Christopher Kelen:

odd one out:
a first sampling of method and output from
the Meng Jiao Poetry project

Let me introduce the Meng Jiao Poetry Project and let me introduce myself. In doing these things I lay claim to a healthy ambivalence as to the claims I ought to be laying. I’m not sure whether to claim to be an impostor, so as to head off an accusation along those lines. On the other hand I might be the real McCoy, or I might be a really misguided McCoy. I might even be impersonating an impostor. It strikes me that all of these postures are equally apt in the case of poetry and likewise for the purpose of crossing between cultures.

The Meng Jiao Poetry Project is a long-term collaborative project, the purpose of which is to produce—not translations but—variations, adaptations, and poems otherwise inspired by the work of the Tang dynasty poet, Meng Jiao (often transliterated Wade-Giles as Meng Chiao). My team and I are now approaching the halfway mark in terms of working through the complete oeuvre. Each week we produce some new drafts to send in an e-mail to those on our mailing list and to add to the cumulative file, from which poems will finally be selected for various destinations. In this project there are perennial questions about how close or far from the original one ought to be, how classical or modern the tone and the contents of the poems should be. In the raw output of the project you will notice that there is a fair amount of drift on these issues. And while this might lead to a certain impression of inconsistency, it is too early in the day to be worried about this. Besides, we hope in the long run to publish only a fraction of the project’s output. The process is more important than the product. This is primarily pedagogic work.

To expand a little on our aim then: it is to honour and enliven the classics by continuing a dialogue across cultures and down through the ages. The hope is that this process will be exemplary for teaching a reading/writing curriculum for poetry across cultures. To reveal the shape of the project as it appears to those watching and advising as it unfolds, here below is this week’s weekly post. (Numbers refer to the sequence in the corpus of English language text responses, so far produced by me.)

        passing Ling Bao temple, headed west

        the Daoist has no grey hair
        his voice as pure as spring water

        green pines always green
        white stones bright by moon

        the Daoist in the morning glow
        sway of his robes a fresh breeze

        the books are hidden in the ceiling
        how precious the air between

        the road to the gate for ages now old
        still folk tread the ten thousand li

        it’s rare to meet a real immortal
        much easier to write these verses

        the Yellow River running

        who broke the head of water in Kunlun?
        who made the river mud?

        spray braces the air—ah, negative ions!
        strings of the river belt out a song

        if only I travelled downstream
        if I swam

        the river won’t wash away my worries
        I’m only crossing to another shore

        overnight in Xiazhou en route to He Yang

        a sobbing crow circles the trees

        the traveller from his horse gets down

        why not this old mountain?
        why not stay here?

        owl and dog barking
        cloth bag for my dinner

        true friends only find the poor
        tomorrow I’ll be there

        crossing Peng Ze lake

        the boat sighs in this lonely breeze
        five willows no one has planted

        thin ice on the lake
        the rain too is thin

        the empty boat
        drifts home

        the new house: ten poems

        far green the mountain bows to me
        paths wind ever on

        precious shelter the new house is
        crags straight and high
        must beckon the brush

        in the garden well
        still winter’s disorder
        the tufted grass gone grey

        like me
        pensioned here
        still thirsty
        right up to the brim

        wine’s cloudy
        it’s the dregs that fill

        the lofty city holds up the sky
        the new house is clean
        containing mist

        —Luo Yang
        place to be pensioned from
        my door though faces the Luo River

        downstream or up?
        I’ll have to check later

        better like cloud
        to embrace the tall mountains

        these fog banks here are all my belongings
        I wait for a thief to blow them away

        just one puff
        rattles roof and walls

        in a clear night
        big stars
        the day as long as colour’s clean

        how idle words lie under wisdom
        the folk here rarely speak

        despite my little fame
        they haven’t heard of me

        there’s a gap between
        frame and door
        the vulgar world
        its invitations
        and my remaining here

        mine may not be a saving salary
        no desert ships ply silk roads for me
        but virtue ever wore homespun

