Spectacular Meals: Kunming (昆明 kūnmíng)

一颗印 yì kēyìn Restaurant in Kunming

一颗印 yì kēyìn Restaurant in Kunming

One may not think of Kunming as a culinary hotspot, but it does have some very good restaurants. The food has a definite Sichuan influence with the liberal use of chili peppers and some Sichuan peppercorns, but it is not as spicy as mainstream Sichuan cuisine. Another wonderful thing about Kunming, and Yunnan in general, is the ethnic minority populations. The unique cuisines of these various groups have found their way into Chinese cooking to give it some interesting and delicious variations. For example, one does not think of cheese in Chinese cuisine, but it can be found in Kunming, and is probably an influence from one of the ethnic minority groups.

One night my friend and colleague Michael and I found a superb restaurant in Kunming. We were there doing research on Sichuan cuisine and the many variations to it in the surrounding areas. I think we found this restaurant on a Chinese food blog or forum. It was called, 一颗印昆明老房子 yì kēyìn kūnmíng lǎo fángzi and was in an old courtyard style house tucked away in a back alley. The house was more than a hundred years old and had an historical plaque out front. People seem to eat early in Kunming; the restaurants empty out by about 8:30 pm. We thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the courtyard on a beautiful clear day, about 70 degrees, blue skies with a few white puffy clouds. The restaurant was very crowded, as good restaurants usually are.

Eating in the courtyard.

Eating in the courtyard.

Our practice when visiting a new restaurant is to talk to the server about their speciality dishes. In other words, what are the dishes that the restaurant is known for. We also try to get a sense for the local food scene. Our server at this particular restaurant was pretty helpful. At one point she called another girl over to help answer our questions. We wanted to order local specialties and were not disappointed. We ordered six dishes.

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A spectacular meal.

A spectacular meal.

1. 瓦掌风肉 wǎzhǎng fēngròu, Pork on a curved tile

Pork on a hot curved tile.

Pork belly on a hot curved tile.

Yunnan is famous for their hams, and I suppose this dish follows in that tradition. This fatty pork had a deep, smoky flavor similar to bacon. But it was not as salty and had a more “wild” flavor than the bacon we eat here in the U.S. It was fatty and rich, and was served, and probably cooked, sizzling on a hot curved roof tile. This was a great dish, not typical of many Chinese dishes.

2. 云腿夹乳饼 yúntuǐ jiā rǔbǐng, Yunnan ham in cheese

Yunnan ham with cheese.

Yunnan ham with cheese.

This is the first time I have eaten cheese at a Chinese restaurant; I have eaten yak cheese in other parts of Yunnan and in Tibet, but that was Tibetan food, not Chinese. This was a unique dish with tender slices of salty, flavorful ham with a mellow, fresh white cheese. The cheese had the consistency of a fresh mozzarella, but a little firmer, and was quite tasty. I’m not sure how popular this dish is with the Chinese, but we really enjoyed it.

Nice texture.

Nice texture.

3. 铁板包浆豆腐 tiěbǎn bāojiāng dòufu, Tofu with fermented soybeans

Tofu with fermented soybeans

Tofu with fermented soybeans

This was a fried tofu dish served on a hot iron plate. I really don’t know what the 包浆 bāojiāng in the name of this dish refers to.  The tofu was firm and chewy on the outside and soft on the inside as a result of being fried. This dish also had a delicious sauce made with fermented and seasoned soybeans 豆豉 dòuchǐ (see this post for more on this wonderful seasoning: http://intothemiddlekingdom.com/2014/01/27/spectacular-meals-guiyang-%E8%B4%B5%E9%98%B3/). Seasoned and fermented soybeans are a wonderful mix of chewy and crunchy with an earthy, salty taste. They go well with the blandness of tofu. The tofu was served on a bed of sauteed onions. I am huge fan of tofu and 豆豉 dòuchǐ, so I really loved this dish. the flavors were complex and the tofu was cooked to perfection. I especially like tofu that is fried like this as it gives it a nice meaty texture.

Onions, fermented & seasoned soybeans, and tofu.

Onions, fermented & seasoned soybeans, and tofu.

4. 外婆菜炒鸡蛋 wàipó cài chǎo jīdàn, Grandmother’s vegetable with scrambled egg

Scrambled egg with vegetables.

Scrambled egg with vegetables.

I love eggs in any form, especially in Chinese food. The Chinese use eggs quite frequently in all the different kinds of regional cuisines. This was an excellent dish. I’m not exactly sure what the “grandmother’s vegetable” refers to in the Chinese name of this dish. This particular dish had little bits of seasoned pork, some fermented soybeans, some bell pepper, and of course scrambled egg. It may be that this is one of those dishes where you can throw in whatever vegetables you may have on hand. This dish was very flavorful, probably due to the pork and soybeans.

