Random Jottings


#1

螻蛄,一名天螻,一名螜,一名碩鼠。有五能而不成伎術:一,飛不能過屋;二,緣不能窮木;三,泅不能窮谷;,四拙不能覆身;五,走不能絕人。

The mole cricket, known as the “Sky Cricket,” hu, or giant rat, has five abilities which cannot be considered skills. First: It can fly, but not over a building. Second: it can climb, but not to the top of a tree. Third: it can swim, but not all the way across a creek. Fourth: it can dig, but not enough to cover its body. Fifth: it can walk, but no faster than a person.


#2

人參一名土精,生上黨者佳,人形皆具,能作兒啼。昔有人掘之,始下鏵,便聞土中呻吟聲。尋音而取,果得人參。

Ginseng is also known as “earth-essence,” and that which grows in the Shangdang region is the most excellent. It is shaped like a fully-intact person and is capable of crying like a child. In the past when someone wanted to dig it up, they would begin by lowering their shovel, and then listen for the sounds of groaning in the earth. By tracing the sound and then digging, they could find the ginseng.

[now I’m curious if there is any connection between crying ginseng and screaming mandrake]


#3

剡縣陳務妻少與二子寡居,好飲茶茗。宅中先有古塜。毎日作茗飲,先輙祀之。二子患之,曰:古塜何知?徒以勞祀。欲掘去之。母苦禁而止。及夜,母夢一人曰:吾止此塜二百餘年,謬蒙恵澤。卿二子恒欲見毁,賴相保護。又饗吾佳茗,雖泉壤朽骨,豈忘翳桑之報。遂覺。明日晨興,乃於庭内獲錢十萬,似久埋者而貫皆新。提還告其兒。兒並有慙色。從是禱酹愈至。

Chen Wu of Shan County’s wife was widowed early, and lived alone with their two children. She enjoyed drinking tea. There was an ancient tomb on their estate, so whenever she would make tea she would give an offering. This irritated her two children, who said, “What do you know of ancient tombs? You’re wasting effort making offerings for nothing.” They wanted to plunder the tomb instead, but their mother forbade them to speak any more of it. That night, someone came to her in a dream and said, “I have been in this tomb for over two hundred years, and have undeservedly benefitted from your grace. Your two sons wish to bring ruin upon me, and I depend on you for protection, and moreover you present me with fine tea. Though my bones molder in the grave, could I forget this kindness?” After this she woke up. At dawn the following day, she found twenty thousand in cash laying in the courtyard. It looked as though it had been buried for some time, and yet the strings binding the coins together were all new. She carried it out to present to her children, who both bore expressions of pure shame. Thereupon they began to make even more lavish offerings.


#4

商山早行 - 溫庭筠
晨起動徵鐸,客行悲故鄉。
雞聲茅店月,人跡板橋霜。
槲葉落山路,枳花明驛牆。
因思杜陵夢,鳧雁滿回塘。

Leaving Early from Mt Shang - Wen Tingyun

As dawn rises carriage bells ring,
the traveler sets out, longing for home.
Roosters cry from thatched roofs still moonlit,
footprints on bridges still thick with frost.
The mountain road scattered with oak leaves,
the walls of the way station glowing with petals.
I’m reminded of my dream of the Duling tombs,
ducks and geese filling the ponds.


#5

this is really good. we occasionally got poems like this in my high school mandarin class and i kind of miss having an excuse to study them.

thinking about how the romantic languages and chinese lend themselves to different structures for poetry is pretty neat. in particular, the couple of poems i saw constructed around relationships between the words in each column kind of blew my mind. can’t remember what any of them were called now. i think my favorite was another 10x5, that amounted to something like “i saw a picture that made me feel like i was actually there and it was beautiful,” and, well, it was beautiful.


#6

Acrostics must be real neat with kanji to play with

I’m reading through Genji (Waley translation) and the poetry is pretty well-translated but occasionally the footnote just says, “this is an acrostic” and I sigh


#7

y’all need to get on su hui’s level


#8

uh

wow


#9

This is like a thing that would be described generally in a Borges story but not actually painstakingly created


#10

there are so many things like this in Chinese history it’s incredible

what’s even better is most of them no longer exist, so the only thing we know about them is from other people’s descriptions of them, which only makes them more Borgesian

But honestly it’s probably the other way around.

edit: I’m thinking of continuing this random translation snippet thing on a blog, but I don’t really know where I should put it. Ideally I want to spend as little time as possible fiddling around with the tech and aesthetics and just dump text in a way that doesn’t look ugly. Is tumblr still the blogging platform with the best effort/result ratio out there?


