (i.e. preceding the final p, k or t) changed drastically in pronunciation, so -auk, for example,  became -ue, -uo, -ao, or -u. And while the final -m simply became -n, and the -ng remained unchanged, the vowels preceding them often changed under the influence of the preceding medial semivowels, so that -in became -n, -en or -un.) Ryme was only between words of the same grouping, most commonly belonging to the ge (level) tone category in regulated verse, but on occasions to the ze (oblique or inflected) tone . Tones thus entered into rhyme rules, though occasionally, a ge tone was replaced by a ze tone, and vice-versa. {32-3}

Several consequencies follow:

1. One can't generally tell the rhyme scheme of a pre-modern poem from a first glance at the text. Even Pinyin rhymes may not correspond to the original.
2. Given the pronunciation changes of both words and their tonal values, and also the non-correspondence of pinyin characters to European pronunciation, even a sophisticated attempt to read a pre-modern Chinese poem today may fall well short of how the poem was actually intended to sound.
3. It may therefore be wiser to employ European rhyming patterns in translations of regulated verse than attempt to duplicate the interpreted ands complex Chinese. Rhyming on even-numbered lines should generally be safe.
4. As always, image and thought are the easiest to bring across in translation, but that does not mean that sound was unimportant, only that various aspects of sound in an ancient and very differently pronounced language are difficult to be sure about, and practically impossible to duplicate. Image, sound, meanings and allusion are all important ingredients of Chinese poetry, however, and the translator often has to be guided by expert commentaries in arriving at the best balance of possibilities.

Tone and rhyme are integral to the poem's 'texture of meaning', of course, and not an obstacle course that the gifted poet has somehow to navigate around.

Chinese poems are not always so complicated as the Du Fu example we were looking at, but most are highly stylised 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 Version A:

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 Version B (a composite):

A kingdom smashed, its hills and rivers still here,
Spring in the city, plants and trees grow deep. {34}
Moved by the moment, a flower's splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart. {35}
The war-fires have burned for three months.
Any word from home is worth ten thousand coins. {36}
My white hair is even scarcer from scratching.
And can barely hold a hairpin. {37}

 'Smashed' has the wrong connotations: China was torn apart by civil war, not hit with a hammer. Line 2 misses the point: the city has been 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 may be Ezra Pound, whose translations could be very free, introducing the notion that the translator's sensibilities took precedent over accuracy. {38}  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 rather thin as verse, degenerating to unimaginative prose in lesser hands. {39-40}

Chinese poetry gave new opportunities to Modernism, which was promoting the primacy of the image and throwing off the shackles of constricting form. Poets could argue that they were translating in a fresher, 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 prosaic, but previous renderings were hardly inspiring, the Chinese originals all to often being bent into conventional English forms with contrived rhymes. {41}

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 it 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 assertive, indeed seditious to 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. As in Chinese prose, styles tended to become gradually more complex and ornate before succumbing to periodic drives towards sense and simplicity. 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: often long pieces, without parallels in western poetry.

Shi:  poetry has been written over two and half millennia, and varies as to line length (number of characters to the line) and poem length (number of lines making up the poem). In its earlier form, Shi poetry had three, four or five characters to the line, and was variously rhymed.  A pentasyllabic form of this early Shi with five characters to the line (Gutishi) was developed in the Six Kingdoms (AD 222-589) and the Tang dynasties (AD 618-907), and contined to be written, with modifications, into Ming (AD 1368-1644) and Qing (AD 1644-1911) times. Gutishi was relatively free from rules, and so popular with poets like Li Bai.  In contrast, the so-called 'recent-style' Shi poetry (Jintishi) was a more musical but heavily-regulated poetry that reached its highest development in Tang times. Jintishi itself took two forms: a full Lṻshi  (eight lines) form and a so-called curtailed Jueju (four lines) form. These two forms were subdivided further. Lṻshi poetry was either heptasyllabic (Qilṻ: seven characters to the line) or pentasyllabic (Wulṻ: five to the line). Jueju poetry could also adopt two forms. Wujue had five characters to the line, and Qijue had seven characters to the line. Strict rules of organisation, metre, rhyme and tonal patterns applied to all four forms of Jintishi poems.

