Dining with Zuo

More book overflow. I already have a poem by 杜甫 Dù Fǔ in the book, but I like this one too. It’s a perfect example of the cinematic technique of Chinese poetry: a montage of images, quickly piled up without comment, without viewpoint. As Wai-lim Yip says, translation into English often ruins the effect, simply because it imposes times and pronouns. Reading the glosses alone will help communicate the extreme brevity of poetic Classical Chinese, and the number of additions needed to make it readable in English. (Old Chinese had its own particles and pronouns, which we see in prose; the poem below manages to avoid all but one, ‘not’.)

Yè yàn Zuǒ shì zhuāng
night banquet (name) honorific manor
“An evening banquet at Mr. Zuǒ’s house”

fēng lín xiān yuè luò
wind forest slender moon fall
Wind in the woods. A crescent moon sets

yī lù jìng qín zhāng
cloth dew untouched guqin lay.out
Cloth wet with dew; lute laid out unused

àn shuǐ liú huā jìng
dark water flow flower path
Dark water flows among flowered paths

chūn xīng dài cǎo táng
spring star gird thatch house
Spring stars surround the thatched house

jiǎn shū shāo zhú duǎn
examine book burn candle short
Examining books— candles burn short.

kàn jiàn yǐn bēi cháng
see sword hold cup long
Look at swords. Always holding cups.

shī bà wén wú yǒng
poem finish hear Wú sing.songs
Poems finished. Hearing songs of Wú.

biǎn zhōu yì bù wàng
flat boat idea not forget
A flat boat— don’t forget that idea.

Here’s Yip’s translation:

Windblown forest: the slender moon has fallen.
Cloth dew-dabbled, the lute stands there untouched.
Dark water flows among flower-paths.
Spring stars belt the thatched house.
We leaf over books, to find candles short-burnt.
We show off swords: drink cups and cups of wine.
Poems done: hear the accent of Wu:
Go a-boating is the idea never to forget.

An irreverent aside: “General Tso’s chicken” refers to a 19C Chinese general named Zuǒ Zōngtáng. His surname 左 happens to be the same as the gentleman Dù Fǔ was visiting.

The 吴 Wú region is the Yangtze delta, now the site of Shànghǎi, and still the focus of a non-Mandarin dialect. (The city didn’t exist in Dù Fǔ’s time.) Dù Fǔ wasn’t from there, but perhaps Zuǒ was. Yip says the final line is a reference to the Warring States (-5C) minister Fàn Lǐ, who helped his state Yuè defeat the state of Wú (for which the region is named). Afterward he gave up his post to live on a fishing boat. The imperial Chinese scholar longed to find an official post— but there was always a counter-ideal of living in seclusion, far away from the capital, occasionally nerding out with a fellow scholar, as described in the poem.

The line “Dark water flows among flowered paths” could be a description of the ideal Chinese garden, which was supposed to be a Dàoist evocation of wild nature— twisted paths, interesting rocks, little waterways.  (The water is dark because it’s night, of course.)  Houses, by contrast, were rectilinear, following a severe Confucian aesthetic.

If you like this poem, and musings on translating Chinese, I recommend Yip’s book Chinese Poetry: An anthology of major modes and genres.  It’s a very fast read for an English speaker, if you only read the English translations. 🙂 I like Yip’s approach to translation, which prefers to stretch and fragment the English in an attempt to convey the openness and fluidity of the original.  (The sound and rhyme are lost, alas— he doesn’t give transliterations.)  He obviously loves Táng poems the best, and most of the book is from that period.

While we’re on the book, one amusing bit is some Confucian commentary on the 诗经 Shījīng (Classic of Poetry), a collection of songs from the -11C to the -7C. Confucius loved these songs and is said to have edited the collection. He claimed that they were all edifying and moral.  However, many of the songs were simply popular love songs.  For instance, this one, as translated by Yip:

In the wilds, a dead doe. White reeds to wrap it.
A girl, spring-touched: A fine man to seduce her.
In the woods, bushes. In the wilds, a dead deer.
White reeds in bundles. A girl like jade.
Slowly. Take it easy.
Don’t feel my sash! Don’t make the dog bark!

And (only part of) the traditional commentary:

“The Dead Doe” shows abhorrence of the failure to observe the rites. The kingdom was in a state of great disorder (at the end of the Yin dynasty). Ruffianism prevailed and manners became demoralized. When the civilizing influence of King Wén made itself felt although the period was still one of disorder; yet the absence of rites was deplored.

…Cheng is of the opinion that the second month of spring was the recognized time for the completion of marriages. The girl thinks of the time when, in accordance with the rites, it will be permissible for her to unite with the boy. It was necessary for the boy first of all to send an intermediary to ask for her hand.

Owing to its whiteness and its strength, jade is symbolic of the girl’s virtue.

(In fact jade was a common metaphor for a girl’s color. It’s often used that way in Golden Lotus. We think of jade as green, but the most highly prized jade in China was white.)