Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
Translated and edited by David Hinton
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 475 pp., $45)
Du Fu: A Life in Poetry
Translated by David Young
(Knopf, 226 pp., $16.95)
The oldest poems translated in David Hinton’s magnificent anthology Classical Chinese Poetry date to the fifteenth century B.C.E., long before the Bible was written. For the English-speaking world, however, this ancient art is effectively less than a hundred years old. Chinese poetry in English was born in 1913, when the widow of Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor who taught at the University of Tokyo, sent Ezra Pound a bundle of her late husband’s notes on Chinese poetry. Fenollosa, who went to Japan to teach philosophy and economics, did not speak any Chinese; he studied these classic texts with Japanese tutors, but needed an interpreter to talk with them. By the time Pound, who knew neither Chinese nor Japanese, transformed Fenollosa’s notes into the poems published in Cathay, his slim volume of 1915, he was thus at least four steps removed from the original Chinese. Yet English speakers knew so little about Chinese poetry that Pound’s versions, however approximate, carried the authority of originals. In a sense, they were originals: as Eliot remarked, Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.”
Inventing Chinese poetry meant not just translating it, but also teaching people how to read it. Here is Pound’s translation of a poem by Li Po, which he titled “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance”:
The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
The properties of the poem are exotic, but the tone, the syntax, and the music are entirely straightforward. Compared to a nineteenth-century English lyric, this eighth-century Chinese poem sounds modern. “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance” shows how perfectly Li Po met Pound’s modernist criteria of directness and imagistic precision.
Yet Pound was also aware that the Chinese poet’s concision was licensed by a complex of implications and conventions that the modern reader could not be trusted to know. And so he thought it necessary to append to his translation a note that was longer than the poem itself: “Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of the weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.”
Almost a century later, it is possible for English speakers to read much more widely and deeply in Chinese poetry, and in more accurate versions, thanks to several generations of erudite and talented poet-translators, from Arthur Waley to Kenneth Rexroth to A.C. Graham. A scholar-translator such as David Hinton, whose new anthology forms the capstone to a long and productive career, certainly knows infinitely more about Chinese language, culture, and literature than Pound ever did. In addition to his many volumes of translations of individual poets—including Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei, the three greatest poets of the T’ang Dynasty—Hinton has brought into English the classics of Chinese philosophy.
But the striking thing is that Hinton’s version of what he calls “Jade-Staircase Grievance” is not very different from Pound’s:
Night long on the jade staircase, white
dew appears, soaks through gauze stockings.
She lets down crystalline blinds, gazes out
through jewel lacework at the autumn moon.
And it is doubtful whether Hinton’s readers are any better prepared than Pound’s were to encounter the deeply attractive, and profoundly alien, aesthetics of Chinese poetry. For while many readers of poetry now have an idea of what they think Chinese poetry in translation should sound like, we have almost no sense at all of what Chinese poetry actually is. The reason is simple and quite insurmountable. It is that so many of the features of the Chinese language, which poets manipulate in complex and subtle ways, are totally untranslatable into English.
The ideograms, which Pound turned into an obsession, that make up some (though far from all) Chinese characters; the very notion of words as single characters, rather than permutations of an alphabet; the tones that determine the meaning of words, and whose patterning is a central element of Chinese verse; the attenuation or absence of many features of English grammar, including pronouns and tenses—all these factors make it impossible for the reader of an English translation to have any accurate sense of how a Chinese poem sounds, moves, and feels to a Chinese reader.
And beyond the linguistic barrier between us and the Chinese poets lie the barriers of literary convention and historical background. The T’ang Dynasty poets, who lived during the golden age of Chinese civilization in the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., belonged to and wrote for an extremely sophisticated audience, most of whom were officials in the imperial government: the original mandarins. Reading commentaries on Chinese poetry—notably, Stephen Owen’s The Great Age of Chinese Poetry, which deals with the High T’ang period of Li Po and Tu Fu—one begins to get an inkling of how many layers of meaning even the simplest, most imagistic poem contained for its original readers. Each genre of Chinese poetry had rules about rhyme, line length, and parallelism so intricate as to make the English sonnet look like free verse. Then there were conventions about how poems should start and end, and what images they could use, and what register of formality was appropriate to different subjects and different readers.
Li Po, for instance, was known as a shockingly original poet, and it is easy for any reader of his poems about the joys of drunkenness to see that there is something cheerfully subversive about his persona. Consider these lines from Hinton’s version of one of Li Po’s most famous poems, “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon”:
Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.