        to the wren its branch
        the turtle’s lotus leaf suffices

        we all look up to the lofty
        and laugh

        a door fit for kindling
        won’t keep out the weather

        the river is clear on cold days
        at dawn it flows green

        in the evening I wash
        myself and every cloth that warms me

        benevolence is got this way
        snow on the far bank makes the light last

        wind roars through bare branches
        those birds which travel love this place

        never stand
        on the twig that falls

        rough steps on these rugged paths
        and some footfalls are risky

        why travel when the moon comes to me?
        this plain spirit rests on the evening banks


motivation for the project

How did I get interested enough in Meng Jiao, to undertake this admittedly daunting task? I think it was somewhere in the last millennium, reading through A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang, the few Meng Jiao pieces in that volume really bowled me over. They must have because I kept coming back to them. One piece which really stuck with me was the famous ‘inch of grass’ poem (the poem Pink Floyd made use of in ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’). Here’s Graham’s translation:

        Wanderer’s Song
        The thread in the hand of a kind mother
        Is the coat on the wanderer's back.
        Before he left she stitched it close
        In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
        Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
        Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?

Here’s the original Meng Jiao poem:


Here’s the piece I wrote, by focusing on the gloss my collaborators prepared for me, and trying my best to forget the Graham translation:

        chant for a son departed

        needle in the mother’s hands
        clothes on the son’s travelling back

        the sewing hard before the setting off
        once he’s gone the worry sets in

        the inch of grass in the heart no reward
        for the sunshine of three springs

As you can see, though, I was sixty five works into the oeuvre at the time I faced this particular difficulty in the way of influence. The other well-known pieces, for instance the ‘Cold Creek’ sequence, have been dealt with since, or are yet to come. After reading Graham’s translations I went looking for more and was interested to see how various they were. I read Stephen Owen and David Hinton’s fine translations. I got hold of Hinton’s volume of the late poems. I read Owen’s book about Meng Jiao and Han Yu.

Because ambivalence is the order of this article and because there’s not much value to these observations if they lack honesty, I have to confess I began to be a little disappointed. Reading these translations and annotations by such acclaimed translators and scholars I had the strange feeling that as I was becoming more and more knowledgeable about this poetry I was becoming less and less taken with and shaken by it. Now it’s not uncommon to find the work of individual poets (translation aside) less satisfying the further in one goes. Simply, there’s a law of diminishing returns which the anthology exists to exploit in exactly the way the Top 40 does songs on the radio. Still, I felt that Owen’s thoroughness with the text was dampening its ascetic spirit, I felt Hinton’s lexicon was too narrow. The work was too repetitive. I wondered as well if both Hinton and Owen weren’t missing something of what I would call Meng Jiao’s self-piss-taking propensity. Reading between translations, I had often felt he might be laughing at himself, and in such a way that the joke would be lost if the reader were able to be too definite about it: just the kind of thing necessarily lost in the translation.


sorry for himself—the odd one out

As so often happens when one gets close to (too close to?) the oeuvre one sees the flaws in the maker and so one sees the flaws in the wares. Meng Jiao I saw now was a man of singular insight, in both senses of the word. Capable of reflexive cynicism, yes but still obsessed, a character collecting chips for his shoulders—well worn ones too—failure, poverty, being out of favour, being sick, being left out, being on his last legs… Here was a kind of Tang Dynasty Leonard Cohen. David Hinton’s translation of ‘Mourning Lu Yin’ gives you the idea:

        Invariably pure and austere, poets mostly
        starve to death embracing empty mountains

        and when white clouds have no master,
        they just drift off, idle thoughts carefree.
        (in Weinberger, 120)

Owen expresses the persona well in his chapter on the vision of the poet:

    In the midst of suffering and deprivation the poet emerges as the transmitter of morality… The morally superior man expresses his alienation from society in self-consciously obscure poetry written to be understood only by a select circle.

