A T'ang Canon
The Red Pine variations
By Gilbert Wesley Purdy
Poems of the Masters: China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty Verse
The first delightful surprise of Red Pine's Poems of the Masters is contained in the Translator's Acknowledgements:
The American Zen hermit, deprived of his rice bowl, must go a-begging in ironic places. With the food stamp and energy assistance programs, being underwritten by the Federal Government, and harried state governments, now burdened with funding a larger portion of the programs being abandoned by the Federal Government, even those options are being systematically eroded.
Somewhere along the way to a normal middle class life, Bill Porter was sidetracked. A bachelor's degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara led to two years of graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University. He departed graduate school, in 1972, for twenty years of wandering through the Far East. He studied for four years under a Zen Buddhist master, in Taiwan, after which he worked for English language radio stations there and in Hong Kong. He returned to the U.S. steeped in the literature of China and transformed into Red Pine. Ever since, he has been writing critically acclaimed books on various aspects of that literature and lifestyle.
These describe uniquely positive qualifications for translating the classics of T'ang Dynasty poetry. Many were the poets who abandoned their pursuit of Imperial employment, in despair, and wandered through the vast expanse of ancient China. The two most famous poets of the age - Tu Fu and Li Po - never managed to pass the Imperial civil service examinations. Both spent their lives following opportunity where it took them.
The first Classical Anthology, as Pine reminds us, in his Translator's Preface, may have been gathered together by Confucius. It is the anthology somewhat loosely translated by Ezra Pound, in the introduction to which the scholar Achilles Fang provides the outlines of the matter:
It used to be thought that [Confucius] selected the 305 pieces from a corpus of some 3000 songs gathered over the centuries - a theory now generally rejected. In all probability the anthology existed more or less in the present form even before Confucius' time.1
Regardless, for some 1500 years Confucius' anthology was the canonical text of Chinese poetry. The great T'ang Dynasty flowering of poetry was accomplished by Chinese poets steeped in a Confucian revival which included a rigorous return to the Classical Anthology. Intimate knowledge of the odes contained in it was a sign of cultural attainment and a requirement in order to pass the Imperial examinations. From the Analects of Confucius we learn some of the virtues he claimed for the anthology:
The Odes were sung to the accompaniment of a lute, often at banquets, but this was not the primary reason they came to be incorporated in the Imperial examinations. Debates within the government, and its various provinces, depended heavily upon analogies drawn from the five great Confucian books (one of which was the Odes). To be outdone in the game of duelling analogies was to lose one's point.
For these reasons, we find that the T'ang poets often drew analogies to characters, locations, flora and fauna appearing in the original odes written over a thousand years before. The red pine, for one small example, stands for longevity in poems of the T'ang as it did in the books of the Confucian canon. This symbol, and many others, would be immediately evident to the educated reader of the time. While this embrace of a strict canon is anathema to contemporary western poetry, it gave the poets of the T'ang a sense of richness and continuity, often achieved in a few short lines, that attracts readers to them still.
We also find the T'ang poets regularly referring to failure at the Imperial exams, and, especially for those who passed, to the persons and places associated with the capital city, Ch'ang-an. Court life being so uncertain, as well, with the court eunuchs, the various retainers and the Imperial family constantly intriguing, there is also constantly the theme of the parting of friends. Court officials were frequently exiled or transferred, as a result of these intrigues, to write their poetry in the distant reaches of the empire. Their companions traditionally saw them off with a poem.
For the wandering poet, bereft of Imperial credentials, nature and solitude are the more frequent themes. Again, rigorously trained in the original Classical Anthology, their poems retain a remarkably consistent tone. There are also the universal themes of poetry in the larger sense of the term: complaints to their purses, poems on hunger, cold, and an old age lived in poverty. Rarely, however, are the traditional forms or restraint set aside.