No one else here, I ladle it out myself.
Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,
though moon has never understood wine,
and shadow only trails along behind me.
I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.
This is clearly enough a poem against decorum, though it is hard to gauge just how unusual or subversive such praise of drunkenness is supposed to sound. It is far otherwise with another poem of Li Po’s, translated by Owen, on the conventional theme of visiting a monk’s retreat:
A dog barks amid the sound of waters,
Peach blossoms dark, bearing dew.
Where trees are thickest, sometimes see a deer,
And when noon strikes the ravine, hear no bell.
Bamboo of wilderness split through blue haze,
A cascade in flight, hung from an emerald peak
But no one knows where you’ve gone—
Disappointed, I linger among these few pines.
Nothing could seem more peaceful or reverent than these lines. So how could a contemporary English reader suspect that to a T’ang-era reader, in Owen’s words, this poem also “violates basic decorum,” because it contains “too many trees and at least two streams”? Or that the opening couplet is a “serious fault” because “a poem should begin with the general scene or an indication of the occasion,” not with a specific detail like the dog barking, which “should be placed where the ‘evidence trope’ belongs, in the middle couplets, where its ingenuity can be muted by a parallel”?
When so much information is missing—and how could it be included?—from even a skillful translation, can an English reader be said to be reading Li Po at all? Or to put it another way, could a Chinese reader appreciate “The Rape of the Lock” if he knew nothing about eighteenth-century English social and sexual mores, about the rules of the epic and the tradition of the mock-epic, about the movements and the connotations of the heroic couplet? “Much of the energy and directness that readers feel in Li Po’s poetry,” Owen observes, “arises from his weakening of the barrier between couplets.” But in Hinton’s translations this feature of Li Po’s verse disappears, because Hinton uses enjambment and run-ons between couplets throughout the anthology. “I have freely used the resources available in English, even when they do not correspond to anything in the original: enjambment, for instance, is rare in classical Chinese poetry,” he writes in his notes. Nor could the reader guess from Hinton’s free-verse lines that, in fact, many Chinese poems follow an elaborate rhyme scheme.
This is not, of course, a criticism. No translator of Chinese verse attempts to follow the original in meter or rhyme, for the simple reason that, if such fidelity is difficult even in translating a kindred language such as French or German, it is utterly impossible when dealing with a language like Chinese. That is why it is so appropriate that Pound, who knew no Chinese, should be the inventor of Chinese poetry in English. When reading English versions of Chinese poems, we are getting as close as the conditions of our knowledge will allow, but no closer—we are reading the phenomenon, while the noumenon, the lyrical thing-in-itself, remains always out of reach.
Yet all this notwithstanding, there is a great profusion of Chinese poetry in English, and this fact, too, is significant. It suggests that, despite all the barriers, this poetry does communicate, even urgently, to modern Western readers. Both the difficulty and the urgency are elegantly demonstrated in a short book by Eliot Weinberger called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. Weinberger simply collates and comments on a series of translations of Wang Wei’s famous poem “Deer Park,” allowing the reader to see how even this brief poem—twenty characters, in four lines—contains endless shades of meaning and implication. More, he shows how certain features of the Chinese—for instance, the absence of pronouns—are virtually uncapturable in English, so that almost every translator turns Wang’s series of images into a first-person narration.
Yet again and again translators have returned to Wang Wei, hoping to create an English equivalent for his instant of illumination. Here is how Hinton translates the poem in Classical Chinese Poetry, successfully avoiding the “I”:
No one seen. Among empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, faint, no more.
Entering these deep woods, late sunlight
flares on green moss again, and rises.
It is fruitless for the reader to wonder whether “flares” has the same connotations in English as what Wang wrote. Comparing this to other English versions, however, shows that Hinton’s word is well chosen. Almost every translator in Weinberger’s book uses “shine” to describe the action of light on moss, though Rexroth opts for “gleam.” Hinton’s “flares” emphasizes the suddenness of the light’s appearance, allowing the reader to feel the poet’s surprise as the sunlight trespasses on his dark, quiet retreat in the forest. The surprise is not just visual, Hinton emphasizes, but also temporal: the light is said to flare “again” because the sun is now setting, and the poet has not seen it since it rose.