Ci: lyrics, lines of various lengths but written to hundreds of tune patterns, each strictly determined in rhyme and tone schemes.

Sanqu: popular poetry of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 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. {42}  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, {43} 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 purpose. Words did not have 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 unique patterns of word usage, with some words being more used than others. {44} Nor were poetry texts immune from being tampered with: {45} well-known poems were continually being cannibalised 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. {46} As James Lui summarises them, {47} 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. At its most basic, poetry was how the poet felt — an essential sincerity that can never be overlooked in translation.

Translation Approaches

Occasionally — very occasionally — it is possible to give a simple but evocative rendering. An example is 'Dispelling Sorrow' by Li Shangyin (813-58): {48}

In wine I sunk my soul: went south through river lands.
Broke hearts of Chu girls dancing careless on my hands.
Now, ten years on, I wake from Yangzhou dream: it stands
not well to be a heartless name with courtesans.

Sometimes a word-for-word rendering yields unexpected treasures:

is Du Fu's 'Deer Stockade': {48}

Emptiness. Mountains. No one unless
in these low voices overheard.
Light falling into forest depths,
green in sun-cast 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, but discloses these extra features:

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).

These aspects have been missed by an impressive array of previous translators. {49} We should also note that this is a 'free verse' rendering, quiet and perhaps metrically not over-effective.

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': Version C:

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 taels of 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. {50}

That leaves reasonably faithful renderings in simple, unrhymed statements: Version D:

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 ten thousand taels of 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, who often see only the translation and Chinese on facing pages, are 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 article).

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 'foreignising' it (preserving the original features of the text and so stressing the differences to western literature). {51} Much of 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 cannot be, the translations shrink to a misleading 'basic English' that makes all Chinese poets sound pretty much the same. It was by exploiting these different dimensions that Chinese poets showed their breadth and individuality, and these dimensions, because complex and formal, are not easily recoverable in today's 'free verse', which is basically a prose lacking much in the way of shaping features on the line and syllable level.

Herbert Giles and John Turner, for example, produced very pleasing translations of Chinese poems, but they were commonly fitted — by a sort of colonial conquest, contemporary theory suggests {52} — 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. {52}

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.

Chinese-Poetry.com provides the background.{52}

 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

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. First, Waley's rendering isn't entirely word-for-word. There has to be some rearrangement and interpretation for the translation to make sense. Second, 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?) And third, 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 requires all sort of sonic adjustments, which today's insistence on everyday naturalness makes difficult to implement.

I am therefore suggesting that Imagism's misunderstanding of Chinese ideograms, fundamental differences between English and Chinese, the evidence of Pound's increasingly obscure Cantos, {26} and Modernism's philosophic incoherence, {53-4} all argue for a different approach. One way — and only one {48}  — would 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 Version E:

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: Version F:

1. A broken realm where only hills
          and streams continue as the past,
2. a spring with only grass and trees
          to tell of city 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. 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 or 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 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 {55} 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'. {56}

The poems is by Ban Jiezu (c.48-6 BC), and a famous one, {57} frequently translated: {58}

Of fresh new silk all snowy white
and round as harvest moon;
A pledge of purity and love,
A small but welcome boon.
While summer lasts, borne in the hand,
Or folded on the breast;
'Twill gently soothe they burning brow
And charm thee to thy rest.
But ah, when autumn frosts descend,
and winter winds blow cold,
No longer sought, no longer loved,
'Twill lie in dust and mould.
This silken fan then deign accept,
Sad emblem of my lot;
Caressed and folded for an hour. (traditional verse: Zhao Xiaoming)

Glazed silk, newly cut, glittering, white,
As white, as clear, even as frost and snow.
Perfectly fashioned into fan,
Round like the brilliant moon,
Treasured in my lord's sleeve, taken out, put in -
Wave it, shake it, and a little wind flies from it.
How often I fear the winter season's coming
And the fierce, cold wind which scatters the blazing heat.
Discarded, passed by, laid in a box alone;
Such a little time, and the thing of love cast off (free verse: Xu Kaichang)

Newly cut white silk from Qi,
Clear and pure as frost and snow.
Made into a fan for joyous trysts,
Round as the bright moon.
In and out of my lord's cherished sleeve,
Waved back and forth to make a light breeze.
Often I fear the arrival of the autumn season,
Cool winds overcoming the summer heat.
Discarded into a box,
Affection cut off before fulfillment.  (free verse: Thompson) {59}