Chinese style scrambled eggs with pork and vegetables.

Chinese style scrambled eggs with pork and vegetables.

5. 清炒芥兰 qīngchǎo jièlán, Fresh stir-fried Chinese broccoli

Chinese broccoli or mustard greens.

Chinese broccoli or mustard greens.

This is a pretty basic dish that you can find just about anywhere in China. This particular version was cooked with garlic, dried red pepper (the Sichuan influence) and some small bits of mushroom. Nothing extraordinary, but quite good.

6. 清炒豆尖 qīngchǎo dòujiān, Fresh stir-fried bean sprouts

A type of bean sprout?

A type of bean sprout?

This was a local vegetable, which based on the name, is probably some kind of a bean sprout. Again, nothing extraordinary, but very delicious. No Chinese meal is complete without some good stir-fried greens.

This was one of those spectacular meals that I have eaten in China in the past couple years. One of the things that made it so good was the variety of the dishes and the uniqueness of the local flavors. If I were ever back in Kunming I would certainly go back to this fine restaurant.

My research companion deep in his work.

My research companion deep in his work.

 

Poetry is alive and well in China

I came across this article today about a popular poetry app in China. The article is by Wu Yiyao in Shanghai at China Daily. The story is about a WeChat (微信 wēi xìn) app called 读 诗再睡觉  (dú shǒu shī zài shuìjiào Read a poem before bed). Poetry has been an important and integral part of Chinese society for most of its history. Though poetry is no longer a part of the Chinese education system, to some people it is still important. The 40,000 subscribers to this app are evidence of that. The original story is below, along with a link to the China Daily (Europe) online version.

Here also is a link to a Chinese story about this app.

http://www.nx.xinhuanet.com/2013-10/20/c_117789507.htm

Source: China Daily (1/30/14):

http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2014-01/30/content_17265962_2.htm

Reviving the power of poetry

By Wu Yiyao

Wang Xiaoyu’s favorite bedtime routine now is to reach for her smartphone and play a poem. Every night at 10 pm, the 32-year-old sales executive in Shanghai logs on to a poetry-sharing group on the social network WeChat and listens to or reads a poem. It has become a regular pastime ever since she discovered the group, whose Chinese name literally translates to “Read a poem before you sleep”.

“At first I felt the poetry helped me relax and made me calm, but I gradually discovered that joining the group also let me connect with people who share the same passion,” Wang says. Like many of the 40,000 subscribers of the account, Wang used to write poems when she was in college, but gave it up after she started working. Having a family and raising a child left her little time or energy to get creative.

“Read a poem” was initiated by Fan Zhi-xing in March 2013. He had intended to make it a romantic way to express and connect, by reading a poem “to the one you care and love for”, in this age where relationships are both advantaged and disadvantaged by virtual connections. He started the ball rolling with a Chinese translation of Crossing the Bar by English poet Alfred Tennyson.

More and more found out about the poetry account and started to join the discussions, and shared poems. By early 2014, group members had already shared more than 300 poems of a wide range of genres. Subscribers soon grew beyond Fan’s personal network, and volunteers joined an editing team to select works to be sent out through the account. An introduction posted on the poetry-sharing group tells newcomers that “poems will not erase the wrinkles on your face, but they will keep your heart young”.

“It all started from a private emotional need, but it so happened that it also answered the inner callings of many others,” Fan says. A poet himself, Fan says he believes poetry is not distanced from the fast pace of modern life. Not so long ago, poetry societies flourished in China’s universities and high schools, and even with the far-reaching influence of the Internet, a poet at that time would still find a large and appreciative following through books, magazines or even hand-written copies.

“Those were times when people were zealous about poems and poets, which I reckon may not necessarily be healthy. But these days, there is a noticeable gap between how people feel and their ability to express their feelings.”Emotions are often suppressed in today’s world for many reasons, Fan says. It could be due to a lack of time, a neglect of personal feelings, and sometimes, a systemic failure to encourage expression.

His poetry-sharing group has gradually shifted focus from just individual expression to a broader mission – to close the gap between emotions to be expressed and paying attention to and understanding these emotions. “Poetry appreciation is unlikely to be adopted in our education system, and it is not necessary for it to be. Since we have the Internet, we can promote it outside the schooling system, through mobile devices,” Fan says.

