reading David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, translated & edited by David Hinton
by Matthew Thorburn
from Rowboat: Poetry in Translation, Issue Number One / Spring 2011
One weekend each year, in early April, my wife and I pick up her mother and drive north, through the hilly, rocky country above New York City to the Chuang Yen Monastery, set back in the woods outside the town of Carmel, New York. My mother-in-law was born in China, grew up in Taiwan, and moved to the United States more than 40 years ago. We and other families like us—parents and children and grandparents, mostly Chinese, but also a few non-Chinese, or waiguoren, like me—visit Chuang Yen to take part in the Qingming Festival. Qingming, literally "clear bright," is partly a time to get outdoors and enjoy the green shoots of spring. But it is also—and especially at the monastery—a time to honor departed loved ones. The three of us make this journey to visit my wife's father, whose ashes are interred in the Thousand Lotus Memorial Terrace, a granite wall at the top of a hill overlooking the monastery. Another translation of Qingming is Tomb Sweeping Day.
"A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day," Tu Mu (803-852) wrote, in his poem called "Qingming." I remember sitting in my mother-in-law's kitchen, two or three Aprils ago, as she extemporaneously translated a poem for me from her Chinese-language newspaper (which includes a poem in each issue) about a funeral on a rainy day: one could not tell the raindrops from the tears. Later I thought that a poem I might write would describe a funeral on a sunny day, the weather confounding the mourners' desire that it reflect their dark feelings of loss—the way, in Chinese poems, elements of the landscape often mirror the poet's inner state. Or perhaps that was the gist of the Chinese newspaper poem and my idea was the one that would rehash what Tu Mu already wrote 1,200 years ago. I'm no longer sure which was which. There's nothing like reading poems written hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago to make you feel that really nothing is new.
But for the past few years, it has been brisk but sunny on that early April day. We bring an apple and an orange to leave at the terrace—fresh fruit was one of my father-in-law's favorite treats—and burn yellow sticks of incense. There is much chanting, led by the resident monks. Some people cry. And in the spaces in between, you can hear birds passing messages to one another high in the pine trees. The hilltop is beautiful, though its colors are muted for me by being tied up with so much grief and loss. On the subject of mourning the dead, Meng Hao-Jan (689-740) wrote this poem, titled ''At Lumen-Empty Monastery, Visiting the Hermitage of Master Jung, My Departed Friend":
The blue-lotus roof standing beside a pond,
White-Horse Creek tumbling through forests,
and my old friend some strange thing now.
A lingering visitor, alone and grief-stricken
after graveside rites among pines, I return,
looking for your sitting-mat spread on rock.
Bamboo that seems always my own thoughts:
it keeps fluttering here at your thatch hut.
"Some strange thing now": an urn filled with ashes, or handfuls of ash scattered in the wind? No, what seems stranger, and what I imagine Meng might have meant, is a cloud of thoughts and memories: how, at times like that, everything you see or hear or touch reminds you of the one you've lost. Death can seem almost irrelevant to a loved one's presence in your life, so thick is that cloud—the way my wife still sometimes speaks of her father in the present tense.
Meng was the first major poet of the Tang Dynasty, an important model for the more widely known (to Western readers) poets who came after him, such as Wang Wei (701-761). Wang, like Meng, was a devout Buddhist. He was also an acclaimed painter, though none of his paintings have survived. Wang distills his poetry to the essentials of consciousness and landscape, describing the natural world in a vivid, painterly way that reflects his inner weather. Here's Wang's poem, "Mourning Meng Hao-Jan":
My dear friend nowhere in sight,
this Han River keeps Rowing east.
Now, if I look for old masters here,
I find empty rivers and mountains.
* * *
These versions of Meng and Wang's poems come from David Hinton's anthology Classical Chinese Poetry, which brings together poems spanning three millennia—from early folk songs, dating as far back as the 15th century B.C.E., and excerpts from the Tao Te Ching, to generous selections of work by the major poets of the Tang (618-907) and Sung (960-1279) Dynasties. At nearly 500 pages, Hinton's anthology provides a lively tour through the highlights of what he calls "the largest and longest continuous tradition in world literature."
In his succinct and engaging introduction, Hinton lays out some very useful context, explaining the Buddhist belief system that formed the framework for these poets' writings. He also shows how the "open" quality of the classical Chinese poetic language—which employs minimal grammatical elements, rarely includes prepositions or conjunctions, seldom specifies between singular and plural nouns, and uses no verb tenses—presents both challenges and opportunities for a translator. (Interestingly, there is often not even an explicit "I" in the poems. The poet's presence is only implied, felt in certain lines because of the convention in this tradition that such a poem is about the poet's own experiences.) Using Meng Hao-Jan's four-line poem "Autumn Begins" as an example, Hinton provides a literal word-for-character translation—printing each line of Chinese characters with the English equivalents underneath—followed by his finished translation. Here is how "Autumn Begins" begins:
not aware beginning autumn night gradually long
clear wind steadily/gently gently/steadily double icy cold
Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder.