Newly cut white silk from Qi
Glistening and pure as frost and snow:
fashioned into fan of "conjoined bliss."
Round, round as the bright moon.
It goes in and out of my lord's breast and sleeve;
waved, it stirs a gentle breeze,
But I always fear an autumn's coming,
when chilling winds dispel blazing heat,
Then it will be thrown into a box,
and his love will be cut off midcourse. (Wen Xuan: free verse) {60}

The versions pass from what is recognizable English verse but a very free paraphrase of the Chinese to close, somewhat prosaic renderings that unfortunately yield little poetry. Ezra Pound's version is typical of his free verse, incidentally, but is even a more a paraphrase, leaving out most of the text: {61}

O fan of white silk,
      clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.

Indeed, 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 always 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 theme and diction, making poetry intentionally difficult, fragmented and allusive, so that its explication by critics, poets and theorists became part of the subject matter. {54} 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'. {62} 

Ezra Pound's translations in Cathay were in 'free verse', i.e. into lines of unequal length, and 'composed by the phrase rather than by the metronome'. Most of today's translation adopts the same approach, even at some aesthetic cost, as I've suggested above. So which is best, free or traditional verse?

As always, it depends on what we are trying to do, but the short answer is some combination that 1. sets up the right associations, 2. brings out the poem's meaning and 3. stirs us in the way expected of poetry. There are many pitfalls. The Chinese uses simple words, but we have to avoid using too much a 'Jack and Jill' language. To discuss all possibilities would exhaust the reader's patience, but here are several by way of example.

1. Free verse: unequal line lengths:

Cut fresh from white Qi silk,
pure and glistening like frost and snow,
so is fashioned the fan of "conjoined bliss."
Round as is the bright moon,
it goes in and out of my lord's breast and sleeve.
The action makes a gentle breeze,
but I'm afraid the autumn comes,
with cool winds to chill the summer heat,
Then it will be thrown into a box,
and love will be cut off midcourse.

2.  Free verse: equal line lengths (four stresses to the line):

Freshly cut of pure Qi silk
pure as the shining frost and snow,
our fan of 'conjoined happiness'
looks round and bright as the moon.
Put out and back from his breast or sleeve,
my lord generates a gentle breeze.
But I still fear that with the autumn comes
the cool winds to quench the summer's heat,
and laid in a box, more thrown away,
will be love, there severed in mid course.

3. Traditional verse, unrhymed:

Freshly cut of clear white Qi silk,
pure as shining frost and snow,
the fan of 'conjoined happiness'
seems round and brilliant as the moon.
Put out and back from breast or sleeve,
my lord will have a gentle breeze.
But still I fear that autumn comes
with cool winds quenching summer's heat,
and in a box, then thrown away,
is love, cut off in midway course.

4. Traditional verse, rhymed on alternate lines:

Cut out, fresh, from pure Qi silk,
like frost and snow, of shining white,
the fan of 'conjoined happiness'
appears as moon is, round and bright.
With this retrieved from breast or sleeve,
my lord can have a gentle breeze.
But still I fear that autumn comes
when cool winds quench the summer's heat,
and in a box is laid away
our love, denied before complete.

We have taken the Thompson and Wen Xuan versions as essentially correct for the purposes of this simple exercise, but the conclusion should be clear. Free verse is much easier to write correctly than traditional verse but very difficult to write well. Neither of the two 'free verse' attempts above is very pleasing, or anything like poetry. Unrhymed traditional verse may be the safer medium for contemporary poets and academics. Rhyme bends the meaning a little, but gives a stronger shape.

In practice, of course, we need to work from the original Chinese, which might allow more felicitous renderings than any above, but the differences between the two verse styles should be apparent.

