If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms,
A great shelter for all the world’s scholars, together in joy,
Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it.
Oh! If I could see this house before me,
I’d happily freeze to death in my broken hut!
–Du Fu, ‘My Thatched Cottage was Torn Apart By Autumn Winds’,
trans. Mark Alexander
Just over a week ago I found myself in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, standing in front of the thatched cottage of Du Fu. Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), along with Li Bai 李白 (701-762), is of course the most celebrated of Tang dynasty poets. Looking over the vaguely Disneyish contours of his Chengdu cottage, with its low eaves and hummocked thatch, it’s hard not to think of the famous poem of his that begins with an Autumn gale stripping the straw from its roof, to leave his children rained on in their beds. Written when Du Fu was 50 years old, that poem builds up to a final vision picturing a mansion of ten thousand rooms in which (depending on how the translator deals with 士 shì) all the world’s scholars, or all the world’s poor, might shelter together. So impoverished was Du Fu around this period of his life that one of those children died of starvation. His official position had, scholars suspect, fallen foul of one outspokenly critical poem too many. After the Tang dynasty found itself riven by rebellion, Du Fu had fled the then capital of Xi’an, wandering across a devastated country until, weak and sickening, he reached the southwestern city of Chengdu in autumn 759, then spent the next year working to build his simple thatched hut by a stream.
lding’s vintage is closer to Milton’s Paradise Lost or Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’.) The poem about the autumn gale and ruined thatch only underlines the basic fact that all traditional Chinese wooden structures are, in some sense, ephemeral, even as they endure. This Ship of Theseus-like paradox struck me on my first visit to mainland China in 2004. One section of the Forbidden City had been sequestered behind blue metal hoardings. On the other side, conservationists weren’t swabbing surfaces with cotton wool; rather, workmen were sawing and hefting out wholesale the more cracked and flaking of the red-painted wooden pillars. (The sign read: ‘The ancient building is renovating. Excuse me for bringing trouble to you.’) If every single pillar, beam, and tile in the Forbidden City has been replaced at least once, is it still the Forbidden City? That question probably only occurs to us because our way of thinking has been shaped by Athenians (who might or might not have a ship belonging to Theseus).
Since I joined my current Cambridge college, Caius, as a Research Fellow a couple of years ago, I’ve had to get used to calling the figure known to the wider poetry world as J.H. Prynne, ‘Jeremy’, and to sitting near him at lunch. Despite the cavernously high ceilings in college hall, dinners there can get uncomfortably hot, and you will often see Jeremy at high table, wafting a silk fan painted with a Chinese poem, whose author and title have sadly escaped me since I last asked. This was not many months after I arrived at Caius, and Jeremy replied that many of the fan poem’s more obscure characters had once been printed in his memory, but had since faded. (Having in recent times been trying to grapple with a hundred or more new hanzi a week, I now know how this feels.) He then went on to tell the most wonderful anecdote about his College Tutor at Jesus, the man who had first begun teaching him Chinese, Laurence Picken. As Jeremy told it, Picken had been a biologist and had published a tome on the structure of the cell. But when Watson and Crick published the DNA paper in 1953, he saw the writing on the wall for his particular niche. He decided to turn fulltime to what had previously been a hobby – oriental musicology.
The most important discovery of Picken’s musicology career was his ‘rediscovery’ of Tang court music, which had once been thought lost because it survived only in scraps of documentation. In his search for the lost Tang music, Picken’s instincts led him to Japan – whose highly conservative culture has preserved so many aspects of ancient China – and then to Japan’s remaining ancient temples. One day, he had a flash of inspiration: what if he took the recordings he had been making of the monks’ chants and sped them up? What he found was that the monks’ austere drones transformed, when played back at double speed, into a lively rhythm that might furnish the dancing of an evening at the Tang court. When he compared this living musical relic to the scraps of Tang notation, they appeared to match. And so the Tang music once thought extinct, Picken managed to reconstruct to the point where it could be performed again.