An increasing number of volunteers who join the editing team add diversity to the poems introduced to subscribers, who may find themselves listening to a wide range of poetry ranging from Batso Basho’s haiku to Chinese rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) love songs to the works of the English Lake poets.

Some poems, often recommended by “a friend of a friend”, may also make their debut on the poetry cluster. One contributor of original poems is Yu Xinqiao, whose work If I Die, I Must Die in Your Hands was recently adapted into lyrics for a song which became popular after being promoted on a television program on songwriters. Like Yu, many contributors are keen poets who are not shy about expressing their strongest feeling or most delicate emotional nuances. Some poets may be more reticent about seeking fame, but for the editors of the poetry group, they feel it their duty to share interesting works with their subscribers.

In the age of we-media, there are now more channels to share their works with others, even total strangers. Read a Poem can expand the reach of these interesting poems to a wider audience, Fan says. “Mainstream, scholarly monographs or periodicals may not spare space for these new poets, but they deserve to be more widely known. They are the current voices of this age,” Fan says.

Spectacular Meals: Guiyang (贵阳 guìyáng)

The name of the restaurant was simply 四合院 sì hé yuàn; this is what traditional courtyard houses were called in China.

The name of the restaurant was simply 四合院 sì hé yuàn; this is what traditional courtyard houses were called in China.

April, 2013 my side kick Michael and I were in Guiyang for a few days to check out the cuisine. We weren’t expecting much, especially when we arrived at the bus station outside town. It was pretty gritty and teaming with peasants and workers. Guizhou is China’s poorest province. We boarded a local bus that brought us downtown. From there we walked to our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at what we found in Guiyang. We ate well. There was a definite influence from Sichuan cuisine with spicy chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, and fermented soy beans. One night we had a spectacular meal. We read about it on a Chinese foodie blog. It wasn’t easy to find tucked away down an unmarked alley.

The restaurant was at the back of this alley where the red lanterns are hanging.

The restaurant was at the back of this alley and on the right, where the red lanterns are hanging.

We were excited when we arrived as the place was packed, with lots of people waiting outside in the courtyard. It was loud, crowded, dirty, chaotic. Perfect. All the ingredients for a good meal in China.

People waiting outside in the courtyard.

People waiting outside in the courtyard.

Inside the restaurant. Loud, crowded and trash all over the floor.

Inside the restaurant. Loud, crowded and trash all over the floor.

The kitchen spilled over into the dining room.

The kitchen spilled over into the dining room.

We decided on five dishes. We typically talk to the server and ask what the restaurant is famous for, what are the best dishes. We wanted to get some popular local dishes, dishes that were typical of Guiyang. We were not disappointed with her recommendations. This is what we ate.

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1. 蒜泥笋尖 suànní sǔnjiān (mashed garlic bamboo shoots)

A local vegetable with garlic; maybe it was a type of bamboo based on the name of the dish, but it didn't seem like it.

A local vegetable with garlic

We were a little perplexed by the name of this dish. It certainly didn’t look or taste like bamboo shoots. The waitress told us it was a local, popularly eaten vegetable. It was  prepared very simply, stir-fried with garlic and was crunchy, buttery, and delicious.

Crunchy, buttery, and delicious.

Crunchy, buttery, and delicious.

2. 玉排三线 yùpái sānxiàn (?)

Eggplant with green chilis

Tofu with green chilis

The name of this dish tells us nothing about what it is. Literally it is something like “jade rows, three strings.” It probably has something to do with the symmetric tofu glistening like jade. The three strings refers to the slender cut chili peppers. This was a pretty good dish. The sliced tofu was stir-fried with fatty pork, green chili peppers, red bell pepper, a little tomato, and some ginger. The sauce was rich and complex. The crunchy vegetables provided a nice counterbalance to the smooth, silky tofu. One of the many wonderful things about tofu is that is readily absorbs the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. Tofu is eaten all over China and I like to see all the different ways it is prepared in different regions of China.

Silky tofu.

Silky tofu.

3. 火焰牛肉 huǒyàn niǔròu (Flame cooked beef)

Tender beef and vegetables served over a flame.

Tender beef and vegetables served over a flame.

As you can see from the photo this dish was served on a metal grating over a plate. A flame was placed under the grate to continue the cooking and to keep it warm at the table. The beef was very tender—you could cut it with a fork, if you had one. It was cooked with garlic, ginger, purple onion, green pepper, green chili, red bell pepper, all on top of a base of the green tops of scallions. Ground Sichuan pepper corn was sprinkled over the top. This dish was excellent. I’m not a big beef eater, but his was very tender and fresh. The vegetables provided a good balance of spicy and mild flavors.

