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.

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.

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.