A maid comes running into the house
talking about things beyond belief,
about the sky all turned to blue glass,
the moon to a crystal of black quartz.
It rose a full ten parts round tonight,
but now it’s just a bare sliver of light.
My wife hurries off to fry roundcakes,
and my son starts banging on mirrors:
it’s awfully shallow thinking, I know,
but that urge to restore is beautiful.
The night deepens. The moon emerges,
then goes on shepherding stars west.
—Mei Yaochen, translated by David Hinton
Although it should probably be obvious to any visitor to this website that I have a passion for English literature, as a student of the Chinese language I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese literature as well. For my life-changing experiences with Chinese, I owe a great deal to Dr. Stephen Field, head of the Trinity University Chinese department, whose enthusiasm was contagious and whose challenging Classical Chinese courses gave me the tools to begin exploring my interest in Chinese literature. Over the years I’ve been too caught up in life’s other demands to pursue it the way I would have liked (sorry, Dr. Field!), but a few months ago a project for my company gave me an opportunity to reconnect with the vast, rich world of Chinese literature and philosophy. While browsing through David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, I discovered a poet who, though he lived a thousand years ago in a place and culture far removed from our own, sounds as fresh, vital, and relevant as the best writers of today—and for me personally seems a kindred spirit: Mei Yaochen* (梅堯臣). As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so eloquently in “The American Scholar,”
It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,—with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said.
To adapt a popular expression, Chinese literature has such a long and fertile history that it has probably forgotten more of its own genres, styles, and movements than most literary traditions have ever produced, so it should come as no surprise, really, that some of its ancient poets had sensibilities similar to our own. But even for someone who knows that, it’s thrilling to discover a writer as seemingly modern and “close to my own soul” as Mei Yaochen. So I’d like to discuss a few characteristics of his poetry that I find so remarkable, in the hope that someone else out there may also find his poetry (and Hinton’s work) to be an exciting discovery.
Adventurousness: The wide range of the tone and subject matter of his poetry means that every poem contains surprises. From intense tragedy to humor, and from the personal to the philosophical, he covers a vast territory of emotions and ideas. For him, no topic is too painful, unusual, or ordinary to explore, and he always finds something striking to say. Here are a few examples:
- On the death of his wife: “I hide my tears, not wanting them to see,/push the lamp away and lie facing the wall,/a hundred sorrows clotting heart and lung”
- On a rat infestation of his home: “Suddenly my silly boy/starts meowing like a cat! Goofy plan, eh?”
- On going blind: “No telling what’s what in this confusion,/I’m suddenly free of likes and dislikes.”
- On the sounds of autumn: “the ear hears, but mind is itself silent./Who’s left now all thought’s forgotten?”
Unconventionality: In reading his poems, I’m often reminded of the Taoist texts that I devoured while double-majoring in Mandarin and philosophy. In particular, his readiness to discuss “inappropriate” topics and turn society’s conventional wisdom on its head is immediately reminiscent of Zhuangzi** (莊子), my favorite Chinese philosopher, who reveled in paradox and absurdity. Against the backdrop of a poetic tradition largely concerned with the beautiful and sublime, Mei wrote a poem about lice, of all things, in which he actually describes them in humorously pleasant terms: “who can find them, so nicely hidden,/dining on blood all cozy and snug?” In criticizing the attitude of the elite of his society, who ate a diet far richer than that of the common people, he challenges us with the paradoxical assertion that “Dining on juicy lamb and red-tailed fish, fine/fragrant meats—that, that’s what poverty is.” In my so far still limited experience of his poetry, it seems that he had no “sacred cows”; no entrenched tradition, unexamined attitude, or powerful entity was safe from his pointed and sometimes irreverent commentary.
Compassion: Perhaps in part because of his own painful experiences, Mei writes with great sensitivity about the suffering of the common people and of animals alike:
- On peasants forced by desperation to gather weeds in the snow: “Hands so raw they can’t feed themselves, they/live in hunger, and you’re ashamed to eat it?”
- On an injured goose he observes: “what will it do when evening rains come/and the cold wind starts ripping through?”
Political commentary: Although my aesthetic taste is generally directed toward the universal rather than the highly specific, many of my favorite writers and musicians (like Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper) feel a responsibility to speak out about what they see as society’s ills. Mei Yaochen was obviously moved to do so as well, and his political commentary touches on themes that continue to be relevant:
- In “A Little Village,” he attacks the practice of taxing people who live in terrible poverty: “O, this is how they live. It’s fantasy/listing them in tax books alongside some emperor’s people.”
- In “The Boat-Pullers,” he compares the stoic misery of injured geese to the suffering of commoners conscripted into the army: “That’s their life exactly. Guess it’s better/than lugging weapons around some war.”
Sense of wonder: Perhaps most importantly, Mei’s poetry reflects a deliberate appreciation of the beauty inherent in everyday things and experiences. It’s not original to observe that modern life makes us jaded, but it’s an observation worth repeating and then repeating again. Our constant access to entertainments and pleasures that would have been utterly extraordinary to people of any previous generation causes us to take them for granted. It dulls our senses and imagination and makes us insensitive to the billion wonders of the ordinary world around us; with our every whim so easy to gratify, why bother with anything that doesn’t immediately please or fascinate us? Though it sometimes takes effort and patience, I’ve always tried to cultivate a sensitivity to the charms of commonplace things, an openness to finding beauty in unexpected places, so I have a special appreciation for artists of any sort who take that same approach to life. When he describes the inviting, tranquil beauty of the East River, I feel like I’m right there with him:
Wild ducks, thoughts idle, sleep along the bank,
and in ancient trees, every limb is blossoming.
Pebble shorelines perfectly smooth, sieve-pure,
reed thickets bloom short and scissor-smooth.
So much to feel, but I can’t stay.
As for Hinton’s book itself, not only do I highly recommend it; I urge you to get it now in case it goes out of print. (New copies of the out-of-print hardcover edition are already going for at least $75 and as much as $157 on Amazon.) Though the subject matter, ideas, and attitudes of the poems in the book, as well as many of their stylistic characteristics, are the work of the original poets, there’s no doubt that their clarity, power, beauty, and freshness in English owe a great deal to Hinton’s translations. Acclaimed Chinese writer Bei Dao (Zhao Zhenkai) has given Hinton’s translations just about the highest praise possible: “Given the magnitude of his ability and his overall project, Hinton is creating nothing less than a new literary tradition in English, an event of truly major importance not only to English literature but also to the literature of my own language. I cannot recommend the value of his work too highly.” In addition, Hinton provides incisive historical and critical context for each included poet and literary era, and this information makes the significance of the poems even clearer for the layperson.
I hope you enjoy Mei Yaochen’s poems and Hinton’s translations as much as I have enjoyed them. Feel free to let me know what you think.
Future Camilla: Check your vault for something special related to this post.
* Though Hinton uses the Wade-Giles Romanization “Mei Yao-ch’en,” I prefer to use the pinyin standard, which is in much wider use today.
** Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tsu, etc.