Very tender beef.

Very tender beef.

One more shot of this excellent dish.

One more shot of this excellent dish.

4. 回锅肉 huí guō ròu (Twice cooked pork)

Twice cooked pork; or more literally, "back to the pot pork."

Twice cooked pork; or more literally, “back to the pot pork.”

There is nothing really special about this dish. It is one of those ubiquitous dishes in China that can be found just about anywhere. It probably comes from Sichuan Province somewhere, but it is one of those dishes that has become Chinese comfort food and everyone has their own version of it, just like Mapo Tofu, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and so on. The dish is made with fatty pork belly that is simmered in water with various seasonings. It is then cooled, sliced thin, and thrown into the wok to cook with the vegetables. We sometimes like to order these very common dishes to see how it differs in different regions of China. This was a pretty good version of this popular dish.

Cooked with lots of sliced scallion and a little minced chili pepper.

Cooked with lots of sliced scallion and a little minced chili pepper.

5. 农家茄子 nóngjiā qiézi (Peasant family eggplant)

Peasant family eggplant.

Peasant family eggplant.

I saved the best dish for last. This was truly an extraordinary dish. The thing that made this dish so good, and unique to this part of China, were the fermented and seasoned soy beans (豆豉 dòuchǐ) that you can see smothering the eggplant. Earlier on this trip when we were in a rural part of Sichuan Province we were in a small village where they were selling numerous variations of these seasoned and fermented soy beans. Some versions had beef and others just had chili peppers and who knows what other delectable seasonings.

Vendor selling fermented and seasoned soy beans.

Vendor selling fermented and seasoned soy beans.

This one is a "fresh, spicy" version.

This one is a “fresh, spicy” version.

This dish was prepared by taking a long eggplant and cutting it lengthwise, then cutting it crosswise and deep frying it. The eggplant ended up in chunky sticks, like big french fries. The soy beans were then mixed with minced pork, dried chili, and a little green chili. The soy beans have a wonderful chewy texture with the occasional crunch for those that got cooked a bit too much in the wok. They are at once salty and spicy and full of rich, dark, earthy flavor (not at all like soy sauce). Eggplant, like tofu readily absorbs the flavors of what it is cooked with. This dish was a revelation and I just couldn’t get over how delicious the soy beans were. It was by far our favorite dish at this meal. Fermented and seasoned soy beans are very popular throughout Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces. Each region within these areas have their own versions. It is truly a wonderful ingredient. I would love to find some here in the States.

Just the sight of this dish is driving me mad (with hunger).

Just the sight of this dish is driving me mad (with hunger).

One last shot of this extraordinary dish.

One last shot of this extraordinary dish.

We walked out of this tucked away restaurant marveling at how good the meal was. We couldn’t believe that Guiyang, the capital of Chinese poorest province (Guizhou) would have such fantastic food. Though the other meals we had in Giuyang were not quite this good, they were impressive. We ate well for the three days we were there. The other highlights were some really good bowls of noodles.

Michael enjoying the meal.

Michael enjoying the meal.

Good meals make me happy!

Good meals make me happy!

Spectacular Meals: Chengdu (成都 chéngdū)

Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant in Chengdu.

Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant in Chengdu.

Chengdu is a wonderful city for eating. It is one of the great culinary centers of China and the heart of Sichuan cuisine (川菜 chuāncài). Sichuan cuisine is mostly known in the West as the spicy food of China. It is true that there is some truly spicy food here, but it’s not all about chili peppers. There are quite a few dishes that have no heat at all. But the most famous dishes tend to be pretty spicy.

In April my friend and colleague and I spent a week in Chengdu doing research on Sichuan cuisine. The research was rigorous and demanding requiring us to eat as many Sichuan dishes as we could in the short time that we had. Our first evening in Chengdu we went to the restaurant 陳麻婆豆腐 chén mápó dòufu (Chen’s Mapo Tofu). This restaurant has been around since 1862 and claims to be the originator of the famous Sichuan dish, Mapo Doufu, a spicy tofu dish. We had read about this restaurant and wanted to give it a try. We are both quite fond of Mapo Doufu and I have eaten it all over China, but never at its source.

Inside the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant.

We had a very memorable meal. All five dishes that we ordered that night were excellent and I still think of that spectacular meal.

An exquisite dinner.

An exquisite dinner.

Below I describe each of the five dishes that we ordered.