#11

yeah pretty much

just spend 5 minutes throwing a pleasant theme on there and go


#12

Basically every Chinese poem I’ve read translated to English has been similar to this – observation-based, focused on concrete atmospheric imagery, almost like a fair-worded documentation of a place and time – and I guess now is as good a time as any to ask, like, how much of that is a selective culling or if that was just the dominant formal mode for Chinese poetry up to a point. Also when trends might’ve started to change as regional trends became cosmopolitan; e.g., European/American canon moving away from rhyme/rhythmic schemes, clear narratives, and moral lessons, and towards personal metaphors, unusual compound inventions, and other sorts of difficult aesthetics.


#13

This is a great question and I’m getting excited about thinking about how to answer it! Will respond more tomorrow.


#14

y-yeah well uh I’m pretty good at solving nonograms

anyway I’d totally reblobble these


#15

OK! Having reconsidered writing like 10,000 words on this and wasting everyone’s time, I’m going to try to be more succinct.

It’s a combination of both–the interesting thing is the culling takes place on a lot of different levels. The type of poem you describe is pretty typical for poetry of the High Tang, roughly mid 8th century, but the poetry of that period, or rather certain examples from it, became the ideal for a lot of later writers. This meant that there were a lot of imitations/influence in later periods, but also that the corpus of poetry we have for that period has been selectively edited to highlight more poems of a certain style. Then, when it comes to translation, translators into English have kind of doubled down on the canon, deeming it necessary to first translate those poems that are ‘important’ to the literary tradition, e.g. the ones that later readers also liked, but also focusing mostly on poems that can be translated into English without sacrificing too much. So a lot of highly allusive poetry, for example, was not really showcased in English anthologies because no one wants to read a poem with 100 footnotes.

But even though there are definitely consistent images and patterns in this corpus, translation also obscures a lot of the aesthetic/technical details that can help to make individual poets feel more unique. The most basic is the fact that even things that are translated as free verse in English (which is pretty much all Chinese poetry) can follow very strict rhyme schemes, that also include tonal patterns. Most people who try to translate with attention to these things end up writing bad poetry, but occasionally it can be interesting.

But anyway, there are a few sort of characteristic topoi for poems that you see over and over again, and most of them tend to relate in some way to coordinating natural patterns with various sentiments and emotions, so much so that the idea of a subgenre of “nature poetry” or “landscape poetry” is kind of redundant. In a lot of ways, that’s just what poetry is.

Poems about parting ways with friends, being alone on the open road, climbing a tall tower to look out over the landscape, looking at the moon at night, visiting a remote temple or monastery on a mountain, and so on will all share certain details and a certain mode of observation, but can still express a lot of different ideas and combine images in interesting ways.

That’s part of why I like the ‘dream of the Duling tombs’ in the Wen Tingyun poem. It’s more or less just a synecdoche for the capital (the place that is basically always on a Tang poet’s mind, whether he isn’t in the capital or even if he is), but it makes a more mysterious image than just talking about the crowded marketplace or the beautiful residences or whatever else you might use to represent the capital.

But even beyond that there is still lots of variety–poetry about experiencing life on the battlefield or frontier, or poetry on historical sites or ruins are both still very much about an individual’s experience in an environment, but the images that are conjured and what they express can be a little bit more complicated. But those sites/topics also end up becoming kind of stereotypical. (Frontier poetry is interesting because it was a hackneyed poetic topic long before any poet actually bothered to visit a real frontier, then after more people who had actually been stationed on the frontier started writing poetry it became interesting again). As for more unique things, there is also a really incredible series of poems describing the aftermath of an early spring storm, with winds that knock all of the newly blossomed petals from the trees, that is used as an extended metaphor for the death of the poet’s infant daughter, an image that I don’t think you could reuse without framing it as a deliberate allusion to that specific series of poems.