This posturing strikes me as very relevant today with the prevalence of artist-as-hero thinking in Chinese poetry circles, as revealed in Michelle Yeh’s ‘The Cult of Poetry in Contemporary China’. Yeh writes:

    By “cult of poetry,” I am referring to the phenomenon and the concomitant discourse in the 1980s and 1990s that bestows on poetry a religious significance and cultivates the image of the poet as the high priest of poetry… For many avant-garde poets in China today, poetry is not just a private and personal endeavour of a creative and spiritual nature; rather it is the supreme ideal in life and a religious faith. (190)

Meng Jiao’s religiosity and his maudlin obsession with what the superior man might have to suffer in order to be ignored and so live up to the honour of obscurity chimes well with the unofficial odd-ne-out claims and assumptions of much post-Cultural Revolution literary asceticism. Yeh writes:

    In the wake of the revival of aesthetic consciousness in the late 1970s and early 1980s, avant-garde poets have sought to redefine the role of the poet. Bei Dao’s oft-quoted lines from “Xuangao” (Declaration): “In an age without heroes / I just want to be a human being,” implicitly reject the official role of the poet. Instead of serving the proletariat and singing the praises of the Party, he sees the poet as a human being who is alone and lonely, at odds with the system, seeking solace in nature or romantic love—the latter a taboo in the Maoist era—and blindly groping along the path of history, which is itself blind. (197)

Here the expelled of Plato’s Republic take up with Confucius’ superior man and it’s easy to see how this persona resonates with the self-image of the poet as promoted in Meng Jiao’s works. In Stephen Owen’s view, Meng Jiao’s fantasies of the ‘superior man’ and what he must suffer to go unobserved in that guise, take things further than the Analects demand:

    During his residence in Lo-yang from 806 to 814, Meng turned seriously to consider his own nature as a poet and a moral man. The poet becomes the representative of Confucian principles in a corrupt society, and the sufferings and deprivations he undergoes as a result of his incorruptibility themselves become emblems of his morality. In this case we can see an important difference between these later poems and the poems on his examination failure: while in the earlier poems Meng Chiao’s sufferings were something from which he sought release, here they are requisite attributes of the moral poet’s specialness, his moral superiority. This self-conception is based on one of the most honoured Confucian principles, ‘resoluteness in deprivation,’ ku-ch’iung (Analects, XV.1). But while the Analects passage states what a good man should do in the case of deprivation, Meng Chiao makes deprivation a positive value in itself. (154)


dialogue, pedagogy

To add a reflexive note here (making this up as I go along), it strikes me now that over time I acquired a kind of bloody minded tenacity in dealing with this character. The more time I spent with this self-pitying, self-professed loser, the less content I was to leave him to his own devices. I admired much of his attitude and more of his observation but I felt he had charges to answer. Meng Jiao’s was / is the self-indulgence of the subtle mind settled for easy answers. I wasn’t content to leave him to the faux obscurity he was claiming, so reminiscent of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of avant garde art as the place where the normal rules of the economic universe are reversed (so that the game becomes ‘loser wins’). That was Meng Jiao’s main trick, his best trick. Complain long and loud enough about what a loser you are and you’ll be a winner in the end. It’s worked for him, hasn’t it? Forget Penglai and the elusive herbs and elixirs, Meng Jiao’s got his immortality. The inch of grass in the heart has been well rewarded. And as Michelle Yeh has shown, this self indulgence is alive and well—as his legacy we might say—all these centuries later.

Please do not misunderstand me; I had not decided he was a bad poet. Far from it. The more different translations I read, the more convinced I was that there had to be something very interesting in the originals to generate the distances between them. The more I read, the more I wanted to respond in a free and dialogic way to the poems: to take the piss and argue the toss and equally to show respect for an enduring achievement. Nor was I under the illusion that there would be anything groundbreaking in adopting that particular stance. I doff my cap to Pound and the long line of like dabbling and very serious devotees between his time and mine.

The further I read the better entitled I felt to throw off the shackles of awe for the ancient and treat this bloke as no more or less self-deluded or annoying/inspiring than most of the contemporary poets I respect. I was also beginning to get the feeling that the distances between translations were themselves already suggestive of a dialogue, or at least the preconditions for one. Triangulating among them seemed to yield a moving target, a heart/mind in motion. An indirection—the poetic kind—was suggested in the manner of their missing, as if around Meng Jiao’s work an idiot savant’s convention had been held down through the ages, with Meng Jiao in the chair and nobody properly understanding quite what the others were saying. Bloomean misprision at its best! Right now, almost two hundred pieces into my drafting work I feel I’m half way through the most intense phase of a conversation I can’t see ending. Best is the fact that there’s something marvelously effortless about it all. It’s as if I were standing under the swerve of these atoms all along; I had merely to take down my umbrella.