The T'ang being recognized as the Golden Age of Chinese poetry, it was a matter of course that it would come to have its own classical anthology. The first version of the Poems of the Masters, Red Pine informs the reader,
Upon the advent of printing in China,
The classical anthology of the T'ang Dynasty became the required text of primary schools. The anthology was modified in the seventeenth century, he goes on. This would seem to be the version we have before us, rather than the better known version compiled in 1763 by Sun Chu in which there are a number of longer, more complex poems.
Read as an anthology in its own right, Poems of the Masters is a collection that leaves the reader with the flavour generally associated with translations from Chinese poetry. This quality is enhanced by placing the translations and Chinese originals on the facing pages and a gloss at the bottom of each page giving biographical and historical details as well as explaining key references.
The glosses tend to draw as much attention as the poems themselves and yet they are not an imposition. A fuller understanding unfolds as the reader proceeds. The poems of Tu Fu, for example, are read together with the unfolding story of his life. Promising young man, minor court official, ardent supporter of the Imperial government in a time of turmoil and danger, aging man living in a hut provided by subscription: the poems take a sharper focus as the reader learns the fate of the poet.
The glosses are not necessarily based upon established scholarship, however. Tu Fu again provides the example. Red Pine refers, in the gloss to Tu Fu's "While Drinking at the Chuchiang Waterway", to the poet "passing the civil service exam in 752," yet it has traditionally been the consensus among scholars that Tu Fu never passed the exams and attained his minor post through the agency of influential friends and disordered times. By virtue of a simple narrative gloss it is not possible to know upon what evidence the translator diverges from the received opinion.
The Poems of the Masters are better poems, on their own merits, than such collections tend to provide: clearer, more concise. Their strengths, however, tend to mute the wistfulness that seems to have genuinely been pervasive in T'ang poetry. On the whole, the circumstantial evidence indicates that they are better translations than most.
After some one hundred years of popular translations from the T'ang poets, the non-specialist reader has some considerable number of cribs to assist her- or himself in evaluating the quality of this most recent effort. The poems, in particular, of Li Po and Tu Fu are now widely translated and with widely varying degrees of success. The following three versions of "Sitting Alone on Chingting Mountain" are provided for present purposes:
Pine's version is clearly the one that approximates the cryptic, highly compressed style of ideographic expression. Obata's far less capable effort is diffuse and wanders far afield for so short a poem. Lo's translation, on the other hand, should give the reader pause. It has more flow and it somehow seems possible that it represents a fuller “picture" of the poem.
These observations repeat themselves across a wide range of such comparisons and seem to form a recognizable pattern. The translations of Poems of the Masters, innocent of punctuation, each line end-stopped, stress the compression and the discrete value of each individual picture of an ideographic language. The value of the ideogram, however, as picture, seems not always to survive. Some of the poems seem to exhibit a restraint that goes beyond the original because the emotive aspect of the ideogram is not translated together with the literal.
Still, there are poems liberally sprinkled, throughout, in which the original is more austere or the emotive quality more accessible to Red Pine's style of translation. These are the better poems of a consistently well wrought volume. The poem "River Village", by Tu Fu, is a particularly fine poem in Pine's English:
It is one of a number of eight-line poems, in the final section of the book, which the translator has chosen to render in slightly longer lines. As a result the poems are more at their ease. The effect is particularly suited to idyllic lines such as these.
Poems of the Masters is an anthology of four and eight-line T'ang Dynasty poems. Within the limits that this description suggests, it is everything most readers will expect and more. The tendency for the 224 poems to blend together when read too quickly at a sitting is offset by the glosses that accompany each text. The tendency of some translators to purl upon the poems with their own personalities is scrupulously avoided. This anthology immediately takes its place among the best in its class.
1 Achilles Fang, introduction. The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, trans. Ezra Pound (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954) ix-x.
2 Confucius, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean, trans. James Legge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893; New York: Dover Publications, 1971) 323.
3 Li Po, The Works of Li Po The Chinese Poet, trans. Shigeyoshi Obata, 3rd pntg (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1928) 57.
4 Li Po, ”Sitting Alone on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” trans. Irving Y. Lo, Sunflower Spendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1975) 110.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004