Emotive Charge in Chinese Poetry

Chinese Poems as Shaped Emotion

Poems have to be emotionally alive: it is a characteristic requirement of art. We can argue whether that emotion is a preexisting one expressed in the poem, or an emotion skilfully evoked by the poet, but a poem or translation that conveys no feeling whatsoever is a failure. And just as there were Chinese traditions to be followed in this matter, so there are in English. We can’t capture the poet’s sadness by simply tacking on some banality like ‘which makes me feel sad’. In fact, though they may seem simple and immediate, Chinese poems need all our skill and ingenuity if the rendering is to be a work of art. Otherwise they remain just translations, worthily done, faithful and no doubt a host other excellencies, but failing to give us that suddenly-apprised emotion by which recognize poetry.

chinese poetry translations cover

Moreover, if Victorian translations were insensitive to important features of the Chinese, as academics continually stress, we have to ensure that our contemporary renderings are not equally at fault, rearranging in happy naturalness what was anything but natural and unconstrained in the original.

Chinese poets frequently wrote sequences of poems on a common theme, each from a slightly different perspective. Mei Yoachen wrote such a sequence for his wife, who died aboard a boat when the family was travelling back from a provincial posting. She was 37, and, as the poem tells us, had been married to Mei for 17 years. As with Mei’s work generally, the poem is simple and direct. The Regulated Shi in traditional Chinese, Pinyin and word for word rendering is


結髮為夫婦 於今十七年
相看猶不足 何況是長捐
我鬢已多白 此身寧久全
終當與同穴 未死淚漣漣

(dào wáng qí yi) lament deceased her/number one

(jié fa wéi fu fù) knot hair for husband woman
(yú jin shí qi nián) ah! today seventeen year
(xiang kàn yóu bù zú) look at one another not enough
(hé kuàng shì cháng juan) how situation am forever contribute

(wo bìn yi duo bái) my hair already much white
(ci shen níng jiu quán) this body peaceful long-time whole
(zhong dang yu tóng xué) end be together-with like cavity
(wèi si lèi lián lián) not-yet die tears ripple ripple

From the time of their exchange of tied locks of hair (marriage) some seventeen years have passed, but now she has died and the poet will not see her again. The original is rhymed abab xbxb, but I have employed an abab cdcd scheme to emphasize the structure the poem. We have togetherness (man and wife), the eroding power of the years (have past), when they were always close (I could not have enough of her) but now the poet has only memories (seen her last). Man and wife equate to life, but the years pass ineluctably, and already are receding away, carrying that image of her (seen her last). The passed inevitably brings the notion of the last. The translation says no more than the original does, but structures the piece through rhyme and couplets of meaning to the quiet acceptance of death that would be immediately felt as appropriate by the millions who read Mei’s poetry, both in Tang times and later.

In the second stanza Mei looks forward to passing the remaining years as quietly and appropriately before he joins her in the grave. Mei Yaochen gained his jinshi degree too late to enjoy a successful career in government service, but was prolific poet, well known and popular throughout China. He nonetheless has that restraint and sense of decorum expected of all officials, which is evident here and which of course makes the last line so poignant: the tears break through nonetheless. Again the rhymes are on important elements (head: denoting reserve), (years: the time appointed him to remain of this earth), (dead: the end of all things) and the (tears: which break decorum, and reveal the genuine grief he feels at his wife’s passing, accrediting the marriage that no formal listing of his wife’s accomplishments (the general practice of the time) would have achieved. Note the succumbed and already, underlining the not to be stemmed outpouring of grief. Could not Mei Taochen have married again, or found solace in concubines? Yes, of course, but here he is writing a poem employing the resources of Chinese verse on what would be expected of him on this occasion, and we, in writing a translation, must do the same with the different resources of the English poetry tradition. Semantically, in what the translation says, word for word, the rendering is close, but the manner of the exposition is quite different, and indeed has to be. Poems are works of art, not slices of life, as must translations be to convey the artistic identity of the original. The translation:

Since knots of hair pronounced us man and wife
a total now of seventeen years has passed:
I could not hold enough of her in life
but now, in losing her, have seen her last.

With hair that’s all too white about the head,
this body would be peaceful through the years
and share a tomb with her, but, not yet dead,
succumbs already to this flood of tears.

Two points are perhaps worth making. The translation is a poem: the language is matter-of-fact and appropriate, using the necessary verse craft to bring the poem to its quiet climax. The key word is 'succumbs', only implied in the Chinese but essential. In auditory terms, the word links 'tomb' and 'flood', but also most crucially, suggests a life washed away by grief: Mei will survive his wife's death, but not be fully alive. The second point is this: If we adopt today's approaches to Chinese translation, which insists that nothing should be added to or omitted from the original, the last lián lián can only be rendered as tears that 'flow and flow' (or, worse, that 'ripple and ripple'.) The second is particularly asinine, but even the first deprives the translation of the depth of meaning that poetry of any quality possesses. Chinese poetry was a high art form, which is not encompassed by word-for-word translations into Jack and Jill language. The poets among our translators must surely understand that it deserves better.