Reading Wang Wei in the context of Hinton’s anthology also helps the reader in a more profound sense, by placing in its literary and philosophical context what is, in fact, a deeply enigmatic poem. For if Wang takes care to tell us what he sees and hears, he has not a word to say about why it matters, or why he wished to record it in verse. This reticence is especially characteristic of Wang, whom Hinton describes as “the great condensery of Chinese poetry.” Wang, who lived from 701 to 761, was a painter as well as a poet, and the visual inspiration of his verse is unmistakable. As Hinton says, his poems “often turn on the sparest of images: a bird’s cry, a splinter of light on moss, an egret’s wingbeat.” We have already seen the light on moss; the egret appears in another poem from the same sequence, “Wheel-Rim River,” this one titled “Golden-Rain Rapids”:
Wind buffets and blows autumn rain.
Water cascading thin across rocks,
waves lash at each other. An egret
startles up, white, then settles back.
Here all is movement, just as in “Deer Park” all is silence. It is the ability to conjure such sensations using just a few details that makes Wang’s poems so effective. If all poems are distillations of experience, Wang’s poems are doubly distilled: mere notations in which, paradoxically, a lived moment is powerfully preserved. Once Wang has seen something, the reader has seen it; and because what he sees is so elemental, no barriers of time and distance seem to separate the reader from the poet. This identification, this communication of a moment across the centuries and the cultures, is the real power of Wang’s short poems, even more than their visual beauty.
Poems, even the most pictorial poems, are never really visual. They are not about things seen, but about why the poet feels compelled to preserve in writing what he sees. This is certainly true of Wang Wei and the many other poets in Hinton’s anthology, who render individual moments not just for their own sake, or for the sake of a poetic image, but as demonstrations of a certain way of being in the world. The wanderer in “Deer Park” is able to forget himself, and to forget time, so deeply that he seems no longer to exist, until the sun flares to remind him. The egret in “Golden-Rain Rapids” is battered by the world but displays no more than an instant’s discomposure before “settling back” into the integrity of his indifference. It is impossible to describe these poems without using a vocabulary that is more philosophical and even ethical than visual.
Wang Wei’s views of the world imply a worldview. That worldview, which might be described as a fusion of Taoist cosmology and Buddhist epistemology, is not just Wang’s, but animates almost every poet in Hinton’s anthology. To some extent, this is because Hinton himself is intent on teaching the reader to share the ethics and the metaphysics that he finds so appealing in the Chinese poets. This is a matter of overcoming subjectivity, of curing the breach between consciousness and the universe:
Self and its constructions of the world dissolve away, and what remains of us is empty consciousness itself, known in Ch’an [the Chinese word we know in its Japanese form, Zen] terminology as “empty mind” or “no mind.” As absence, empty mind attends to the ten thousand things [i.e., everything that exists] with mirrorlike clarity, and so the act of perception itself becomes a spiritual act: empty mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient. This spiritual practice is a constant presence in classical Chinese, in its fundamentally pictographic nature. It is also the very fabric of Chinese poetry, manifest in its texture of imagistic clarity.
There is something unmistakably late twentieth century in Hinton’s love for Tao and Ch’an, and in his way with it. Sometimes he overly domesticates this ancient wisdom, making it sound like a familiar form of progressive orthodoxy, as when he congratulates Taoism for being “deeply ecological” and “radically feminist.” As with Rexroth, these Chinese poets can sound distinctly New Age. Just as often, though, Hinton makes the Chinese poets sound like late Heidegger, as when he writes of their interest in “dwelling,” or translates the central Taoist concept tzu-jan as “occurrence appearing of itself,” echoing Heidegger’s translation of the Greek physis as “things ... insofar as they originate and come forth from themselves.” (Both words, tzu-jan and physis, are more conventionally translated simply as Nature.) As with late Heidegger, and no doubt for the same historical reasons, Hinton admires a philosophy that seems more quietistic, modest, and anti-technological than Western rationalism.
Just how radical this detachment can become is apparent from Hinton’s selections from the Tao Te Ching, the wisdom-classic traditionally attributed to Lao Tzu (a name that, Hinton remarks, “simply means ‘Old Master’”). Again and again, this work advocates withdrawal from a world bound up with change and suffering:
Presence and absence give birth to one another,
difficult and easy complete one another,
long and short measure one another,
high and low fill one another,
music and noise harmonize one another,
before and after follow one another:
that’s why a sage abides in the realm of nothing’s own doing,
living out that wordless teaching.
