“In the way of the pioneer translators of Chinese poetry during the past century—of Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, Willis Barnstone—David Hinton has heard and lured into English a new manner of hearing the great poets of that long glory of China’s classical age. His achievement is another echo of the original, and a gift to our language.” —W. S. Merwin
“Hinton has established himself as the premier Chinese translator of our generation . . . He is a national treasure.” —William Mullen, The New York Sun
“I don’t know if [Hinton’s Selected Poems of Po Chü-i] is superior to the original or not, but it’s superior to anything I’ve ever seen in Chinese, and about the same for English.” —A. R. Ammons
“Hinton’s music is subtle, modulated . . . He has listened to the individual tone of each poet, and his craft is equal to his perception . . . He continues to enlarge our literary horizon.” —Rosemary Waldrop, citation for the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award
“[The Late Poems of Meng Chiao] affords us what is all too rare in Chinese translations: the sustained, recognizable resonance of a single voice at a single moment . . . This is a real contribution to the small body of genuine poetic translation.” —Richard Howard
“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.”— Bei Dao
In the mid-'60s, thinking of his childhood mill town, Ohioan James Wright penned "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry Ohio," arguably one of the great American poems of the last century. Football season kicks off in a working-class midwestern town, where fathers are "ashamed to go home" and "sons gallop terribly against one another's bodies." The 12-line poem's directness seems as quintessentially American as a painting of silos. But if Wright's version of American modernism seems to sprout from soil of the heartland, its images come from over the horizon. The title "Autumn Begins in..." doffs its hat to the Chinese poetry Wright had been reading and translating for years. Later Wright would write more deliberate evocations -- poems directly indebted to Chinese masters Du Fu and Wang Wei, or works with titles like "In the Manner of the Old Chinese Poems."
Wright was in good company. It's true that Chinese mandarins never wrote about football -- they were more enraptured with pheasants crying, dry thistles, full moons, or secluded mountain huts where they bemoaned their empty wine bottles. But classical Chinese verse, the world's oldest and longest continuous poetic tradition, has been a central part of what has made this century's American poetry sound quintessentially American. After Ezra Pound, its associative, imagistic language has influenced William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder. Current poets borrow Chinese traditions (and perceptions of Chinese traditions) as a storehouse for their own reinventions, as in Frank Bidart's recent book Watching the Spring Festival, which places Du Fu next to Marilyn Monroe and Catullus. Sometimes poets acknowledge the influence more puckishly; Billy Collins has a recent poem called "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Song Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles."
Collins jokes, but the joke works because the real engagement is much deeper than pastiche. Drawing on Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian principles, Chinese poetry explores the relationship between being and nothingness. It is written in language that stresses the process of relating images rather than the finality of finding meaning. These concerns have been a remarkably good fit for those of our own 20th century. Moreover, the result is also a body of gorgeous work, in which the physical world penetrates and makes for mental conditions and the sage uses the record of the physical world as a way of coming to being.
But this rich storehouse of thinking has reached non-Chinese speakers only in spurts. Arthur Waley's 1919 classic, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, has stayed classic for a reason -- there has been very little else to compare it with. Kenneth Rexroth and Willams and Pound each offered their own small takes. The 2003 New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, edited by scholar Eliot Weinberger, jumped in to fill a major gap.
However, nothing yet in English has approached the range and scope of David Hinton's phenomenal 400-page tome. His meticulously arranged sweep through three millennia of Chinese literature is nothing less than a publishing miracle. Hinton takes on the formidable task of giving us a tradition whole, beginning with folk and oral songs of the 15th to 4th centuries BCE and moving through a drama of courts and dynasties into the 12th century. His work lays out the context of each selection cleanly, tracing its place in China's religious and cultural evolution following wars, dynasties, and changes in rank and class. In addition, he introduces us to each poet personally -- the educated painters, the lonely sages, the confined courtesans, the shamans, the poet-statesmen. He meditates a bit on the moment in lived and literary history each poet explores. We get more than just Li Po or Du Fu: we get the world in which they wrote -- a monumental gift to American readers.