1. Mapo Doufu 麻婆豆腐 mápó dòufu

Mapo Doufu

Mapo Doufu

What made this Mapo Doufu different from all others I have had was the Sichuan pepper or 花椒 huājiāo. This is sometimes translated as prickly ash. It isn’t a true pepper. It is a seed that grows on a bush. The husk is dried, ground, and added to dishes. It produces a numbing heat that the Chinese call 麻辣 málà literally meaning “numb-spicy.” It really does numb your lips, tongue, and mouth. It is a very pleasant sensation, though many Westerners don’t like it. This particular dish had a great deal of Sichuan pepper mixed into the dish, as well as quite a bit of freshly ground Sichuan pepper sprinkled on top. It was very numbing. The dish also had just a bit of ground beef to give it a fuller flavor and it was swimming in hot red chili oil. It was quite salty and as I mentioned very spicy, both in the traditional sense and the numbing sense.

You can see the freshly ground Sichuan pepper.

You can see the freshly ground Sichuan pepper.

2. Smoked Ribs 烟熏骨 yānxūn gǔ

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This was a dish that was not spicy at all. These pork ribs were smokey and meaty,  seasoned with black pepper and maybe just a hint of ginger. The meat was very tender, literally falling off the bone. And the flavor was deep and rich. We really enjoyed this dish, and it was so different than your typical Chinese dish. We could have eaten two more plates of this delicious dish. This is the kind of dish that you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about.

A true revelation of Chinese cuisine.

A true revelation of Chinese cuisine.

3. Dry-pot Chicken 干锅鸡 gānguō jī

Sichuan-style fried chicken.

Sichuan-style fried chicken.

This dish was spectacular. From the first bite we were transported to some culinary place we had never imagined. These small pieces of bone-in chicken are deep fried, then cooked in a dry iron pot with the other ingredients. This dish contained whole cloves of garlic, baby bamboo shoots, scallion, lots of dried red chilis, and Sichuan pepper. This chicken had so much flavor—fiery, salty, crispy. It was truly remarkable. This was another dish that we felt like we could eat very night. We had never had fried chicken like this before.

A truly exceptional dish.

A truly exceptional dish.

4. Bean-garlic Fish 豆辫鱼 dòubiàn yǔ

A type of sweet and spicy fish.

A type of sweet and spicy fish.

I’m not really sure how to translate this dish, but who cares, it was delicious. The Chinese typically serve fish whole, that is with the head and tail intact. And why not, the tastiest, most tender part of the meat on a fish is right behind the gills. This fish was steamed then smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce with chili pepper and scallions. It was not that spicy and there was that nice sweet contrast to the chilis. The fish was very tender and the mellow flavor of the fish was nicely enhanced with the rich flavorful sauce. I like fish and I really liked this dish. It was exceptional.

An exceptional steamed fish.

An exceptional steamed fish.

5. Shredded chicken with cold noodles 鸡丝凉粉 jīsī liángfěn

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There are quite a few cold dishes served in Sichuan cuisine and this was a good one. 凉粉 liángfěn are a bean noodle typically served cold. They are thick and chewy with a light delicate flavor. This dish was seasoned with chili oil, sesame seeds, scallions, and a little minced garlic. On top was shredded chicken just lightly salted. The coolness of the dish was a nice contrast to the other hot dishes. Noodles are pretty important in Sichuan cuisine and there are noodle shops all over Chengdu. Noodles are a traditional fast food in China and in Sichuan they take their noodles pretty seriously.

As we finished this meal (and no we could not finish it all) we were reeling, intoxicated with the rich flavors of these dishes. Our mouths glowed from the heat of chili peppers and Sichuan pepper. Outside it was a cool evening, drizzling softly and this was just the beginning of a memorable few weeks eating in Western China.

Satisfied.

Satisfied.

 

More on Chinese Poetry (or which translations should I read?)

It was Ezra Pound who really brought Chinese poetry to the Western world. Whether his translations are any good or not has been debated. Some say he was a brilliant poet, but a lousy translator. Regardless,  we do owe it to him for bringing this rich and important poetic tradition to our attention. T.S. Eliot said, “Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound.”

There are volumes and volumes of Chinese poetry that has been translated into English, most of it from the Tang and Song Dynasties. Translations range from literal to free. That is a literal translation that stays as true to the original as possible and tries as much as possible to retain the form and content of the original poem. On the other hand, you have free translations that focus on capturing the feeling or mood of a poem with less concern on accounting for every word in the original. When translating Chinese poetry, the first thing you lose is form and rhyme. It is also very difficult to translate the literary and historical allusions without copious endnotes.