In practice some improvisation is often necessary since the transposition of words or phrases across languages will generally leave gaps to be filled. But to make 'improvisation' {62} a specific aim of translation introduces two dangers. The first is invention, of making up what doesn't exist in the Chinese tradition. The second is that great stress is placed on the translator's own gifts, on creating that necessary fusion of sound, image and connotation.  By adopting modern practice, we may too often write things like the 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 straggling narrative turn what was astutely crafted into burlesque. The translation starts: {63}
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

The whole poem in Waley's translation reads: {64}

White hair covers my temples,
I am wrinkled and seared beyond repair.
And though I have got five sons,
They all hate paper and brush.
A-shu is eighteen:
For laziness there is none like him.
A-hsüan does his best,
But really loathes the Fine Arts.
Yung-tuan is thirteen.
But does not know "six" from "seven."
T'ung-tzu in his ninth year
Is only concerned with things to eat.
If Heaven treats me like this,
What can I do but fill my cup?

We could wonder if Modernism's licence has not encouraged translators to replace 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. We could also note how today's preoccupation with theory has allowed critical skills to languish, to forget that, whatever else happens, the rule-governed Chinese poem still has to come over in some form of rule-governed English poem.

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 the poem's likely depth and significance. In summary, rather than adopt the Modernist approach of faithfully conveying the plain words, and only the plain words, which, because English cannot reproduce the key features of Chinese poetry, will only create pale shadows of the original, it may be better to write more articulated things like the following, where odd phrases are beginning to 'catch fire', i.e. to work in ways expected of European poetry: Version G:

A broken realm where only hills
                   and streams continue as the past.
The spring arrives, with trees and grass
                  to choke the city thoroughfares.
Now time has tears for consciousness
                  reciprocated in the flowers,
and wounded heart is as a bird
                  that's startled by its homelessness.
The warning beacons smoke and flare
                  these three months past with worse to come.
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?

If that's too heavy, mechanical and extended, we can use stress verse in pentameters,  though the poem then sounds as most Chinese poetry translation sound: plaintive and incomplete. Version H:

The land goes back to natural streams and hill,
and the spring time comes, with city streets in grass.
Flowers, the time in prospect, they both have tears,
and heart is homeless like a startled bird.
For three months now, the warning beacons smoke,
and for a letter from home what gold we'd give.
Helplessly I scratch at this white head
that holds no gleaming pin of office now.

Perhaps. But rather than use Waley's approach and simply rearrange the key words in the best academic manner, it may be better to explore the latent meanings more. Here with slant rhymes to tie together the couplets originating from single pentameter lines, version I:

1. A splendid realm betrayed by man
     where now but streams and hills remain.
2. Prodigious spring, where Chang'an ways
      are thick with streets of trees and grass.
3. A grief that's palable, our cares
      reciprocating flowers' tears.
4. The startled heart that fears the time
     when, like a bird, it's far from home.
5. For three months now the beacons pour
      their warning smoke into the air.
6. Ten thousand taels of gold we'd give
      to hear our loved ones were alive,
7. but nothing comes. With that great pledge
       of duty now undone by age,
8. I scratch at hair grown white and thin,
      where once the pin of office shone.

We can now look back on the structure of the original poem and see how closely the translation retains that structure.

1. The opening and closing couplets (lines 1 and 8), are in parallel (vanished splendour).

2. The interior two couplets ( 3-4 and 5-6) are parallel in theme and grammar. 'Grief' is parallel with 'dread', 'time' with 'far' (one in time and one in space), 'flower' with 'bird' (natural world), 'tears' with 'startle' (emotional response), 'beacons' with 'hear' (messages) 'three' with 'ten thousand' (numbers), 'months' with 'gold' (tael).'

3. Parallel and non-parallel couplets alternate. Lines 1 & 2 are parallel. Lines 3-4 are non-parallel. Lines 5 & 6 are parallel. Lines 7 & 8 are non-parallel.

4. The poem shows the typical progression of Chinese poems. The required opening (qi)  sets the time, place and theme. What is human ('splendid realm') is set against what is natural ('streams and hills'). 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.

5. The required second couplet (sheng) is more complicated. By turning away from the exterior world and omitting obvious subjects, Du Fu allows several interpretations. So does the translation: lines 3 and 4 preserve the four interpretaions listed above. 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.

6. 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 news 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.

7. 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.

We have made explicit what is implicit in the original: 'splendid realm', 'Chang'an, 'pin of office'. This, I submit, against current practice, is necessarily for the translation to work. Things left vague in the English poetry tradition tend to evoke only a vague response, which is one reason why Chinese poets all seem the much the same in translation. Small differences in the original have to be emphasized for a western audience.

