Chinese poetry has a rich tradition and ranks as some of the greatest literature in the world. Below is a ‘taster’.
Anyone seeking to find out more should order ‘The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry’ translated and edited by Burton Watson without delay!
I didn’t know where the temple was,
pushing mile on mile among cloudy peaks;
old trees, peopleless paths,
deep mountains, somewhere a bell.
Brook voices choke over craggy boulders,
sun rays turn cold in the green pines.
At dusk by the bend of a deserted pond,
a monk in meditation, taming poison dragons.
The poison dragons are passions and illusions that impede enlightenment. They also recall the tale of a poison dragon that lived in a lake and killed passing merchants until it was subdued by a certain Prince P’an-t’o through the use of spells. The dragon changed into a man and apologised for its evil ways.
Translated by Burton Watson
The following poems are used as chapter headings in Taming Poison Dragons. Yun Cai is a fictional poet from twelfth century China. The poems are written in the style of that time and the numbers denote chapters.
Fragments Of Yun Cai
‘ . . . No wise hermit, that recluse with shaking hands,
somehow sounding a ghost-white lute.
When he blinks, peers round, no one notices:
just the wind rustling twigs and memories . . .’
‘ . . . War’s infection spreads from the borders:
this year, last year, next – honoured rites of slaughter.
The phoenix flutters gaudy wings of sorrow.
When war is the plough, crops of bone must follow . . .’
‘ . . . Evening discourses from a cold studio.
All very well for Master Su Tung-po!
Enlightenment dredged from a deep wine bowl.
The moon’s beauty worms away at my soul . . .’
‘. . . Clouds drift through a maze of stars.
A fat autumn moon emerges from the mountainside.
In the valley lanterns bob like fireflies.
They are coming, as they did for Wang Wei . . .’
‘. . . The sly pheasant boasts six raw talons.
Our mulberry tree has countless roots.
The general’s chariot tinkles with pendants of jade.
Rocks are our jewels, green bamboo our brocade . . .’
‘ . . . I dreamt of riding a giant heron,
gazing down from Heaven at insect armies –
ant-sting lance thicket
gnat-swarm arrow cloud.
But the tears of the widows
were as vast as like Lake Poyang . . .’
‘. . . Otters cannot stop catching carp
and so we pursued our pleasures.
Drum and flute set us dancing all night
to the tune Telling of Innermost Feelings.
When the gong’s echo faded
dawn revealed our delusion . . .’
‘. . . Your fragrance left my being
so long ago.
Yet scent lingers in dreams
and each night I assure myself it means nothing.
I shall forget, in time, surely as morning.
Then your fragrance – honey, sweat-musk, elusive dew – revives
a desire never wholly forsaken.
When I clear my nose, this curtained room
reeks of musty pain . . .’
. . . The Provincial Capital echoes with disorder.
Armies prowl the five directions
gorging on tattered villages that survive . . .’
‘ . . . Green moss on the path seldom travelled
to Mulberry Ridge. From up here
view a hundred li of flooded fields
crowned by haze, circling white birds.
How many more times will this way choose me?
Once is all I beg, to say farewell.’