This diagnosis of the world and its becoming can sound like Platonism. But only a little: for what differs, radically, is Lao Tzu’s prescription. The ideal here is not erotic-intellectual flight to a world of Being, but withdrawal into a world of Nothing. The wisdom of the sage is insistently negative:
Never bestow honors
and people won’t quarrel.
Never prize rare treasures
and people won’t steal.
Never flaunt alluring things
and people won’t be confused.
“Honor is a contagion deep as fear, / renown a calamity profound as self,” reads another section; “If we didn’t have selves / what calamity could touch us?” It is this wisdom, in which self-abnegation is pushed to the limits of possibility, that Hinton teaches us to find in the great Chinese poets. Wang Wei’s restraint, his preference for a minimum of speech against a maximum of silence, thus comes to look like a Taoist gesture. In this context, it becomes easier to understand why Wang’s treatment of Nature differs so radically from that of any Western poet before the twentieth century. English poetry uses nature to entice us into the world: it is a token of Creation’s benevolence, or a summons to love and sex, or a teacher of wisdom, or a mirror of the self. For Wang, however, Nature is beautiful because it is the last stop on the mind’s itinerary out of this world:
The cold river spreads boundless away.
Autumn rains darken azure-deep skies.
You ask about Whole-South Mountain
mind knows far beyond white clouds.
With other poets, the Taoist, and later Buddhist, imperative toward withdrawal and renunciation is more explicit. Here is Tu Fu’s “Thoughts”:
Caught in the scramble for glory, we
people made bedlam lice of ourselves.
Before emperors, people ate their fill
and were content, then someone began
knotting ropes, and now we’re mired
in the glue and varnish of government.
It all started with Sui, inventor of fire,
and Tung’s fine histories made it utter
disaster. If you light candles and lamps,
you know moths will gather in swarms.
Search out through all eight horizons:
you find nothing anywhere but isolate
emptiness, departure and return one
movement, one ageless way of absence.
“Knotting ropes” was the original Chinese method of writing: here is a writer suggesting that it would have been better for human beings never to have learned how to write. And here, too, is a direct echo of the Tao Te Ching: “Let people knot ropes for notation again / and never need anything more.”
These lines of Tu Fu, who as Hinton writes is “generally described as the greatest of China’s poets,” offer a very pointed expression of the paradox that runs through Classical Chinese Poetry. It is impossible to be at the same time a poet and a sage, because the sage insists on withdrawal, inactivity, selflessness, and silence, while the poet lives by observation, creation, introspection, and speech. The poet who achieved enlightenment would not, and could not, still write poetry. Yet the significant fact, of course, is that all these poets did still write poetry—which is to say, the fact that they kept writing poetry is reason enough to doubt whether the great Chinese poets were quite so devoted to withdrawal and enlightenment as Hinton’s philosophical introductions suggest. Self-abnegation was their trope, and perhaps even their ideal, but it was never their practice: they were too committed to perception and expression to desire a radical or permanent detachment.
It is true that almost all these poets wrote poems scorning the beau monde of the imperial capital, Chang’an—in the T’ang period, probably the largest city on earth—and declaring their longing for the simple life of the mountain recluse. Indeed, at “the head of the great Chinese poetic tradition,” Hinton observes, stands T’ao Ch’ien, a nom de plume that means “Recluse T’ao.” T’ao Ch’ien lived from 365 to 427, and became an exemplary figure to the T'ang poets, three centuries later, because he preferred a humble life as a farmer to the intrigue and glamour of the court. As he writes in “Home Again Among Fields and Gardens”:
Nothing like all the others, even as a child,
rooted in such love for hills and mountains,
I stumbled into their net of dust, that one
departure a blunder lasting thirteen years.
But a tethered bird longs for its old forest,
and a pond fish its deep waters—so now,
my southern outlands cleared, I nurture
simplicity among these fields and gardens
This Horatian note is struck again and again by the great T’ang poets. Wang Wei addresses a poem to an imperial official named Vice-Magistrate Chang: “Mind free of all ten thousand affairs, / selfregard free of all those grand schemes, / I return to my old forest, knowing empty.” Li Po’s “Mountain Dialogue” is a recluse’s boast:
You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains
I smile, mind of itself perfectly idle, and say nothing.
Peach blossoms drift streamwater away deep in mystery
here, another heaven and earth, nowhere people know.