In short, we have conveyed the following:

- multiple ambiguities of meaning, which flexible Chinese grammar allows.
- strict rules concerning structure, how themes are introduced, developed, inverted, etc.

But not:

- allusion, continually picking up and modifying snippets of other Chinese poems.
- very compact nature, prescribing a fixed and limited number of words to the line.
- tones, and strict rules concerning their use.

More importantly, we have returned the translation of poetry to what it originally was, namely a rendering of poem into poem, but, unlike the Herbert Giles version above, we have avoided expressing the subtleties of the Chinese with inappropriate, stock phrases from English. Set out in stanzas, the translation is nonetheless a simple poem in the European tradition, with some functional shading in  'splendid' linked with 'shone', (fall in status),  'thick' (in cahoots), 'into the air' (uncertainty, for no gain) and 'great pledge' (to uphold the officialdom of the Tang dynasty).

A splendid realm betrayed by man
where now but streams and hills remain.
Prodigious spring, where Chang'an ways
turn thoroughfares of trees and grass.

A grief that's palable, our cares
reciprocating flowers' tears:
a startled heart that fears the time
when, like a bird, it's far from home.

For three months now the beacons pour
their smoky warnings in the air.
Ten thousand taels of gold we'd give
to hear our loved ones were alive,

but nothing comes. With that great pledge
of duty now undone by age,
I scratch at hair grown white and thin,
where once the pin of office shone.

If that is still too stiff and redolent of translation, then we're not far away from more pleasing rhymed versions:

There's nothing in this land of ills
but first time things, the streams and hills.
Spring, beautiful in Chang'an, sees
but thoroughfares of grass and trees.

And time that's palpable with fears
reciprocated in the flower's tears.
How far the startled heart must roam
when, like a bird, it's far from home.

For three months now the beacons flare
their warning smoke into the air.
Ten thousand taels of gold we'd give
to find our dearest ones still live.

No letter comes. Undone by age,
I scratch at thin white hairs, and rage
quite helplessly at what has gone
from where that badge of office shone.

In short, once returned to the full English verse tradition — i.e. rescued from Imagist limitations —  a whole host of approaches and techniques becomes available to the translator. If we think the rhyming should be limited to rhymes of line 2 with 4 and with 6 to 8, as is the original — though the Chinese uses the same rhyme — we could write:

By man betrayed, a war-wracked land
   returned to native hills and streams.
Prodigious spring: with trees and grass
   are Chang'an's streets now overgrown.

And time that's palpable with grief
   reciprocating flower's tears,
which has the startled heart to fear
   when, like a bird, it's far from home.

For three months now the beacons pour
   their smoky torrents on the air.
Ten thousand taels of gold we'd give
   to know how home affairs have gone.

The pledge of duty is undone by age.
   How helplessly I rail and scratch
at poor white hairs grown weak and sparse
   where that great pin of office shone.

And so on. I'll pull these possibilities together in a preferred version below, but we should summarize the history of free verse in Chinese poetry translation.

Ezra Pound, bless his cotton socks, had a theory of immediacy through images that was not new (having been anticipated by Russian poets), not at all convincing (sinologists knew better) and not at all correct (most Chinese characters are not ideograms). {65} Arthur Waley devised a stress verse, not far from prose, where the key words in the Chinese were emphasized in the rendering, with nothing added and nothing left out. With these, the translation of Chinese poetry into English was doomed to straight-jacketing banality  — to things that were faintly pleasing if we close our ears to what real verse can do, to the way it can and should work on the syllable level. But educators, academics and the new breed of poets saw things differently: these bald transcriptions were, (and no doubt still are), regarded as the way forward.

Taking translations as they appear in the Internet search engines, the more popular translations of 'Spring Prospect' are:

Burton Watson. {66}

The nation shattered, mountains and river remain;
 city in spring, grass and trees burgeoning.
 Feeling the times, blossoms draw tears;
 hating separation, birds alarm the heart.
 Beacon fires three months in succession,
 a letter from home worth ten thousand in gold.
 White hairs, fewer for the scratching,
 soon too few to hold a hairpin up.

  John Tarrant {67}

The nation is broken,
mountains and rivers remain.
Spring comes to the city
overgrown with grass and trees.