I also argue that when you translate a poem you end up with a new poem, the product of the translator. In other words, a Burton Watson translation is very different from a David Hinton translation. I would even go so far as saying that reading poetry in translation is reading the poetry of the translator. In Keats’ famous poem, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” he talks about how Chapman’s translation of Homer moved him. He had read other translations of Homer, but it was Chapman’s translation that really affected him; not Homer, but Chapman’s Homer. Thus, when we read a particular translation we are reading that translators version of the poems. Over many years, I have read many translations of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (Tu Fu), considered to be one of the greatest of all Chinese poets. His poetry was good, but never really resonated with me. Then in 2009 I bought a new translation of his poems called, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry translated by the American poet, David Young.

du fu book

I had read some of Young’s original poetry and liked it quite a bit so I was interested in his take on Chinese poetry. The book is arranged chronologically following Du Fu’s life. I began reading and could hardly put it down. It read like a biography but in verse. It was fabulous and I couldn’t believe this was Du Fu. For me, David Young’s translations of Du Fu moved me like no other translations I had read before.

With all the translations of classical Chinese poetry out there, what should you read? What do I recommend? Keep in mind that my recommendations are subjective. Some of my colleagues will not agree with me, especially since I am not a specialist in Chinese poetry. I do teach a Chinese poetry in translation course, but that is not my specialty (though I did take several graduate seminars in Chinese poetry). My current favorite poet is David Hinton, a full-time translator of Chinese poetry. He has published a large anthology of Chinese poetry as well as individual collections of the more well-known Chinese poets. I like his anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology.

Hinton book

I find his translations fresh and accessible. He strikes a nice balance between staying true to the original but creating a fine poem that reads well in English. Two other  anthologies that I like include: The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3,000 Year Tradition, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping and The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, translated and edited by J. P. Seaton. Barnstone is a poet and translator and Seaton is an academic (professor of Chinese). If you want something more poetic and perhaps less true to the originals, I recommend, The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, edited by Eliot Weinberger. This volume includes translations by famous American poets, like William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton. This will give you a feel for some of the first translations of Chinese poetry in the West.

seaton book

penguin poetryI also want to mention the translator Red Pine. This is the pen name of Bill Porter who has spent his life translating Chinese poetry and Buddhist classics. One thing I really like about his translations is that he always includes the original Chinese and does an excellent job of contextualizing the poems providing background information about the poets, the historical context, and the situation in which the poet wrote the poem. I like this kind of contextualization. He is one of the few translators who has translated all the known poems of the Tang Dynasty poet known as Cold Mountain. Perhaps his other most important work of Chinese poetry is his translation of  Poems of the Masters (千家詩 qiān jiā shī). This is an important anthology first published at the end of the Song Dynasty.

Red Pine book

Finally, if you are really into Chinese poetry and know some Chinese I recommend How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology edited by Zong-Qi Cai. This book provides the original Chinese, pinyin, and an English translation, as well as exhaustive explanations and commentary on the form of the poem, the literary and historical allusions, etc. It is rather dense and not for casual reading, but well researched and written. Two other important anthologies that should be mentioned are Burton Watson’s The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry and Liu and Lo’s Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (translated by many different translators). These two are a bit older and in my opinion not as fresh or as interesting as the translations I mentioned above, but worth looking at. Of course, most anyone translating Chinese poetry today owes a debt to Watson for his groundbreaking translations.

Of course there are many other anthologies that are worth reading, but to me these are the highlights.

A Remarkable Kung Fu Story

Ancestors Temple (祖廟 zǔmiào) in Foshan, Guangdong Province

Ancestors Temple (祖廟 zǔmiào) in Foshan, Guangdong Province

In February of this year I spent a couple weeks in the Guanzhou area of southern China. While I was there I had the good fortune of meeting the parents of one of my colleagues. They were gracious enough to show me around, invite me to meals, and so on. Since they were both retired, they had time on their hands. One day we traveled together to the nearby city of Foshan. I was doing some research on various topics related to Chinese popular culture and wanted to visit the Buddhist temple at Foshan as it is a famous place for Chinese martial arts. This is where the famous martial artist Wong Fei-hung came from . It is also the birthplace of the other famous martial artist, Yip Man.

Ancestors Temple buildings

Ancestors Temple buildings

We spent a couple hours wandering around the beautiful monastery enjoying the gardens and the various buildings.

Lots of flowers at the temple

Lots of flowers at the temple

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

Lotus; an important symbol in Buddhism

Lotus; an important symbol in Buddhism

There was also an outdoor martial arts show that we watched as well. It was pretty touristy but the many Chinese tourists seemed to enjoy it.