Requiem for the Country's Dead



We warriors move as one great tide
     of battering shield and toughened hide.
The clash of chariot wheels afford
     no quarter from the jabbing sword.
Above, the unfurled banners run
     as fume and clouds crowd out out sun.
And thick the air with arrows still:
     all move, relentless, to the kill.

Our battle order breaks, is lost
     and troops, disordered, count the cost.
Our left horse whinnies and is dead,
     the right one flounders on instead.
The shattered chariot mass now reels,
     each locked and tangled in the wheels,
and with the jade sticks beating comes
     the somber sound of battle drums.

The War God has an angry eye,
     on combatants here brought to die.
Sober killing is the yield
     on this exhausting battle field.
So went young hearts that hope and yearn
     but are not fated to return:
beneath a mute, unfriendly sky
     in scattered, far-off fields they lie.

Across dropped swords the battle flows,
     abandoned, too, the fine Qin bows.
Though heads are from their bodies gone,
     how bravely has that spirit shone.
The God of Wu himself approves
     how animating courage moves
that none thereafter will condemn
     the honour that was gained by them.

Though dead the bodies, fiercer still
     is that indomitable fighting will,
when soul on soul, by valour led,
     exults among the hallowed dead.

Again, this translation adds to the bare Chinese words, though not much (as can be see by consulting the Notes One ebook). The opening lines are:

cao wú ge xi bèi xi jia (grasp wu spear/ cover rhinoceros hide)
che cuò gi duan bing jie (chariot grind wheel/ short weapon meet)
jing bì rì xi dí ruò yún (banner cover sun/ enemy seem cloud)
shi jiao zhuì xi shì zheng xian (arrow deliver fall/ soldier strive-for first)

Under today’s pronunciation, this poem is unrhymed, but there is more than a suggestion of aa bb couplets in jia jie yún xian, etc. Poetry of the period (3rd century BC to 1st century AD) did indeed use internal rhyme, so that these tough rhyming couplets are not as inappropriate as may seem. But their purpose here is to shape the lines into a compelling inevitability, without which (as many of today's translations are apt to show) the poem would be limp and unconvincing.

The River Merchant's Wife

The following Unregulated Shi was popularized by Ezra Pound and has been much translated:

Unregulated Shi: Li Bai (701-62)


妾发初覆额 折花门前剧
郎骑竹马来 绕床弄青梅
同居长干里 两小无嫌猜
十四为君妇 羞颜未尝开
低头向暗壁 10. 千唤不一回
十五始展眉 愿同尘与灰
常存抱柱信 岂上望夫台?
十六君远行 瞿塘滟滪堆
五月不可触 猿声天上哀
门前迟行迹 20. 一一生绿苔
苔深不能扫 落叶秋风早
八月蝴蝶来 双飞西园草
感此伤妾心 坐愁红颜老
早晚下三巴 预将书报家
相迎不道远 30. 直至长风沙

How simple it was, and my hair too,
picking at flowers as the spring comes;
and you riding about on a bamboo
horse; playing together, eating plums.

Two small people: nothing to contend
with, in quiet Chang Gan to day's end.
All this at fourteen made one with you.
Married to my lord: it was not the same.
Who was your concubine answering to
10. the thousand times you called her name?

I turned to the wall, and a whole year passed
before my being would be wholly yours —
dust of your dust while all things last,
hope of your happiness, with never cause

to seek for another. Then one short year:
at sixteen I sat in the marriage bed
alone as the water. I could hear
the sorrowing of gibbons overhead.

How long your prints on the path stayed bare!
20. I looked out forever from the lookout tower,
but could not imagine you travelling there,
past the Qutang reefs, in the torrent’s power.

Now thick are the mosses; the gate stays shut.
I sit in the sunshine as the wind grieves.
In their dallying couples the butterflies cut
the deeper in me than yellowing leaves.

Send word of your coming and I will meet
you at Chang-feng Sha, past San Ba walls.
Endless the water and your looks entreat
30. and hurt me still as each evening falls.

I have employed an abab rhyme scheme where the original is much less regular. The original is rhymed xabc dbab dece xbxe abdb ffbf xfggxg: the translation is abab ccadad efef ghgh ijij klkl mnmn, a similar pattern but using more rhyme sounds. I have also rearranged the last four lines, with the three gorges of San Ba rendered as ‘ San Ba walls’, ‘the ‘looks entreat /and hurt’ added, and the endless distance to Chang-feng Sha has been transposed to water, though it would have been by river travel that the wife would have reached her husband.

(San Ban is of the three gorges stretch of the Yangtze River, where the dangerous Qutang reefs were also located. Chang-feng Sha is far downstream, a township now administered by Hefie, the capital of Anhui.)

Again there is wording beyond what the Chinese strictly says (consult the 'Background to the Chinese Translations' below), but restructuring the poem and employing Keats' concept of 'fine excess' gives us something worth reading.


Translation issues are explored in the free pdf ebook Background to the Chinese Translations.

For the poetry translations only click here.

For Notes on Poems 1 to 36 click here.

and for Notes on Poems 37-93 click here.

I have not provided references to the aesthetics section, but they are abundantly given in my Literary Theory and in the many articles on this site.