Feeling the time–
flowers weep,
hating captivity–
bird calls pierce the heart.

The war beacons have burned
for three months now
and I’d give ten thousand pieces of gold
for a letter from home.

I’ve torn my white hair
till it’s so thin
it almost won’t
hold a hatpin.

Pauline Yu {68}

The nation shattered, mountains and river remain;
  spring in the city — grasses and trees are dense.
 Feeling the times, the flowers draw forth tears.
  Hating to part, bird alarms the heart.
 Beacon fires for three months in a row,
  A letter from home worth ten thousand in gold.
 White hairs scratched grow even shorter —
 Soon too few to hold a hatpin on.

Charles Hucker {69}

Ther city has fallen. Only the mountains and rivers have survived.
The trees and grass grow thickly to greet the spring.
Touched by the sight, the flowers shed tears;
reluctant to leave, the birds are heavy of heart.
The beacon fires have been burning for three months;
A letter from home would be precious as gold.
The hairs on my white head have grown so thin;
That they can barely hold a hairpin.

Stephen Owen {70}

The state broken, the hills and rivers remain,
the city turns spring, deep with plants and trees.
Stirred by the time, flowers, sprinkling tears,
hating parting, birds, alarm the heart.
Beacon fires stretch through three months,
a letter from family worth ten thousand in silver.
I've scratched my white hair even shorter,
pretty much to the point it won't hold a hat pin.

Hugh Grigg {71}

The nation is broken, though mountains and rivers remain.
In cities in the Spring, the grass and trees grow deeply.
Sensing the moment, flowers shed tears.
Hating the separation, birds are fearful at heart.
The beacons have burnt continuously for three months.
A letter from home is worth ten-thousand pieces of gold.
My white hair is even scarcer from scratching.
And can barely hold a hairpin.

Readers must make up their own minds, but, on the craft level, these renderings seem to me plain inept. As free verse, moreover, the lines have none of the extra dimensions required of words — in their connotations, their sonic properties, their histories of use. Does this matter? To the extent that this is great poetry in the original, it most certainly does. As Frederick Turner remarks: {72}

'From about the middle of the seventh century to the end of the tenth, one of the most remarkable bodies of poetry in the world was composed in China.'

How in the world can these renderings give any conception of: {72}

'*Third, the mature classicism of Du Fu, perhaps the greatest of all the Tang poets, his exquisite style enriched with psychological depth and controlled passion. Here the objective and subjective are perfectly balanced, as in the work of such Western figures as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Mozart.'

I hope this won't sound disrespectful to the distinguished translators, all of whom are extraordinarily accomplished in specialisations I couldn't hope to acquire. But, to be brutally frank about the verse —  and it's verse that concerns me, not interpretation —  these renderings are pretty dire, showing no ear whatever for the graces of English verse, free or otherwise.

Perhaps this is only to be expected. Any Chinese translator wishing to publish a collection with a major publishing house  must abide by contemporary styles, though there remains a serious divide.  Many poet translators probably feel they should be able to do as they please with the source material, provided what eventuates is poetry in the approved Modernist style. In contrast, Chinese translators insist on conveying the exact sense, no matter how crabbed may be the verse. If what sinologists produce shows a tin ear, then so be it: most contemporary poetry is the same.

True, but there the similarity ends. Much of contemporay poetry has no aesthetic dimension, and is not intended to have, but that is not an argument for translating pre-modern Chinese poetry in a similarly limited way. Pre-modern Chinese poetry is beautiful, if in a way remote from European aesthetics, and a decent translation should bring that beauty over.

My thesis, however, which I'll illustrate more on the next web page, is not that sinologists lack the competence to write decent verse of any description, but that they are following a model that pretty much guarantees literary failure. Other approaches are needed.

To anticipate: do not all the Chinese poets translated today come out sounding much the same? Do not the renderings reduce to plaintive echoes the fierce passions of the Chinese poets, who felt as strongly as we do the injustices, the brevity and inconsequentiality of life? Compose by the phrase and not the metronome, said Pound. Yes, all good verse has an infinitely varying texture, but that emerges as divergence from an expected metre, one written or only heard in the head. And stress verse, most of all, which occupies the shadow land between metre and prose, so fatally easy to write correctly but so difficult to write well, generally lacks the shaping power that gives expressive life to poetry.