Martial artist doing a lion dance

Martial artists doing a lion dance

In one hall of the monastery there was a museum dedicated to Wong Fei-hung (huáng fēi hóng 黃飛鴻). Most of the space was dedicated to talking about all the movies that have been made about his life (more than 100). It was a pretty interesting exhibit. It is interesting how legends are born and propagated.

Statue of Wong Fei-hung

Statue of Wong Fei-hung

The Wong Fei-hung museum

The Wong Fei-hung museum

Painting of Wong Fei-hung

Painting of Wong Fei-hung

Kung Fu studio

Kung Fu studio

Kung Fu weapons

Kung Fu weapons

While we were in the exhibit talking about the importance of martial arts in Chinese culture, I remembered an event that happened many years ago, which I shared with my friends. This is the story.

Shortly after I was hired at BYU to teach Chinese I was contacted by a martial arts instructor, the late Ron Heimburger, about some translation work. He was a Wing Chun Kung-fu (詠春功夫 yǒng chūn gōngfū) master who had been trained in Hong Kong. Many of the names of the various kung fu moves were in Cantonese and he needed some help translating the terms. It sounded pretty interesting so I agreed. We met a couple times and I helped him translate some terms. He was a very nice guy and I enjoyed chatting with him. About a year later he contacted me again with another offer. A Wing Chun Kung-fu Grandmaster (the person he was trained by) was coming to Utah to conduct a kung-fu camp. He did not speak any English and they needed someone to come to the camp to interpret for him. This Grandmaster was Yip Ching (葉正 yè zhèng), son of the famous martial artist Yip Man (葉文 yè wén). I had no idea at the time who any of these guys were. Again, it sounded interesting, so I once again agreed to help out. This was in 1997.

The camp was held at a ranch in the hills outside Fairview, Utah. This is a rural farming community about 120 miles south of Salt Lake City. I spent two days at this kung-fu camp interpreting for Yip Ching. He was a nice old man and I enjoyed hanging out with him. The highlight for most of the participants, which consisted of about 100 Wing Chun martial artists from around Utah, was when we all gathered one evening in the lodge and Yip Ching told the story of his kung-fu lineage. This is pretty important to marital artists. He explained who trained him, and who trained him, etc. all the way back to the famed Shaolin Temple where Chinese martial arts originated hundreds of years ago. It was an interesting story. It was also interesting to see how enamored these kung-fu students were to actually be in his presence. One guy whispered to his friend, “he touched my arm!”

He was trained by his father, Yip Man, in Foshan, in Guangdong Province. His father was also the kung-fu master for the famous Bruce Lee. Yip Ching and Bruce Lee were trained together at the same time by his father. I once asked him about Bruce Lee, and he replied that he was a mediocre martial artist, and was more into show than anything else. Yip Ching and I got to know each other fairly well during those three days, and before I left he gave me his card and told me that if I was ever in Hong Kong, to look him up.

One year later I was passing through Hong Kong after spending a couple months in Mainland China directing a study abroad program. I gave him a call. He invited me over to his house for tea. It was a typical, small, modest flat in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon. I met his wife and we chatted for awhile. We then walked over to his kung-fu studio that was nearby and he gave me a tour of the place. It was nice seeing him again.

I told this story to my friends and they were totally blown away. They couldn’t believe that I actually had met and knew Yip Ching,  son of the famous Yip Man. They went around telling strangers in the museum that I was Yip Ching’s interpreter. I thought that was pretty funny.

Now back to my visit to Foshan. As we were leaving I noticed another hall that we had not visited, and I noticed that it said Yip Man Hall.

The Yip Man Museum

The Yip Man Museum

We went over and it was a new museum all about Yip Man. It was even more interesting than the Wong Fei-hung museum. There were lots of artifacts, photos, and stories about his life.

Photograph of Yip Man

Photograph of Yip Man

Photo of Yip Man with his two sons, Yip Ching and Yip Chun

Photo of Yip Man with his two sons, Yip Ching and Yip Chun

Photos of Yip Man in action

Photos of Yip Man in action

The wooden dummy used to practice Wing Chun kung fu

The wooden dummy used to practice Wing Chun kung fu

Then we entered one room that was dedicated to how Wing Chun kung-fu has spread around the world. It showed photos of Yip Ching holding kung-fu camps around the world and training all kinds of foreigners in Wing Chun kung-fu. Then, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was the story about the Utah camp, and there was a photo of the camp’s participants, and there I was in the photo. Granted the photo was too small and grainy to really make out the faces too well.

Photo of the Utah camp. I am second to right of Yip Ching with shadow across my face.

Photo of the Utah camp. I am second to the right of Yip Ching with shadow across my face.