Which brings me to the method and the particular madness behind it and a fresh disclosure to accompany these. You see, I had another purpose in mind in this work, a purpose other than personally engaging in a productive way, a creative way, with the Tang Dynasty poet of my choice. Here at the University of Macau, I teach a few different things but the main thing I teach is creative writing. There’s a poetry side and story and dialogue writing side to this. The latter I find much easier than the former and perhaps that’s because in teaching the writing of poetry it is so difficult to avoid a seesaw of unacceptable results. On the one hand we have the greeting card thing (the motherhood business) and the sledgehammer with which to change the world. Both of these poetastings conform to Oscar Wilde’s dictum with regard to the guaranteed sincerity of bad poetry. On the other hand there’s a set of problems which I think relate to the phenomena we noted Michelle Yeh observing a little earlier. The poet / artist as incomprehensible misunderstood inspired suffering outsider: this persona has corollaries in practice: obfuscation, moral posturing, superior man business. The artist as hero need not be comprehensible.

What I’ve wanted to teach students is that good poetry, while sincere, is also comprehensible and works best when it subtly shows us new ways of seeing and being in the world, that good poetry is self-effacing to the extent that it is not produced, of necessity, by the character swanning about in the suffering poet suit. A certain amount of automatisation (cathartic or otherwise) can kick-start the imagination and get the creative fuel line on tap, but in my experience this only works as an adjunct to the teaching of literature with productive purposes in mind, or call it: the teaching of writing through models for the purpose intended.

Along these lines, an inspiration to me was Kenneth Koch’s 1990 book Rose where did you get that red, which the late John Forbes had turned me on to for the purposes of teaching poetry writing. Koch’s book seemed to me based on an unlikely premise—that children could learn to write well through exposure to poetic models which seemed to be far ahead of what they could comprehend as readers, let alone produce as writers. But Forbes and others claimed that it worked and I found success with it too. I had wanted to take this pedagogy further, to serve more specific needs. In the case of my situation, specifically teaching poetry writing to non-natives, I was looking for a way of bringing the novice non-native writer of English language poetry to models which would help her respond expressively to her own cultural milieu, to introduce that milieu and responses engendered to those foreign to her culture (for instance me) and to respond as well to the process of crossing, i.e. of coming into the new culture. The study of translation techniques and theories is clearly of great value to the students I have had in mind. My specific interest however in is in bringing them into productive proximity with the writing process itself, or with some simulation of it. Along these lines, models of poetic defamilarisation (as theorised by the Russian Formalists) would be helpful. Craig Raine’s well anthologised poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’, elaborates the foreignness of words and things by exhuming metaphors from everyday experience, in an attempt to distance and show the strangeness of things we know. This kind of poetry brings reader and writer into the depths of the unspoken and unspeakable distances between cultures. It finds material there for the kinds of indirection capable of poetry.

It has long been my contention that, along these lines, there is an affinity between the normal position of the non-native of a culture and the position of the poetry reader. Let me express the idea in the following terms: Poetry (since the twentieth century particularly) has this affinity with foreignness: that it does to one’s own language what a foreigner cannot help but do to another language. (My 1997 paper in Text titled ‘Poetry as a Foreign Language’ spells this out in more detail).


working from glosses, glossing the work

My hope—in working with students of Creative Writing who are also students of literary translation—has been to move forward from Kenneth Koch’s pedagogy in such a way as to connect students productively with their own canonic culture (i.e. that which is not mine) and to do so in a way that guarantees genuine dialogue because of the role reversal involved; i.e. I need them to explain to me so that I can respond and so that a chain reaction of poetic responses can be initiated. Functionally, for me the Meng Jiao project is then a way of modelling poetry making across cultures. I hope it produces some good poems in both English and Chinese, by me and by my collaborators, but this outcome is of less importance than the learning experience.

