An Exercise in Poetry

15 08 2013

Over the last few years living in China, I’ve begun to realize how little I understand the literary traditions of my own country. I have some knowledge of European literary traditions, but beyond knowing the basic plot points of the four great Chinese works (Journey to the West, Dream of Red Chamber, Romance of Three Kingdoms, and the Water Margin) I have a shameful dearth of knowledge about Chinese literature.

With Journey to the West, my exposure was through kids’ TV shows, picture books, and then CCTV live-action dramas. I watched a soap opera of Dream of Red Chamber but thought it was too boring, and that they’d smeared too much Vaseline on the screen, then I read an abridged translation of it by some person or another. The other two I also watched on TV. I’ve never read any of these works in the original Chinese.

This coming from someone who wants to be a literary translator some day. Shameful Shameful.

Time to get some ink into my belly.

I was reading one of my favourite Martial Arts Novels today; I maintain my insistence that Martial Arts Novels are the Chinese equivalents of high fantasy and pulp science fiction. There are mysterious, long lost martial arts secrets that give you near limitless physical powers, not to mention flight, there are long battles and feuds over sacred weaponry, and there are fascinating characters like an old man who is the leader of a sect of beggars and knows a set of martial arts movements which he can use to topple trees without touching them. But I digress…

I was reading this novel, and I came to a part where the author quotes some ancient poet or other in the text. Usually, when I come upon something like this, I usually just skim past it and get to the juicy parts, but this time, I’m going to something different.

I’m going to try and understand what the poem means. Here it is:

Kǎo pán zài jiàn


Shuò rén zhī kuān


Dú mèi wù yán


Yǒng Shǐ Wù xuān


ummmmm…Ok I don’t even know all those words.

My initial understanding of this without any help from Google or Baidu is this:

Somebody is somewhere (maybe somewhere wet?)

Some kind of person is wide

Alone and saying something?

Eternally something without any lessening of such.

Ok. This is not so good. All we know at this point is there’s some guy and he’s alone and he said something that sounds like it might be lonely and melancholic.

Let’s see what Google Translate has to say:

Test nirvana in the stream,
Hiroto’s wide,
Http sleep soundly words alone,
Perpetual Do Xuan

Woah, for reals? Http sleep soundly words alone?! Profound, Google Translate. Very profound.

Useless. After using that Google Translate function that allows you to swap one word for another I get this:

Test nirvana in the stream,
Person of great virtue’s wide,
Awake from sleep sleep soundly words alone,
Perpetual Do not forgot

Ok. It’s starting to make sense now. It’s definitely a poem about some guy who’s lonely and stuff. Let’s put some context into the situation. The narrator says this poem comes from the Book of Songs also known as Classics of Poetry one of the five great works of ancient China. Compiled by Confucius. Studied and memorized by Chinese scholars for over a millennia. The narrator says the poem was written by a hermit. One wonders how the hermit ever encountered Confucius to tell him this poem, as he should probably have been off somewhere in the woods…hermitting.

Also, of course a hermit would compose a poem about how noble it is to be a hermit.

Heh. Anyways. Word for word analysis time:

Kǎo pán zài jiàn

考槃在涧 – The first two characters mean “to retreat from the world”, the second character “pán” means wooden house. So the narrator of this poem has retreated from the world into a little shack. Wow. I am constantly amazed at the ability of the Chinese language to set the scene with two sounds. The 3rd character means “in/at” – simple enough. At where though? At a “涧”, which means a stream which flows through the mountains. Wow again! Four words and we have an entire vista – the narrator has retreated from the world to a small wooden house far into the mountains where there are streams flowing. That took me 20 words to explain, and it’s weak tea compared to the potency of four words giving the reader an image. Readers with the slightest bit of imagination can even add sound to this scene, the sound of the river, the birds in the trees, the sound of being alone.

Shuò rén zhī kuān

硕人之宽- “Shuò rén/硕人”. Ok I was exaggerating the crappiness of my Chinese a bit. I know what these characters mean. a “Shuò rén/硕人” is not any old person, he’s a person of great virtue, nobility, a gentleman, a god among men, but not so proud as all that. It is difficult to explain this concept, and I’m not sure even I have the hang of it. It’s kind of the difference between Zen and not Zen, the path and not the path, the right way and the wrong way. Moving on, 之=word indicating possession (Fei 之 Hat = Fei’s Hat). The last character of this line is “kuān/宽” – which directly understood means “wide” which makes no sense because that would mean, “the wideness of a virtuous man”. A noble man is fat? However, the word can also have other meanings, such as “wide heart” meaning to feel relieved, or “to treat someone widely” meaning to be generous. So “kuān/宽” by itself also mean a feeling of happiness, wideness in the heart, generosity, other good things. It totally makes sense right? When you’ve been worrying about something for days, and suddenly what you’re worried about resolves itself, that feeling of relief does sort of feel like your heart has been released from a vise and you can breathe again. In English, we “let out a deep breath of relief”, which is also a kind of broadening or widening. Also, happiness is expressed through a widening of the mouth, and I don’t think anyone would describe joy in narrow, scrunched up terms. So basically this line means, “The happiness or joy of a virtuous man is….” of course this poet would never waste an entire character (which represents 25% of the entire allotment of characters per line in this type of poetry) on a silly little word like “是/is”, so he just assumes we know. Which we do.