As Hinton puts it, reading a poem in classical Chinese is a "remarkably creative act," as the reader actively participates in connecting the elements of the poem, character by character, imagining how the poet would fill in absences and gradually moving toward the poem's meaning.
This example also makes it clear why there can be so many different translations of a particular Chinese poem. I opened Classical Chinese Poetry already knowing some of these poets through the translations of Kenneth Rexroth, G.W. Robinson and David Young, among others. In Hinton's anthology I read "Reverence-Pavilion Mountain, Sitting Alone" by Li Po (701-762):
Birds have vanished into deep skies.
A last cloud drifts away, all idleness.
Inexhaustible, this mountain and I
gaze at each other, it alone remaining.
and remembered this translation of Li Po by Sam Hamill, published as "Zazen on Ching-t'ing Mountain" in Endless River (Weatherhill, 1993):
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.
These two versions are recognizably the same poem, yet different in their phrasing and rhythm, their use (or avoidance) of repetition. Reading Hinton's translations, I was reminded of how I could have a deeper, richer experience of these poems by seeing them through multiple translators' eyes.
Hinton explains that while staying true to certain fundamentals of the Chinese originals—such as the use of couplets, the basic structural unit in most of these poems—he strived to use all of "the resources available in English" in order to create effective translations. For instance, while he notes that enjambment was rare in these poets' work, he makes somewhat freer use of it in his English versions. Not knowing the language, I can't judge Hinton's fidelity to the Chinese originals. I can't tell you if these are "good" translations in that respect. What I ask, when reading Chinese poetry in translation, is: Are these good poems in English? Do they live on the page and when read aloud? Are they moving and memorable? And most crucially: having read them, do I want to read them again? The fact is, these are the questions I ask myself when reading any poems in translation—when reading any poems, period.
Having spent several weeks reading this sweeping anthology cover to cover, and regularly Ripping back to revisit certain poets and poems, my answers are yes, yes, yes and yes.
* * *
I read Chinese poetry in translation for the same reason I once traveled to China: to gain new experiences and widen the scope of what I know to be possible. As a poet myself, I find that reading poems from different times and cultures can help shake me awake to new (to me) ways of writing a poem, new thoughts about what a poem can be and do. For instance, take the poems of Han Shan (c. 7th-9th century), which means "Cold Mountain" and refers not to a historical individual, but to a body of writing attributed to a legendary monk who lived on Cold Mountain and was said to have scrawled these poems on rocks and trees. The voice of this mythical crazy-wise sage is as invigorating as a splash of cold water:
People ask for the Cold Mountain Way.
Cold Mountain Road gives out where
confusions of ice outlast summer heat
and sun can't thin mists of blindness.
So how did someone like me get here?
My mind's just not the same as yours:
if that mind of yours were like mine,
you'd be right here in the midst of it.
It seems he knows the secret—to life, happiness, enlightenment—but if you don't already know it too, he's not telling. In these poems, "Cold Mountain" may refer to the poet figure and/or the actual mountain—remember the ambiguities of that open grammar—and this overlapping of poet and place makes meaning that much more slippery. Mists of blindness, indeed.
And yet, as I read through this anthology, especially the hefty sections of T'ang and Sung Dynasty poems, I was also moved by the familiar feeling of so much of the poets' work. While these poems date back hundreds to thousands of years, many describe and wrestle with concerns that you or I might have today, such as longing for your wife and children when working far from home, or worrying about what the future holds for your kids, or lamenting about the aches and pains—not to mention the nostalgia and regrets—that come with growing old. Once again, these poems tell us: Nothing is new. Others have felt what you're feeling. (And others will after you.) Find comfort in this. (Or despair.)
In just four lines, a poet like Yang Wan-Li (1127-1206) captures one moment in time and makes it timeless. Rendered with great clarity, a passing moment leads to a realization, a flash of understanding. In the description of its contented title character, this poem of Yang's, "A Cold Fly," sounds like something Charles Simic might write:
Chance sight on a windowsill, the fly sits warming its back,
rubbing its front legs together, savoring morning sunlight.
Sun nudges shadow closer. But the fly knows what's coming,
and suddenly it's gone—a buzz heading for the next window.
Having served as an advisor to prime ministers and emperors, Yang wrote 3,500 poems in the last three decades of his life. He wrote nearly every day, taking the nothing special of a retiree's daily life and finding the poetry in it.