Let me put the whole thing briefly into the crude terms of SL/FL (Second Language / Foreign Language pedagogy), where L1 is the native language of the student/learner and L2 the language being learned (or target language), and where, by analogy, we can think in terms of first and target cultures (C1 and C2) as well. My aim was to encourage the reading and writing of poetry as an L1/L2 (so C1/C2) dialogue, one which would highlight in the target language features of the native language and culture. The classics of one’s own culture might well be unfamiliar to the native (why else would there be a need for an education in them?) and yet the native’s approach to those artefacts is—relative to that of the foreigner—an approach to something homely. This is perhaps the home in its unknown (un/heimlich) aspect. The native approaching with the non-native’s understanding and response in mind entails the kind of de-familiarisation which should be useful from the point of view of the production of poetry of the modern / postmodern kind.

I was to work with students who, though having extensive exposure to and interest in the classics of their own culture, had opted to study English—especially literature and translation—both as undergraduates and in graduate study. Balancing up the desirables and the undesirables of the situation (the traps and the available resources and motives), I arrived at the following list:

  • Students want to express themselves in the target language/culture
  • Students want the cultural capital that comes from a knowledge of the target culture
  • Well read students (however ignorant they see themselves) have a much subtler knowledge of the canonic resources of their own culture than of English
  • Students find classical poetry in Chinese difficult of access (too many unknown characters, strange locutions, poetic ways of putting things, a different lexicon for dealing with things otherwise known, unknown objects, roles and processes dealt with (obscure because archaic)
  • Students have few resources for producing successfully poetic seeming works in English
  • there is resistance to a steep learning curve with Chinese culture when the more general learning target is western culture
  • there is resistance to the role reversal entailed in a teacher’s expectation of their expertise about their own culture

So the function of the Meng Jiao Project would be to make use of the available resources and motivations (as listed above) and to deal with the various impediments likewise thrown up by the particular inter-cultural situation and process involved. Certain resistances would be allowed and certain others would be resisted. There is a learning curve in the study of one’s own literature just as there is for the foreign product; the difference is that it’s their learning curve and so by means of invoking it a useful role reversal becomes possible. The students can be teaching the poet/teacher about their culture; they’re learning themselves but for a purpose and they’re always a step ahead of the teacher/poet whom they’re assisting.

The problem of where to start in addressing a tradition so huge and overwhelming was answered easily in my case: Meng Jiao. Start where you’re interested, start anywhere but start somewhere. Gloss writing was likewise an apt solution for students who lacked the resources to, unassisted, make competent poetic sounding publishable literary translations. My conviction was that in the long run these people would be better translators if they had learned to write their own poetic works in dialogue both with a classic original and with a poet’s contemporary responses to that original. But my real motive was to train them as poets-across-cultures so that they would be able to produce poetic texts in their language of choice. By assisting with my process in making poems (providing me with raw material in English) they would be participating in the process of poetry in a genuine manner, with genuine outcomes ahead (in the form of new poems); this as distinct from the ‘pretend’ manner of the rehearsed ‘experiment’ so often the norm in the classroom.

A particular advantage of having students work toward glosses rather than poems would be that, while they lack the resources to produce properly ‘poetic’ end-products, removing the pressure on them to do so would allow them to deliver some of the raw untranslatable enigma of the original. This being the sometimes absurd, sometimes poignant effect poets and poetasters might strive for, for instance by using electronic translation, sometimes through several languages, in order to achieve interesting (= defamiliarising) dissonances, phrases at war with themselves, and the like.
Because students lack the resources to properly achieve the poetic diction of any period in English, the gloss method of working means that what they offer won’t be crippled by the effort at trying to make things sound poetic. This mean they are much less likely to kill off the interesting de-automatising results of for instance the direct translation of idioms and tropes in general.

Now to the process itself. It’s probably easiest to think of it in the following phases.

    1.students create poem glosses,
    2.together talk through the glosses line by line against the originals, looking at alternative means of expression
    3.I write drafts of English poems in response
    4.we check for conflicts with originals (not in order to eliminate them, but to understand the distance at which we are working)
    5.students write drafts of Chinese poems in response to originals and English poems

Let’s look now at a few examples of the originals with the glosses, followed by my poem in response.