So this is also interesting. The common types of poetry I’m describing above are part of a regional tradition, more or less, but one that is so dominant that it has basically overshadowed everything else. Most Tang poetry is composed by people who are or want to become bureaucrats in the capital, and so the corpus highly privileges people writing about that experience–traveling from your homeland to the capital to take a high level civil service exam or seek patronage, whoring around in the capital as a young student, then you might pass the exam either remaining to serve in the capital or most likely getting sent off to some faraway post (officials were forbidden from serving in their home communities, to curb graft), which would of course provide both the occasion to get drunk with your friends and write poetry about how sad you are to be leaving, then to write poetry about how sad you are to be traveling away from the capital, then to write poetry about how sad you are to be stuck in some backwater without any of your friends. Or, you don’t pass the exam, which gives you the occasion to write poetry about how sad you are that no one recognizes your talent. If you are lucky enough to get a position in the capital, you may still eventually run afoul of some clique or another and get exiled to the provinces, and then the cycle starts all over again.

But against that backdrop, the poets who stand out most in the High Tang canon, Li Bai and Du Fu, are those that kind of defied or exceeded those trends. Li Bai was born in Central Asia and raised mostly in Sichuan, which at the time was kind of a backwater. He takes on a lot of different more or less invented personae in his poems, sometimes coming across as a sort of swashbuckling rogue and at others a Daoist mystic (there’s a whole other tradition of Daoist poetry inspired by scripture/liturgical texts that was once more or less ignored by scholars and translators, but is now more appealing). Du Fu was both a genius and someone who wrote most of his poetry during or in the aftermath of the An Lushan rebellion (or rather, most of what survives at least), so most of his more famous poems kind of subvert or abandon the ground covered by most other High Tang poets.

As for other regional traditions, I’m sure they are out there, but I have a feeling they are not too visible until later periods, when canonization/anthologization doesn’t exert such a huge influence over what texts are preserved. As far as I know other regional/ethnic poetic & lyrical traditions did not become hugely influential in mainstream poetry until more recent times. But I could be wrong on that. For example I think I know someone who is studying frontier poetry and arguing that there is a strong central asian influence, I just haven’t read anything on it yet.

But in terms of major shakeups of formal trends, the biggest is probably the introduction of song lyrics as a respectable poetic form. Most poetry was (probably) meant to be sung, but “song lyrics” (which, confusingly, become most popular in the Song dynasty, a pun that only makes sense in English using modern pinyin romanization…) refer to a form of poetry that borrows their tonal patterns (and sometimes themes) from preexisting tunes. Formally the biggest difference is they are not confined to four or five syllable lines, and can use mixed line lengths and a greater variety of rhyme patterns and so on. There is a ton of variety in the contents of these poems, but they are stereotyped as featuring more borrowed or invented personae rather than expected to narrate the actual sentiments of the poets. So that opens up a lot of different territory.

I don’t know a whole lot about poetry from the later imperial period, 16th-19th centuries, or modern poetry. But I’ve read a bit of poetry from the early 20th century that probably constitutes a more serious challenge to traditional aesthetics, and follows the pattern you described in the same way that American and European poetry did:

I am just starting to learn more about this, but a lot of poets were obsessed with literary modernism and it resulted in a lot of really interesting experiments and influences. I think part of why these poets have been ignored (while modernist fiction writers from the period have been obsessively studied by Western scholars for decades) is because when you translate it it kind of just ends up reading like imitations of Western poets–translation sort of erases all of the interesting work poets had to do to figure out how to write poetry like that in Chinese, and also obscures places where you can see them playing with traditional Chinese poetic images, stereotypes, etc. It was a lot more than either adopting Western influence wholesale or even just inserting Chinese images in a borrowed framework–they basically had to invent a new written language for poetry, drawing equally from a ton of different Chinese and Western influences while also paying attention to vernacular language in a way earlier writers had not.