This delightful fable of accidental preservation and unexpected recovery stayed with me. So when I came to read Prynne’s 2012 introduction to the Chinese translation of his Selected Poems – a talk reprinted in Cambridge Quarterly’s issue on China and the Cambridge English Faculty – I recognised it immediately. Within the prefatory talk, Picken’s is not only a story about history’s losses and gains; it’s a parable to take into the difficult process of translating a poem from one language into another, which involves its own tallying of gains and losses.
A few weeks ago I went home to visit my parents, so that I would get to see them before my next long stretch of travelling. Later that night, the house quiet except for the hum of the fridge, my mum brought down two books from upstairs – one was her secondary school Chinese poetry textbook, the other was a Hong Kong-printed copy of the 300 Tang Poems, which she had bought a few years later. I needed to trace the eye-scrunchingly small characters down the page with my index finger, working across from right to left in the old way. She would pause to help me with the characters I didn’t yet know, or where I couldn’t recognise the traditional equivalent of a simplified one. And so we read together – her reading the words in their Cantonese pronunciation, me sounding them out in my English-stilted Mandarin. My Chinese studies have not yet stretched to Cantonese, whose eight or so tones make it a more musical language than Mandarin, but also an even more fiendishly difficult one to learn. I read somewhere that Cantonese is likely closer than modern Mandarin is to the ancient pronunciation of Du Fu and Li Bai. The sonic effect of that midnight reading was lovely in its own right, as the sounds in the two different dialects crossed paths, sometimes almost overlapping, only to diverge again, as if harmonising with one another.
I’ve seen those two books on the shelf as long as I remember, so it moved me to be able to pick them up and read from them, albeit haltingly and with much help. Because of their place in my mother’s early life, the books themselves already feel like precious survivors. But during that reading session, two further relics emerged from the tanned pages of the 300 Tang Poems. When the book was new, my mum had fashioned it an impromptu dustjacket from a cheap inkwash print bought off a stall, by now an interesting piece of ephemera in its own right. I had looked at its design of grey ducklings on a reed-edged pond many times, pulling it off the shelf as a child – it was the only thing in the whole volume I could understand. But that night, for the first time, I noticed a folded, much-yellowed rectangle of paper tucked into the dustjacket’s inside edge. When I pulled it out an opened it, it turned out to be a form, neatly filled in blue ink, which my mother had needed to submit, aged 11, to apply for her Hong Kong ID card. The over-neat, childlike English script wasn’t my mother’s handwriting, but apparently that of a ‘cousin’ – not a real cousin, but a granddaughter of the old woman she’d been left to lodge with at that time while her adoptive mother went out to work.
The second relic I recognised immediately as of my doing. It fell out when I flicked through the poems: a serrated-edged leaf of about two inches, pressed to an unnatural flatness, and desiccated to a purplish brown. I’d gone though a phase in Hong Kong of picking samples of the local flora when taken for walks, to stow in selected books around the flat. I think I had got the idea that this was the sort of thing little girls in England did. My parents eventually put a stop to it when it was discovered I had ruined an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom – whose colour prints of tapirs and whale sharks had filled my rainy afternoons – by crushing inside it a particularly large and succulent tropical bloom picked up outside our block. The deep pink nectar had seeped through several pages on either side, cementing them together. When I started at my primary school in England, they liked to have us learn classic poems off by heart. I’m not sure if the teacher thought she was being a wit when she assigned me – a recent arrival from the tropics – Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’. As it was, the poem’s warnings about the ‘gaudy melon-flower’, and its inferiority to restrained English blossoms, had come too late for this particular colonial child.
Where the purplish serrated leaf had sat undisturbed, for what could have been twenty years, between the pages in my mother’s copy of 300 Tang Poems, it had left a mottled ghost of itself. Before closing the book that night, I slotted the folded yellow form into its dustjacket niche, then placed the leaf carefully back on top of its printed shadow.