Hinton's introductions are educations in themselves. He explains how, because of its earliest and deepest roots in Taoist philosophy, Chinese poetic language takes part in and reflects a much deeper philosophical dialogue between presence and absence. The page mirrors the emptiness out of which the things of the universe come into being, as well as the very space in which they are called and then come. "Language," he notes, "doesn't simply replicate but actually participates in the deep structure of the cosmos and its dynamic process." Fittingly, the Chinese name for this process (itself rather autumnal) is tzu-juan -- "self-ablaze" -- a word that describes the things of the world arising from their generative source and then being changed as they come into being. In these poems, landscape and consciousness and outer and inner worlds often mingle, mirroring one another. The world becomes the description of contemplation as well as the reflection that contemplation produces.
After these valuable prologues, Hinton proceeds to translate the early oral tradition, the Tao Te Ching, a collection of folk songs and the work of 23 individual poets whose work spans a mere three millennia. While it is hard for this writer to know how well they follow the Chinese, these translations render poetic life in English with wonderful consistence and immediate appeal. I'm particularly drawn to Wang Wei's spare evocations, which become dulcet in Hinton's hands. Here are four melancholy lines from the recluse sage:
You just came from my old village,
so you know all about village affairs.
When you left, outside my window,
Was it in bloom -- that winter plum?
Other poems touch a traditional trope of the return from war, as in this rueful verse by Tu Mu, entitled "Back Home Again":
Kids keep tugging at my robes, asking:
Why did it take you so long to come back?
And who were you fighting all these months
And years to win all that silk-white hair?
It's a testament to Hinton's powers as a translator that this ambitious book is so readable. After sampling its profusion of voices, what comes through is the distinctness of tone, from poet to poet, as if Hinton is lovingly teaching us to be connoisseurs of rare plum wines. We at last have our own access to the store house of "Autumn Begins" poems -- and can feel how timeless the occasion feels, not just in James Wright's Ohio but as it was on the other side of the globe 500 or 1,500 or 2,000 years ago. During the T'ang dynasty, the diplomat Meng Hao-jan wrote his own "Autumn Begins" poem, which Hinton allows to arise in clear, graceful and flowing English:
Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,
and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,
summer's blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.
Oh indeed. It is hard to get older, but thankfully, in Hinton's skillful hands, this poem has aged so well. Take that, Martin's Ferry.
Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
Read an Excerpt
THE BOOK OF SONGS
(c. 15th to 6th century B.C.E.)
THE EARLIEST GATHERING from China’s oral tradition is The Book of Songs (Shih Ching), an anthology of 305 poems. This collection was compiled, according to cultural legend, by no less a figure than Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.E.), who selected the poems from a total of about 3,000 that had been gathered from China’s various component states, each of which spoke its own dialect. The poems are traditionally dated between the twelfth and sixth centuries B.C.E., but any poem in the oral tradition evolves over time, and the origins of the earliest Shih Ching poems no doubt stretch back well beyond the twelfth century. The Songs can be seen as an epic of the Chinese people from the origins of China’s earliest historical dynasty, the Shang (traditional dates 1766 to 1122 B.C.E.), to the unraveling of the Chou Dynasty (1122 to 221 B.C.E.) in Confucius’s age, a span of time during which Chinese culture underwent a fundamental transformation from a spiritualized theocratic society to a secular humanist one.
Religious life in the Shang Dynasty focused on the worship of ancestors, and the Shang emperors ruled by virtue of a family lineage that connected them to Shang Ti, literally “High Lord” or “Celestial Lord,” a monotheistic god very like the Judeo-Christian god in that he created the universe and controlled all aspects of its historical process. In the mythological system that dominated Shang culture, the rulers were descended from Shang Ti and so could influence Shang Ti’s shaping of events through their spirit-ancestors, thereby controlling all aspects of people’s lives: weather, harvest, politics, economics, religion, and so on. Indeed, the Chinese people didn’t experience themselves as substantially different from spirits, for the human realm was known as an extension of the spirit realm—a situation very similar to the Judeo-Christian West, where people think of themselves as immortal souls, spirits only temporarily here in a material world before they move on to heaven, their true spirit-home.