And Tu Fu writes idyllically about “The River Village” where “My wife draws a paper chessboard, / and tapping at needles, the kids contrive fishhooks. / Often sick, I need drugs and herbs—but what more, / come to all this, what more could a simple man ask?”
Reading such poems, it is easy to forget that their audience was precisely the well-connected literati who staffed the imperial bureaucracy, and that each of these poets eagerly pursued an official career. Even a poet such as Meng Hao-Jan—who, Hinton writes, “never left his native region to follow a government career,” but “cultivated the independence of a simple life in his home mountains”—knows that he is writing for the capital: one of his poems is titled “Sent to Ch’ao, the Palace Reviser,” and contrasts the bureaucrat’s “rue-scented libraries” with his own “bamboo-leaf gardens.” Wang Wei came from a prominent family and rose to a high position in the bureaucracy. For Hinton, however, this is essentially irrelevant to his poetry: “Wang enjoyed a long and successful career in the government ... but it is clear that he found his truest self in mountain solitude.” Likewise, Wei Ying-Wu, who “never left government service completely,” was still “by nature a recluse.” All this is entirely in keeping with Hinton’s view of Chinese poets as teachers of Taoist-Buddhist wisdom.
But there is another way to look at these poets. It is possible to see them as worldly and sophisticated men who—like Horace, or like the Elizabethan court poets—found it creditable to praise rusticity, without intending to practice it unless bad luck and old age compelled them to do so. (If it is a sort of Stoicism that these poets seem to espouse, it is worth remembering that the great Stoics of Rome, Seneca and Cicero, spent their lives in the corridors of power.) As Stephen Owen notes, “Most High T’ang poets either served the state or wished to do so: the disdain for high office expressed by many famous poets was sporadic, and rarely accompanied by the conviction of action when an attractive opportunity for service was offered.” This is not a question of hypocrisy or bad faith, but of the complex ways in which ideals and realities shape each other for any individual in any culture. It is telling that one of the standard subjects of Chinese poetry was visiting a remote monastery: they were good places to visit, but would the poet really want to live there? If he did, who would see his poetry?
The exception that proves this rule, in Classical Chinese Poetry, is Han Shan, whose name means Cold Mountain. There was in fact no such person, only a collection of poems that legend attributed to a wild monk who lived on Cold Mountain, writing verses on rocks and trees. In these poems, Hinton observes, the ambiguity of Chinese grammar makes it unclear whether the Cold Mountain that speaks is the author or the mountain itself:
Everyone who glimpses Cold Mountain
starts complaining about insane winds,
about a look human eyes can’t endure
and a shape nothing but tattered robes.
They can’t fathom these words of mine.
Theirs I won't even mention. I just tell
all those busy people bustling around:
Come face Cold Mountain for a change.
This elated contempt for the world is something different from most Chinese poets’ philosophical disdain: it is more confrontational, and therefore sounds more authentic. It is no wonder that Gary Snyder’s translation of the Cold Mountain poems was popular in the 1960s, since Han Shan can easily be made to sound like a counterculture dropout: “Go tell families with silverware and cars / ‘What's the use of all that noise and money?’” Snyder wrote, with Poundian anachronism.
But it is not necessary to change the stage properties of this thirteen-hundred year-old poetry to make it sound contemporary. That is what David Young demonstrates in Du Fu: A Life in Poetry. (The names of most Chinese poets are familiar to English readers in the old Wade-Giles system of transliteration. The pinyin system, which became standard in the 1980s, can sometimes obscure their identities: it is clear enough that Du Fu is Tu Fu, but one would not necessarily recognize Li Bai as Li Po, or Bo Juyi as Po Chu-i.) The subtitle of Young's book explains his method. He arranges the poems of Tu Fu in chronological order and links them to the periods of his life, and of Chinese history, in which they were written.
Young is a poet with a self-confessed “limited knowledge of Chinese,” a translator more on the Pound model than the Hinton model. But he insists that “my being able to situate a poet like Du Fu in the poetic practices of his time is more important, finally, than any fluency in Chinese,” and his book offers strong support for this doubtful-sounding claim. For Tu Fu's life and times are a central part of his legend for Chinese readers. As Hinton says in Classical Chinese Poetry, he is known for “a realism that opened poetry to all aspects of human experience, from the intimate and concrete to the political and abstract,” and he is referred to as “the poet-historian.” Hinton's selection of twenty-two poems gives the reader some sense of this realism, as in “First-Devotion Return Chant”:
I come home to sounds of weeping, wailing
cries for a child stone-dead now of hunger.