Dú mèi wù yán

独寐寤言 – Dú/独 means “alone”, which we knew. The next two words, just looking at them without knowing any Chinese, you might guess they meant sort of the same thing. In fact, with font so small, you can barely tell they’re different at all. But the first character “寐/mèi” means “to wake from sleep”, and the second character “寤/wù” means “to fall asleep”, together, the two characters mean “to pass the days”. Hah! Isn’t that great? Going to sleep and waking up then going to sleep again is passing the days. The last word “言/yán” means to speak. So the whole line means something like “passing from one day to the next completely alone and speaking…”. To whom? He’s alone. He’s speaking to the mountains and the streams I suppose. Or to the birds. Or to a raccoon that comes upon his little shack. “Hey raccoon, I’m a virtuous hermit you know….what? You’ve brought someone to see me? I refuse to see anyone I would rather talk to my possum friends! Confucius you say? Ok well he can sit on the tree stump I use for guests.”

Yǒng Shǐ Wù xuān

永矢勿谖 – The entire line has actually become an idiom or a saying meaning “to remember something forever”. As with nearly all Chinese sayings or idioms composed of four words, you either know it or you don’t. They are really hard to deconstruct. Take, for example, the phrase “马马虎虎/Mǎmǎhǔhǔ” which can mean – “whatever”, “it was ok”, “half-assed”, but is composed of the words “horse horse tiger tiger” – I once totally derailed one of the English classes I was teaching completely with a discussion of why the hell “horse horse tiger tiger” should mean “so-so”. My argument was that if a bunch of horses and tigers got together, the results would be anything but “so-so”. But my students didn’t question it at all, the phrase was so ingrained in their vocabulary that they never even thought about it. To which I said “that’s ridiculous! You don’t even question why two random animals put together in a sentence means “whatever”? Isn’t that kind of Mǎmǎhǔhǔ of you? But then they turned the question around on me and asked me why “so-so” should mean “just okay”, I was speechless as well.

Students: “Isn’t that So-So of you, Teacher Fei?”

Teacher Fei: “uhh….”

Anyways. Long story short. I ended up going on a sojourn to find out WHY WHY WHY horse horse tiger tiger meant “so-so” and it turns out that…

there once was a two-bit artist who did a drawing of an animal. When people who saw the drawing asked him what it was, the man would say “horse horse tiger tiger” meaning, “I dunno…a horse, maybe? Or a tiger? whatever, I can’t be sure and I really don’t care”. When his older son asked him “dad, what is that animal you drew?” He answered “It is a tiger.” But later, his younger son asked him as well “Dad, what is that animal you drew?” He answered “it is a horse.” And so his two sons were not able to tell a horse from a tiger.

One day, the older son was walking around in town and he saw a man riding a horse. Thinking it was a tiger, he immediately slew the animal, and the father was forced to pay compensation to the man whose prize steed his son had slain.

On another day, the younger son was walking in the mountains, and he came upon a tiger. Thinking the tiger was a horse, the son was not afraid, and went up to the creature. The beast mauled the poor boy to death and the artist ended up deeply in debt and short one son.

Isn’t that a fucking awesome and hilarious story? Though you’d think the artist would at LEAST have corrected his sons after the first one killed a horse by mistake thinking it was a tiger.

Anyways, this loooong tangent was just to illustrate how hard it is to find out why some Chinese sayings mean what they do. But with the help of Baidu, anything is possible.

So. Yǒng Shǐ Wù xuān/永矢勿谖. “永/Yǒng” means “forever” that part is easy. Looking around for the meaning of “Shǐ/矢”, all I can tell is that this character means “arrow”. I can’t draw a clear line from “arrow” to “remember”, but if you put “forever” and “arrow” together, the two mean to swear to do something forever. I guess it’s kind of like an arrow shot into eternity in a frictionless environment. So that’s good, the poet is telling the reader he’s sworn to remember something forever. “Wù/勿” means “do not” and “谖/xuān” means “forget”. So “Swear this forever and do not forget.” Makes sense. The character “谖/xuān” can also mean “lie” so there’s a double meaning of “for realsies” here.

Put together sort of inelegantly, the poem might translate as:

Far in the mountains in a shack near the flowing streams

the joy of a virtuous man

is passing from one day to the next completely alone and speaking only with the mountains and streams

This I swear to remember forever, like, totally, for realsies.

Polished up it might read:

In the solitude of mountains and streams

a man of virtue finds deep joy

in communion with nature day after night

I swear this and will remember into eternity

—However, I don’t like the insertion of the first person. I feel it’s a very Western thing to do, and the need to adhere to exactly what the poet says kind of takes away from the feeling.

If I allow myself the liberty to “widen” things up – and why not, as this is my blog – it might say something like:

Crisp streams and blue mountains echo silence.

Joy is in the wood and water wide.

Day spins into night, as words fall

in solitude, heard by none but the earth.

I will bear this knowing like an arrow shot into eternity

this is my promise and my vow.




2 responses

21 08 2013
Maggie Anderson

Let’s attempt to give our input on the“道德经”….Ohph!

23 08 2013

The 道德经 is something I’ve never concerned myself with as I am without 德 and was born perpendicular to the 道

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