I've accepted that conveying Chinese tones in English translations is a pretty forlorn hope, but an illuminating paper on Chinese poetry generally by Thomas Mazanec {73} suggests distinguishing between English long and short vowels. His translation adopts the commonly accepted model of stress verse, with each stress falling on a key Chinese word, but here the English long vowel represents a level tone and a short one an inflected tone. Thus (simplified) is Mazanec's translation of the first of Jia Dao's poems in Youxuan ji a parting poem given to a Vietnamese monk who had visited the Tang capital:

You deliver sutras inside spring vistas     X O O X X 講經春色裏
As flowers flit encircle the royal lounge.     O X X O O 花繞御床飛
Repeatedly you've crossed the Sea of Tonkin,     O X X O X南海幾回渡
And now look to retire to your old hills again.     X O O X O觸風香損印
Incense is blown out by the touch of the wind     X O O X X觸風香損印
A stone drum dons a robe of rain.     O X X O O 霑雨磬生衣
The sky and rivers are that way as well:     O X X O X空水既如彼
Word's been rare from you, coming and going.     X O O X O往來消息稀

Some of the longs and shorts are questionable, but the piece here just about works, as it does with other examples in Dr Mazanec's paper.

But also important are the problems I've mentioned in dealing with the Russian feminine rhyme {74}. Long vowels and diphthongs in English vastly outnumber short vowels, which makes finding appropriate rhymes difficult and time-consuming. The difference between long and short vowels will not be apparent to most readers, moreover, making the verse rather flat and undistinguished.  We are expressing a key feature of Chinese poetry with something unimportant to English verse, but the device may well be a useful addition to academic approaches.

My concerns have been with the practicalities of translation, not the many vexing questions thrown up by theory.  I have tried in this short introduction to indicate how the Chinese language operates, and the manner in which its features are exploited in classical Chinese poetry. Ezra Pound's misunderstandings {65} are well known — his Imagist conception of ideograms, preference for free verse forms, and 'inspired' guesses at the meaning — but, because Cathay is part of the Modernist canon, its poems still serve as models for literary translation.  I would suggest another approach, where we abandon any word-for-word rendering in favour of brief paraphrases that explore the deeper meanings of the original.

In brief, the argument is this: Chinese poetry, in its form, features and expectations, is quite different from anything we have in English. It appeals to the Chinese reader by exploiting what is missing, or largely missing from the English language and poetry tradition, namely:

- allusion, continually picking up and modifying snippets of other Chinese poems.
- very compact nature, prescribing a fixed and limited number of words to the line.
- multiple ambiguities of meaning, which flexible Chinese grammar allows.
- strict rules concerning structure, how themes are introduced, developed, inverted, etc.
- tones, and strict rules concerning their use.

That being the case, simply transcribing Chinese words to English, however astutely, will not create poetry, either as we understand the term, and most certainly not as the Chinese do. The features that made the piece poetry to Chinese readers are simply absent from the English language. Conversely, our poetry tradition looks for features subdued in or absent from its Chinese counterpart, notably semantic clarity, complex verse structures and deeper emotive charge.

We therefore need some features of traditional verse, I suggest, though which, and how they are to be deployed, are of course the key issues. Herbert Giles, and indeed most translators of the period, simply wrote an English poem on the broad meaning as they understood it. We have to write a better poem, and something more sensitive to the semantic and aesthetic dimensions of the original. That it can be done, I suggest with this quiet rendering of Du Fu's Spring Prospect.

But hills and streams of this bare land remain:
with spring as grass and trees in thoroughfares.
Flowers, the time in prospect: they both have tears,
and heart is homeless, like a startled bird.

Three months of warning beacons, distant fears:
much gold for news of home, but nothing's heard.
How can this scratched-at head of mine retain
the Tang's high office with these thin, white hairs?

Whatever the form chosen, readers are also entitled to an accompanying, literal, word-for-word rendering, and brief notes where the meaning and/or significance is unclear.


The updated article, properly referenced, can be found in the free pdf ebook Background to the Chinese Translations.

For the Chinese poetry translations only click here.

For Notes on Poems 1 to 36 click here.

and for Notes on Poems 37-93 click here.