Neighbors sob in the street. And who am I
to master my grief like some sage, ashamed
even to be a father—I whose son has died
for simple lack of food?
This is a different world from the jade staircases and the gauze robes of Li Po’s erotic lament, or the moss and the egrets of Wang Wei's nature scenes (though Tu Fu also writes those kinds of poems). And reading Young’s Du Fu helps the reader to grasp just how completely the poet’s verse flows from his experience. The central event in Tu Fu’s life was the An Lushan rebellion of 755, in which a rebel general took up arms against the T’ang emperor Xuanzong and captured Chang’an. The resulting civil war devastated China on a scale similar to the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, and it disrupted the poet’s life, embroiling him in political intrigues and making him a refugee for extended periods.
This biography leads Young to compare Tu Fu to such casualties of Europe’s twentieth century as Paul Celan and Czeslaw Milosz, and to characterize his work as “a remarkable and spirited rejoinder to the disasters and contingencies of history.” This interpretation informs both Young’s selections and his translations. Here, for instance, is how he renders the heartbreaking passage about the death of Tu Fu’s son, quoted above in Hinton’s version:
thinking ahead to my wife
trying to cope with this weather
desperate to be with my family
I arrive at last to learn
my little son has died
probably from sheer hunger
and I stand and weep in the street
the neighbors crowd round me, weeping
my shame overwhelms me, a father
who couldn't feed his family....
Young’s Tu Fu is considerably blunter, faster, and more casual than Hinton’s—and doubtless less faithful to the original. But we do hear an individual human voice in these lines, a voice that we come to know and to sympathize with more and more deeply as Tu Fu’s tragic story unfolds. By the end of Young’s book, knowing as much as we now do about Tu Fu’s constant displacements and long journeys, we are prepared to recognize the pathos of his self-description in “Ready to Go”:
old age can’t carry
sorrow’s heavy burden
lots of able men
here at headquarters
fine people, you have done
I’m heading north
into the rain and snow
who’d spare a thought, even a tear,
for this traveler in shabby fur?
The poets of the T’ang Dynasty are by far the best known to English readers, and they make up the core of Classical Chinese Poetry. The poets of the subsequent Sung Dynasty, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, are not nearly as celebrated. In 1971, when Kenneth Rexroth included the work of Su Tung-P’o and Lu Yu in his enormously influential One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, he complained that these Sung masters had never been translated into English, and were “not anthologized satisfactorily even in Chinese.” Yet Rexroth also noted that “the whole spirit of this time in China is very congenial today, especially to the romantic, empirical-mystic and antinomian taste which has prevailed in the arts of the West since 1940”; and it is still true, I think, that the Sung poets feel more approachable, closer to us in sensibility and in approach, than their T’ang predecessors.
The Sung Dynasty restored order to China after the fifty-year period of anarchy that followed the collapse of the T'ang Dynasty in the early 900s. According to Hinton, the new regime “returned the country to stability, peace, and prosperity”; and fittingly, for a time of rebuilding and retrenchment, the Sung poets seem to speak with a certain disillusioned realism, even a conscious belatedness. They can be seen as the naturalists and confessional post-modernists to the brilliantly abstract T'ang modernists. “Rather than looking to a carefully constructed realm of artifice for insight,” Hinton remarks, “they looked to the workaday world in which we live our actual lives.” Reading Su Tung-P'o (1037-1101), the greatest poet of the Sung, we find ourselves in a world of imperial injustices and battered ideals that we have no trouble recognizing as our own:
On New Year’s Eve I should be home early,
but this office full of business keeps me.
Writing-brush in hand, hiding my tears,
I face all these bound prisoners, helpless
little people scrambling for food, snared
in the law’s net, and no reason for shame.
I’m no different: adoring a meager salary,
I follow orders, losing my chance to live
quiet and far away. No telling who’s noble,
who vile: we’re all just angling for a meal.
Could I free them for the holiday at least?
I brood in shame before ancients who did.
No doubt our own time of troubles, our own ugly and vicious world, which separates the world of Cathay from the world of Classical Chinese Poetry, is the reason why the Chinese poets seem to speak to us more intimately now when they speak of suffering and disillusionment rather than of beauty and perfection—or even, in David Hinton’s magisterial book, of enlightenment.
This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.