卷四 感興下 勸酒

白 日 無 定 影,
清 江 無 定 波;
人 無 百 年 壽,
百 年 復 如 何?
堂 上 陳 美 酒,
堂 下 列 清 歌,
勸 君 金 屈 卮,
勿 謂 朱 顏 酡。
松 柏 歲 歲 茂,
丘 陵 日 日 多。
君 看 終 南 山,
千 古 青 峨 峨。

To persuade somebody to drink more

No fixed shadows in the daytime,
No stable waves/ripples in rivers.
People can’t live for a hundred years,
Even if you can live for a hundred years, so what?
Good wine is on the table,
Music is performed before you
Please pour one more drink for yourself,
Don’t say your face is red.
There are more and more pine trees
1 growing every year,
There are more and more graves everyday.
You see the south mountains,
They remain the same for long.

1. Symbolising “old age” in Chinese.


to persuade someone to drink more

perhaps you’ve not noticed
no shadows are fixed in daylight
the river’s ripples won’t come still

you can’t live for a hundred years
but if you could – so what?

good wine before us
music out front

one more!
don’t say your face is red

have you noticed
there are more and more pine trees every year
more graves every day

keep watching the south mountains
let me know if you see any change down there

卷一樂府上  空 城 雀

一 雀 入 官 倉,
所 食 寧 損 幾?
祇 慮 往 覆 頻,
官 倉 終 害 爾。
魚 網 不 在 天,
鳥 羅 不 張 水。
飲 啄 要 自 然,
可 以 空 城 裏。

A bird in an empty city

A bird flies into the official granary,
How much loss can be measured from what it has eaten?
It only cares to fly there and back frequently,
The official granary will hurt it one day.
The fish net is not in the sky,
The bird cage cannot be cast to water.
If it wants to eat and peck freely,
It can go to the empty city.


bird in an empty city

flies into the official granary
what’s that worth?

back and forth, back and forth
it’s a living
but one day the granary’s claws catch

no net for fish in the sky
you won’t cage a bird underwater

to peck freely all the bird requires
the granary of an empty city

卷二 感興上
二 十 六. 偶 作

利 劍 不 可 近,
美 人 不 可 親。

利 劍 近 傷 手,
美 人 近 傷 身。

道 險 不 在 廣,
十 步 能 摧 輪;

情 愛 不 在 多,
一 夕 能 傷 神。

Incidentally work

Sharp swords are not approachable, beautiful girls are not approachable. (or Do not go near sharp swords. Do not get close to beautiful girls.)

Going near a sharp sword will hurt your hands. Going near a beautiful girl will injury your health (literally: body).

What makes a road risky/dangerous is not its width (literally: A road is risky not because it is wide [implication: the road must be risky for other reasons]). Going ten steps can destroy the wheels.

While the sadness of love has nothing to do with how many times you fall in love. Once would be enough. (Literally: Love does not depend on quantity. One night could hurt your mind/spirit.)



stay away from
sharp swords and
stay away from
beautiful girls

each equally bad for the health

it’s not the width of the road makes it risky
one wrong step can bring you to grief

or one wrong beat of the heart

cycle of response

It might be apposite here briefly to give a statistical picture of where we’re up to in this process. In terms of my drafting responses, we’re approaching half way through Meng Jiao’s extant oeuvre. The process of drafting student poems in response has though only just begun. So far we have about 250 pages of new poems in English and about 8 pages of new poetry in Chinese. Let me then show as a last sample of this project in progress the set of six originals for which we now have both an English and a Chinese-language response. These are laid out below, as follows: original on the left, my response in the middle, student’s response on the right.