As in several of the poems I quoted earlier, rivers and mountains figure prominently throughout the poems in Hinton's anthology. This is due, in part, to the fact that many of these poets, like Yang Wan-Li, worked as government officials of various ranks. One poet, Wang An-Shih (1021-1086), even served as prime minister. They immersed themselves in the hubbub of city life and political intrigue, but also often longed for their mountain retreats. As Hinton explains, intellectuals in ancient China were deeply committed to both a Confucian sense of social responsibility and a Taoist desire for spiritual self-cultivation—which in practice meant many of these poets' lives included both periods of government service and periods of retreat or retirement (or political exile) in the mountains or the country.
I live in a rather un-Bronx-like neighborhood in The Bronx, a green and leafy place largely populated by retirees. If we don't quite have mountains and rivers, we do have hills and rivers—terraced rows of houses and apartment buildings from which you can see the Harlem and Hudson Rivers glinting through the trees. Five days a week, I walk down a steep hill and over to the subway, which runs above ground this far north, for the long trek south to 45th Street, where I work in an office high above the bustle of midtown Manhattan. As I made my way through the hundreds of poems in Hinton's anthology each morning and each evening on the subway, I felt a growing kinship with many of these poets. Reading their poems, I could imagine many of these same thoughts and feelings being expressed—though surely in different turns of phrase—by the men and women crowding onto the train with me at the end of the day, weary of working life and ready to be home again.
Sitting in my window-less room on the 38th floor of an office tower, as my computer dings to signal the arrival of yet another email, I close my eyes and think of my own hilltop retreat. I recall these lines, an untitled poem by Wang Wei:
You just came from my old village
so you know all about village affairs.
When you left, outside my window,
was it in bloom—that winter plum?
* * *
The first classical Chinese poem I ever read, and the one that's always meant the most to me, is "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"—Ezra Pound's version of a poem by Li Po. In his introduction, Hinton notes that, thanks to Pound, Chinese poetry made "a surprising appearance in translation far from home" in the early 20th century, because its "concrete language" and "imagistic clarity" appealed to the modernist Pound. It suggested an aesthetic antidote to everything that Pound felt was wrong with the poetry of his day.
Reading this poem—however much it at first might have seemed strange and foreign to my life—I discovered a model for exactly the kind of poem I hoped to write. In clear, vivid phrases, a woman describes her evolving relationship with her husband—from childhood play to an arranged marriage that gradually softens into a deep, heartfelt bond—and expresses how much she misses him now that he has gone away to attend to his work. In this poem, the reader hears—I heard—a distinct individual human being, one who speaks in beautiful yet direct language, permitting the reader a glimpse into her inner life.
I remember someone once told me that Pound's version actually isn't a very good translation, as far as faithfulness to the original goes. He took a lot of liberties, this person said, which somehow didn't surprise me. And yet this not-very-good translation is probably Pound's best poem, someone else quipped. This was when I was in college, busy with a hundred other things, and perhaps because I already loved this poem so much I never investigated the matter.
When first scanning Classical Chinese Poetry's table of contents, I thought Hinton hadn't included this poem. That would be understandable. Good translation or not, Pound's version is so well known, so widely anthologized, that it might be daunting to think of countering it with one's own. But later, as I read through Hinton's selection of Li Po's poems, I felt a shiver at the opening lines of "Steady-Shield Village Song":
These bangs not yet reaching my eyes,
I played at our gate, picking flowers,
and you came on your horse of bamboo,
circling the well, tossing green plums.
We lived together here in Steady-Shield,
two little people without any suspicion.
Reading this was like suddenly recognizing an old friend's face in a crowded train station. He looks different at first—a little older, grayer; maybe he has put on weight—but he is still the same person you feel you've known all your life.
Hinton's translation gives the poem a new twist, though—or restores a twist I'd been missing all these years. In the final lines of Pound's version, the wife who has grown to love (and now longs for) her husband tells him:
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-sa.
In Hinton's version, the wife loves and misses her husband, but she also makes it clear that there are limits. Although Li Po wrote this poem nearly 1,300 years ago, at the close of Hinton's version she sounds quite contemporary to me:
Before you start back from beyond
all those gorges, send a letter home.
I'm not saying I'd go far to meet you,
no further than Steady-Wind Sands.
She loves him, yes, but she has things to do too. Don't get your hopes up, she seems to say. She might be one of those women pushing forward through the rush-hour crowd, struggling to make a space for herself and her briefcase on that crowded subway. She might live right here in The Bronx.
About the Author
Matthew Thorburn is the author of a book of poems, Subject to Change, and a chapbook, the long poem Disappears in the Rain. He has also published poems and book reviews in recent issues of The Paris Review, Passages North, The Laurel Review and Pleiades. He lives and works in New York City.
Ithaca, New York
Editor: Jay Leeming