Eventually the Shang rulers became cruel and tyrannical, much hated by their people, and they were overthrown by the Chou, a people living on the Shang border who had recently adopted Chinese culture. The Chou conquerors were faced with an obvious problem: if the Shang lineage descended directly from Shang Ti, and so had an absolute claim to rule Chinese society, how could the Chou justify replacing it, and how could they legitimize their rule in the eyes of the Shang people? Their solution was to reinvent Shang Ti in the form of Heaven, an impersonal divine power of the cosmos, thus ending the Shang’s claim to legitimacy by lineage. The Chou rulers then proclaimed that the right to rule depended upon a “Mandate of Heaven”: once a ruler became unworthy, Heaven withdrew its Mandate and bestowed it on another. This concept was a major event in Chinese society: the first investment of power with an ethical imperative.
The early centuries of the Chou Dynasty appear to have fulfilled that imperative admirably. But the Chou eventually foundered because its rulers became increasingly tyrannical, and they lacked the Shang’s absolute metaphysical source of legitimacy: if the Mandate could be transferred to them, it could obviously be transferred again. The rulers of the empire’s component states grew increasingly powerful, claiming more and more sovereignty over their lands, until finally they were virtually independent nations. The final result of the Chou’s “metaphysical” breakdown was, not surprisingly, all too physical: war. There was relentless fighting among the various states and frequent rebellion within them. This internal situation, so devastating to the people, continued to deteriorate after Confucius compiled the Shih Ching, until it finally led to the Chou’s collapse two and a half centuries later.
By Confucius’s time, the old social order had crumbled entirely, and China’s intellectuals began struggling to create a new one. In the ruins of a grand monotheism that had dominated China for over a millennium, a situation not at all unlike that of the modern West, these thinkers created an earthly humanist culture: Confucius and Mencius crafting its political dimensions, Lao Tzu (see p. 36) and Chuang Tzu its spiritual dimensions.
This remarkable cultural transformation is reflected in the Songs. Although the situation was complex, with developments evolving differently in different regions and strata of society, the general movement appears to have been from poems of spiritualized power (ritual hymns and historical odes that celebrate the ruling class and its power) to secular folk-songs. The book’s older hymns and odes tend to focus on the ruling class and its concerns: the historic and religious framework that legitimized the Shang and Chou rulers, the Chou overthrow of the Shang, and finally the Chou’s rule.
Unfortunately, there is only a small group of five poems relating to the Shang Dynasty. They must have originated back in the Shang, eventually evolving into their Shih Ching forms, which were performed in a region of the Chou empire that maintained its connection to the Shang. With this one exception, the hymns and odes all relate to the Chou Dynasty. According to legend, a majority of them (nearly seventy) were written by the Duke of Chou, the last of the three revered rulers from the founding of the Chou, and the one credited with expanding and consolidating the Chou empire. He was also widely thought to have composed many of the folksongs (see Lu Yu’s reference on p. 398). This is legend. The concept of a fixed written text composed by a particular individual did not exist at the time, so this attribution must have been invented much later, when that concept did exist. But as with so much of early Chinese culture, this legend became part of the reality upon which the culture was built, so the Duke of Chou might be considered China’s first great poet. This remarkable figure is further credited with inventing the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, and so might also be considered the first of China’s great philosophers.
It was the Duke of Chou’s concept of a Mandate of Heaven that led to the most celebrated and enduring section of The Book of Songs: the later folk poetry that makes up nearly two-thirds of the collection. According to Chou ideology, Heaven bestowed its Mandate on a ruler only so long as that ruler successfully furthered the interests of the people, and it was thought that the best indication of the people’s well-being was their poetry. So noble rulers would send officials out among the people to gather folk-songs in order to gauge how their policies were succeeding. These songs were translated from regional dialects into the standard literary language by government officials and performed with music at the court. It should, therefore, be remembered that this is not folk poetry itself, but folk poetry that was substantially reshaped by the poet-scholars who edited and translated it.
The organization of the Songs reflects China’s overall cultural development, though in rough and reverse chronological order, beginning with the more recent folk-songs and ending with the ancient Shang hymns. The selection translated here is arranged chronologically, beginning with hymns and odes that move from Shang origins (pp. 9–10) through the rise of the Chou people and their eventual overthrow of the Shang (pp. 11–17), a period during which all cultural value was focused on the ruling class. It then continues through the troubled Chou, where the increasing value accorded the common people is reflected in the collection of folk-songs, with their quotidian themes and almost complete lack of Shang metaphysics. So at the end of this process, once the spiritualized social framework had been replaced by a secular humanist one, the poetry too had moved from religious hymns and historical odes celebrating the ruling class’s interests to a plainspoken poetry of the common people. This latter poetry contains the two fundamental orientations that came to shape the Chinese poetic mainstream: it is a secular poetry having a direct personal voice speaking of immediate and concrete experience, and it is a poetry that functions as a window onto the inner life of a person.