列 女 操

梧 桐 相 待 老,
鴛 鴦 會 雙 死;
貞 婦 貴 徇 夫,
捨 生 亦 如 此。
波 瀾 誓 不 起。
妾 心 井 中 水。

妾 薄 命

薄 命 頭 欲 白,
頻 年 嫁 不 成。
秦 娥 未 十 五,
昨 日 事 公 卿。
豈 有 機 杼 力,
空 傳 歌 舞 名。
妾 專 修 婦 德,
媒 氏 卻 相 輕。

古 怨 別

颯 颯 秋 風 生,
愁 人 怨 離 別。
含 情 兩 相 向,
欲 語 氣 先 咽。
心 曲 千 萬 端,
悲 來 卻 難 說。
別 後 惟 所 思,
天 涯 共 明 月。

路 病

病 客 無 主 人,
艱 哉 求 臥 難。
飛 光 赤 道 路,
內 火 焦 肺 肝;
欲 飲 井 泉 竭,
欲 醫 囊 用 單。
稚 顏 能 幾 日?
壯 志 忽 已 殘。
人 子 不 言 苦,
歸 書 但 云 安。
愁 環 在 我 腸,
宛 轉 終 無 端。

古 興

楚 血 未 乾 衣,
荊 虹 尚 埋 輝。
痛 玉 不 痛 身,
抱 璞 求 所 歸。

擇 友

獸 中 有 人 性,
形 異 遭 人 隔;
人 中 有 獸 心,
幾 人 能 真 識﹖
古 人 形 似 獸,
皆 有 大 聖 德。
今 人 表 似 人,
獸 心 安 可 測。
雖 笑 未 必 和,
雖 哭 未 必 戚。
面 結 口 頭 交,
肚 裡 生 荊 棘。
好 人 常 直 道,
不 順 世 間 逆;
惡 人 巧 諂 多,
非 義 茍 且 得。
若 是 傚 真 人 枝,
堅 心 如 鐵 石 去。
不 諂 亦 不 欺 知,
不 奢 復 不 溺。
面 無 吝 色 容,
心 無 詐 憂 惕。
君 子 大 道 人,
朝 夕 恆 的 的。

on female virtue

imagine a woman
with womanly virtues

see with what grace
the couple
under the phoenix tree
age unto death—
     a couple of ducks
in mandarin

the good wife
with husband all through life
a suffering divinity
(though on a lower perch of course)
she doesn’t fall in love
with any others

or she should swear as much

her heart still as well water
gurgle gurgle gone

ill-fated woman

unlucky the would-be wife
hair turning

year after year
no husband for her

see the fifteen year old girl
serving an officer
what does she know of weaving?

she sings, she dances
she does the rest well

I focus my mind just on female virtues
for this the marriage brokers despise me

ancient grief of parting

sough of the breeze
the breath choked at parting

a thousand songs in the heart
none sung

the one bright moon
in the world’s far corners

sick while travelling

who’ll take care of the sick traveller?
it’s hard even to ask a place to lie down

the blazing sun seers the road
my lungs and liver just as fevered

I want to drink from well or lake
I want a doctor but that takes money

how suddenly ambition goes
like the face of youth

a son should never write of pain
but of how he’s safe, how these words precede him

such sorrows travel through my gut
no sight of the road ever ending


a man found precious jade
but when he gave it to the emperor
the connoisseur called it merely a stone
for punishment the man’s left leg was severed

the emperor died, a new emperor reigned
loyal to the empire this man
offered his stone again
the new emperor’s connoisseur
having been tipped off
called it mere stone
the man’s right leg was lopped

the idiot cried in the mountains
three days and three nights
his tears were blood
the new emperor died

the next reigning asked
‘what’s the matter?’
and learning the truth
named the jade for the man
passed it down to this day

the palace is full of princes and courtiers
when they come to this display
none fails to ask why
the jewel has this name:
‘jade of the fool
always seeking attention’


humanity in the beasts you’ll notice
is something we put there

what breadth we have, humans
how many see it?

in the old days people looked like beasts
picture the sages

nowadays so much striking appearance
covers the beasts in their hearts

those smiling with each other
whose happiness made, marred?

those tearful may be feigning sadness
there are thorns growing through them

hearts firm as iron never moralise
read no disdain in steady eyes

譚曉汶 (Hilda Tam)







黃玨 (Amy Wong)


也敵不過鄰家年青女子的 嫵媚






黃玨 (Amy Wong)







譚曉汶 (Hilda Tam)





黃玨 (Amy Wong)