#16

峻又嘗為自序,其略云:
余自比馮敬通,而有同之者三,異之者四。何則?敬通雄才冠世,志剛金石;余雖不及之,而節亮慷慨。此一同也。敬通逢中興明君,而終不試用;余逢命世英主,亦擯斥當年。此二同也。敬通有忌妻,至於身操井臼;余有悍室,亦令家道轗軻。此三同也。敬通當更始世,手握兵符,躍馬肉食;余自少迄長,戚戚無歡。此一異也。敬通有子仲文,官成名立;余禍同伯道,永無血胤。此二異也。敬通膂力剛強,老而益壯;余有犬馬之疾,溘死無時。此三異也。敬通雖芝殘蕙焚,終填溝壑,而為名賢所慕,其風流郁烈芬芳,久而彌盛;余聲塵寂莫,世不吾知,魂魄一去,將同秋草。此四異也。所以力自為序,遺之好事云。

Liu Jun once composed a preface to his collected works. Here is a summary:
Were one to compare me to Feng Jingtong, one would find that there are three similarities, and four differences. What are they?

Jingtong was a heroic talent, the best in his generation, with a will of iron and stone. Although I do not quite match him, I am at least vehemently principled. This is one similarity.

Jingtong met with all the brightest gentlemen of the Han Restoration, but in the end was not chosen to serve them. I, too, encountered the exceptional and famous lords of my own time, but was dismissed from service within a year. This is the second similarity.

Jingtong had a jealous wife, and he was forced to draw water from the well and pound rice by himself. I, too, have a malicious spouse, resulting in a great disruption of my domestic life. This is the third similarity.

Jingtong, in the era of new beginnings, seized military power, galloping beyond the herd to raise his station. I have lived from youth to maturity in sorrow with no successes to celebrate. This is the first difference.

Jingtong had a son, Zhongwen, who held office and established his name. I have suffered an age of despots, and will have no way to extend my bloodline. This is the second difference.

Jingtong was strong and powerful, in old age remaining sturdy. I am plagued with pathetic illness, and am surely destined for a quick death. This is the third difference.

Although Jingtong perished, dying alone in the wilds, he was admired by worthy men of great renown. His reputation continues to spread and remains known in the present. I have lived silently, unknown even in my own age, and when my soul departs I will be no different from dry autumn grass. This is the fourth difference.

Thus I have through considerable effort drafted this preface, and left it to the curious.

[very tentative translation, this one is in a very high register but I found it kind of moving slash perhaps unintentionally hilarious. I have literally never heard of Feng Yan / aka Feng Jingtong before this, and Liu Jun is now one of the most recognizable names from the period in which he lived because of his poetry and scholarship, so go figure]


#17

this is INCREDIBLY interesting to me as I am just now starting to crack into the Big Red Book of Chinese Literature and am halfway-ish through Invisible Planets


#18

永明中,會稽鍾山有人姓蔡,不知名。山中養鼠數十頭,呼來即來,遣去便去。言語狂易,時謂之「謫仙」。不知所終。

During the Age of Eternal Brilliance (483-493 CE), on Mt. Zhong in Guiji there was a man whose family name was Cai. His given name is unknown. In the mountains he raised several dozen rats. He would call them forward and they would come forward, he would send them away and they would go away. In speech he was deranged. The people of the day called him a ‘Banished Immortal.’ No one knows what happened to him in the end.


#19

This is why I love sb. You can come here expecting everything and still be surprised by a thread about Chinese poetry. That palindrome poem is sick as fuck


#20

有一書生居吳中,皓首,自稱「胡博士」。以經傳教授諸生,假借諸書。經涉數載,忽不復見。後九月九日,士人相與登山遊觀,但聞講誦聲。命僕尋覓,有一空塚,人數步群狐羅列。見人迸走,唯有一老狐獨不去,是皓首書生,常假借者。

There was an old scholar who lived in Wu. He had white hair, and called himself “Professor Hu.” He taught classical texts and their commentaries to a few students, and borrowed a few books. After a few years, suddenly he disappeared. Later, on the ninth day of the ninth month, a few gentlemen climbed a mountain to look around. There they could just hear the sounds of talking and chanting. A servant was ordered to look around, and he found an empty tomb. He walked a few steps closer, and a group of foxes came out in a row. As soon as they saw the person, they scattered. Only one old fox didn’t leave. It was the white haired scholar, the one who often borrowed books.

(The word for fox is pronounced the same way as the scholar’s name, but written differently)
(Mountain climbing is a typical activity on the 9th day of the 9th month)
(I’m actually not sure if he was borrowing the books or lending them out. I prefer to think he borrowed books without returning them before he disappeared.)