Heaven bade Dark-Enigma bird
descend and give birth to Shang,
our people inhabiting lands boundless and beyond,
then our Celestial Lord bade brave and forceful T’ang
establish boundaries to the far corners of our lands,
bade him then rule these lands,
these nine regions in splendor.
So T’ang, first emperor of Shang,
received the Mandate. Ever safe,
it has passed now to Wu Ting’s
sons, to his sons and grandsons,
our emperors brave and forceful,
nothing they will not overcome—
their lords with dragon banners
parading grains to the sacrifice,
their domain thousands of miles
offering the people sure support.
He pushed the boundaries of our land to the four seas,
and now from the four seas comes
homage, such abounding homage.
And our far frontier is the river.
That Shang received the Mandate was due, right and due,
and its hundred blessings continue.
Majestic, O ancestors majestic
ablaze shaping blessings this
bounty on and on stretching
boundless across your lands:
we bring you crystalline wine
and you answer our prayers.
We bring well-seasoned soup,
approach mindful and tranquil
and hushed in silent homage,
leaving all strife far behind,
and you ease our pained brows,
letting old age grow boundless.
Hubs veiled and harness inlaid,
eight phoenix-bells clittering,
we offer sacrifice and homage.
The Mandate we received is vast and mighty.
It’s from Heaven—this rich ease,
this life abounding in harvests.
We offer homage, and you accept,
sending boundless good fortune,
honoring autumn and winter
offerings from T’ang’s children.
BIRTH TO OUR PEOPLE
Birth to our people—it was she,
Shepherdess Inception, who
gave birth to our people. How?
She offered sacrifice, prayers
that she not be without child,
wandered the Lord’s footprint, quickened
and conceived. She grew round,
dawn-life stirring there within,
she gave birth and she suckled,
and the child—it was Millet God.
And so those months eased by
and the birth—it was effortless.
Free of all rending and tearing,
free of pain and affliction, she
brought forth divine splendor.
The Celestial Lord soothing her,
welcoming sacrifice and prayer,
she bore her son in tranquillity.
And so he was left alone in a narrow lane,
but oxen and sheep nurtured him.
And so he was left alone on a forested plain,
but woodcutters gathered round.
And so he was left alone on a cold ice-field,
but birds wrapped him in wings,
and when the birds took flight,
Millet God began to wail, he
wailed long and wailed loud,
and the sound was deafening.
And so he soon began to crawl,
then stood firm as a mountain.
When he began to feed himself,
he planted broad-beans aplenty,
broad and wind-fluttered beans,
and lush grain ripening in rows,
wheat and hemp thick and rich,
and melons sprawled everywhere.
And so Millet God farmed, understanding
the Way to help things grow.
He cleared away thick grass
and planted yellow treasure.
The seeds swelled and rooted.
Planted well, they grew lovely,
grew tall and lovely in bloom,
they ripened to a fine finish
and bent low with rich plenty.
He built a house there, in T’ai, and settled.
And so he gave to us exquisite
millet: midnight and twin-seed,
red-shafted and white-frosted.
He grew midnight and twin-seed
far and wide, cut acre after acre,
cut red-shafted and white-frosted,
hauled it in, shoulder and back
home to begin offering sacrifice.
And so our offerings—how are they done?
Some thresh and some sweep,
some winnow and some tread;
we wash it clean, whisper-clean,
and steam it misty, misty sweet.
Pondering deeply, thoughts pure,
we offer artemisia soaked in fat,
offer rams to spirits far and wide,
and meat smoke-seared we offer
to bring forth another new year.
We offer bounty in altar bowls,
in altar bowls and holy platters,
and when the fragrance ascends,
fragrance perfect in its season,
our Celestial Lord rests content.
Millet God began these offerings,
and free of trespass always they
continued down to our own time.
Melons sprawl from root.
In Pin riverlands, earth
gave birth to our people.
Our true old father T’ai
made us shelters, kiln-huts,
for houses were unknown.
Excerpted from Classical Chinese Poetry by .
Copyright © 2008 by David Hinton.
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.