譚曉汶 (Hilda Tam)







You will note from these instances how wide the range of response in various senses: how variable the distances between the ‘versions’, how variously the problem of antiquity / modernity is dealt with and how the cycle of myth and allusion may vary from original to response. The hoped for effect in presenting the poems like this is to circumvent the risk of the reader demanding to subject the paired original and response to the exigencies of a translation test, so as to make a judgment about the quality (i.e. fidelity by whatever measure) of the text in response. The hope is that the reader will have the experience, with each set, of three different but interestingly related texts; the hope is that by moving among the sets of texts the reader will appreciate a complex pattern of relationships emerging, a pattern implying dialogue of the challenging, of the ironising, of the respectful kind. The aim of the project is for its output to appear as representing turns in a conversation, one taking place over millennia.

There is no need for the cycle to end with these three poem sets or anywhere in particular, but for the time being this is where it ends, with a single English and with a single Chinese response to Meng Jiao’s original poem. Present objectives in terms of publication are to produce a volume of such sets of three poems and perhaps also an English-language-only volume. In the latter case, were the objective to produce a book of around one hundred pages of poetry, it would only be possible to include one in five of the poems drafted. In the case of a volume of similar size consisting of three poem sets, the required success rate would be even more modest.

Perhaps—as creative translators reading CipherJournal—you will want to regard some or many or even all of these works as translation—I’ll leave that to your consciences. Despite the status of the works having been made abundantly clear, thus far some of those observing the project have had great difficulty in not regarding the draft works as attempts at translation. Emails repeatedly refer to ‘the translations’ despite the disavowal of any intention along those lines. Yet our intention in dealing with Meng Jiao has not been to disavow fidelity to the ideas and feelings his work expresses, rather our commitment has been to the dialogic and poetic engagement of these. The conversation I hope to have described and exampled in this paper is not merely ‘down through the ages’ but one continuing—and I hope on the same terms—between teacher and student, among students of poetry. Barring suicidal impulses or the desire to exhume the bones of the poet, I hope also that it is a conversation in which all roles remain in principle reversible and reflexively engaged. Along these lines, further introspection on the process will be apt at later stages and especially when a large corpus of Chinese language poems has come into being.


Perhaps it will be apt to conclude with this much of the process laid bare and without further risk of foreclosing the end point or product of this work in progress.

It’s too early to write anything very conclusive about the work attempted thus far. I hope that it will be a forerunner of more such non-translation (or not-necessarily-translation projects); more importantly I hope it will help me to evolve more effective and more dialogic methods for the use of canonic (and other) models in the teaching of poetry writing.

However exemplary this work turns out to be there will be day when our Meng Jiao inspired corpus is complete and when that time comes it will be appropriate for us to burn all of it to Meng Jiao, the ancestor spirit inspiring our poetry, the grizzly grumbling sine qua non in this work.

If I reiterate the claim that I write as an impostor, and that my bona fides are with poetry and with teaching and not with translation—if I say that it is creativity in which I’m primarily interested—then I suppose I have equally to admit that without the process of translation none of the hoped-for conversation would be possible.

Do please let me know if you want to be added to the Meng Jiao list to receive the project updates.


Works cited:

Graham, A.C. (ed. and transl.), Poems of the Late T’ang, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

Hinton, David (ed. and transl.), The Late Poems of Meng Chiao, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Koch, Kenneth, Rose where did you get that red? Teaching great poetry to children, New York: Vintage, 1990.

Owen, Stephen, The Poetry of Meng Chiao and Han Yü, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.

Owen, Stephen (ed. and transl.), An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, New York: Norton and Co., 1996.

Weinberger, Eliot (ed.), The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, New York: New Directions, 2003.

Zhang, Yingjin (ed.), China in a Polycentric World: Essays in Chinese Comparative Literature, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Meng Jiao (Meng Chiao) & the One Inch of Grass

JianKun, Li, and Qiu KieYou. The Annotated Complete Works of Meng Jiao. 1999. YuanZhi University. Available: 25 July 2005.

李建崑、邱燮友編注. 孟郊詩集校注全集. 1999. 元智大學. 網址: 2005年7月25日.