If my friends were impressed before, now they could hardly contain themselves. I was very amused by all this and thought, what are the chances of this happening. It was pretty incredible. Needless to say, they were very impressed and practically treated me like a celebrity.

So that’s my kung-fu story. I have another one too, about a visit to the Shaolin Monastery in China, but I’ll save that for another post.

Here are a few more photos from the Ancestors Temple.

One of many halls

One of many halls

Ponds are common features at Buddhist temples and monasteries

Ponds are common features at Buddhist temples and monasteries

Worshippers burning incense

Worshippers burning incense

Retired women playing Mahjong

Retired women playing Mahjong

Chinese Poetry & a Visit to Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage

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In the West we have Greek philosophy, Roman law, Renaissance art, and Italian opera. In China poetry is the most striking cultural element of Chinese civilization.

Poetry was one of the earliest forms of written expression in China, with the Shijing 诗经 shījīng or The Book of Songs dating back to the 7th Century BC. It became the highest form of creative expression throughout Chinese civilization and was promoted by the government and pursued as a vehicle for personal pleasure and communication.  For most of China’s history, poetry was an integral part of daily life for the educated class. In the Tang Dynasty (618-908) alone more poetry was composed than in all the rest of the world combined until the 18th Century. One anthology, the Complete Tang Poems (全唐诗 quán táng shī), which is considered incomplete, contains 48,900 poems by 2,200 poets. People in the Chinese speaking world today still read and compose classical poems in the styles developed during the Tang Dynasty.

杜甫草堂 Dù Fǔ cǎo táng Du Fu Thatched Cottage

杜甫草堂 Dù Fǔ cǎo táng
Du Fu Thatched Cottage

When I visited Chengdu earlier this year, one of the first places I wanted to visit was the  thatched hut of perhaps China’s most famous poet, Du Fu. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the carnival-like atmosphere at this very popular cultural site. It was swarming with Chinese tourists and was a reaffirmation to me of the importance of poetry in Chinese culture, history, and civilization. Not only does the site pay homage to Du Fu, but it also celebrates all of Chinese poetry and the great poets throughout history.

Statue of Du Fu

Statue of Du Fu

Du Fu (712-770, sometimes written Tu Fu) was a scholar-official during the Tang Dynasty. His career varied from government official to full-time poet at various times during his life. Du Fu was an innovator in language and structure and wrote about public and private life. His poems are accessible, intimate at times, and offer a glimpse into life in China during this period. He spent about five years in Sichuan Province where he built a comfortable thatched cottage on the outskirts of Chengdu. He wrote prolifically during this period, and though he suffered financial hardship during this time, it was a kind of hermitage for him and it was a happy and peaceful time. The Du Fu Thatched Cottage attraction is now in the center of Chengdu. Archeological excavations done on the site have unearthed buildings and pavilions that fit the time period when Du Fu lived there and are very similar to structures he describes in his poems.

The whole complex is in a beautiful park with bamboo groves, flowers, trees, and ponds. At the entrance to the park is a long paved “walkway of the stars.” This consists of a timeline of Chinese poetry with each poet having a star on the pavement. Statues of the major poets line the pathway as well.

The long pathway of the star Chinese poets

The long pathway of the star Chinese poets

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Li Bai's star

Li Bai’s star

Su Shi of the Northern Song Dynasty

Su Shi of the Northern Song Dynasty

Balloon vendor along the Chinese stars path

Balloon vendor along the Chinese stars path

The Tang poet Bai Juyi

The Tang poet Bai Juyi

The Tang poet, Han Yu

The Tang poet, Han Yu

Du Fu and Li Bai with Qu Yuan in the background

Du Fu and Li Bai with Qu Yuan in the background

This gentleman was practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk using water for ink. He was writing poetry of course.

This gentleman was practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk using water for ink. He was writing poetry of course.

Ponds with fish to feed for the children

Ponds with fish to feed for the children

One of many pavillions

One of many pavilions

Pond and walkway

Pond and walkway

The complex also had several buildings with statues, paintings, calligraphy, and some excavation sites.

The Tang Dynasty Poet, Wang Wei, one of my personal favorites

The Tang Dynasty Poet, Wang Wei, one of my personal favorites

Tao Yuanming (365-427)

Tao Yuanming (365-427)

The actual Thatched Cottage was a replication of course. But it was interesting nonetheless.

Replication of Du Fu's Thatched Cottage

Replication of Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage

And a few shots of what it probably looked like on the inside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was an enjoyable few hours we spent at this park. It was  refreshing that the Chinese still care about their heritage and that poetry is still an important part of their past, and hopefully their future.