That day in Chengdu, when we had finished looking round Du Fu’s cottage, and I had photographed his supposedly replica desk, we strolled onward to another of the city’s famous parks. At that hour of the afternoon it was full of Chengdu’s elderly, seated with thermoses of green tea at the outdoor tables within the sprawling precincts of the park’s teahouse. Most were playing Mahjong, their quiet chat periodically punctuated by a fevered clacking as a table ‘washed the tiles’ (xi pai), all hands digging in to shuffle the plastic pieces around the centre of the table. As we followed the park’s bamboo-arched avenues, we came across an old man who was using one section of flagged path as a giant piece of paper for ‘ground calligraphy’, or dishu. Dipping his outsized brush – it was somewhere between brush and mop – into an old can filled with water, he used that ‘ink’ to trace out characters onto the path. Their scale turned the act of writing into a movement involving not only the hand, but the whole body, like a kind of dance.
I had heard about this ephemeral art of ‘ground calligraphy’, but had never seen it. It apparently had its origins in the public parks of Beijing in the early ’90s. One might read too much into that putative date and place of origin, but it made me think of the theme of transience and disappearance that runs through Chinese contemporary art of that decade. The work of one artist, Song Dong, sprang to mind particularly. He had begun as a painter at an early age, but after the trauma of events in Tiananmen in 1989, he ceased work for some years, before returning as a purely conceptual artist. In 1995 (perhaps inspired by the old men in the Beijing parks?) Song began to keep a daily journal, which he would write out in water on a large flat stone. Their putative record vanished faster than the days themselves. The following year, on a freezing New Year’s Eve night, Song performed a piece called ‘Breathing’. He lay down in a totally deserted Tiananmen square, face to the ground, so that his lips almost touched the pavement. Over the next 40 minutes his clouded breath played over the concrete flag, its vapour cumulatively freezing into a thin sheen of ice, which lasted for a few hours but was gone by morning.
Almost at the same time as we discovered the elderly Chengdu calligrapher, a posse of student physiotherapists out on a team-building exercise had already engaged him respectfully in conversation. He teased them about their difficulty understanding the traditional script, or fantizi, of his artwork. Their generation, unlike his, had grown up only ever knowing the Mainland’s simplified Chinese script, first introduced by Mao in 1956. Eventually he handed over his brush-mop to one of the girls, who giggled and tried to refuse. The whole group laughed as she tried, jaggedly, to write out her name’s three characters with the unfamiliar instrument, which suddenly seemed as clunky in her hands as it had been deft in his.
In the midst of this intergenerational exchange, I asked the old man whether the lines he had written were those of a poem. He replied that it was a very famous poem by Li Bai – but in the old man’s thick Sichuan accent (which for me was verging on incomprehensible) it sounded more like Li Bei. When I got back that night, I identified the poem as Li Bai’s 關山月 (guan shan yue), ‘The Moon at the Fortified Pass’. The old man had only managed to get to the fifth line before being distracted:
The bright moon lifts from the Mountain of Heaven
In an infinite haze of cloud and sea,
And the wind, that has come a thousand miles,
Beats at the Jade Pass battlements….
China marches its men down Baideng Road
While Tartar troops peer across blue waters of the bay….
And since not one battle famous in history
Sent all its fighters back again,
The soldiers turn round, looking toward the border,
And think of home, with wistful eyes,
And of those tonight in the upper chambers
Who toss and sigh and cannot rest.
Written at a time when the Tang dynasty was at war with Tibet, this poem’s terrain is the Chinese empire’s vulnerable Western borders. Many of the place names it invokes are not, relatively speaking, that far from Chengdu, in neighbouring provinces at the country’s western edge. By utter coincidence, the ‘Jade Pass’ Li Bai describes as beaten by the thousand-mile wind is in fact the Yumen Pass in Gansu province, which we had visited just days before. A fortress guarding a gap in the Great Wall outside the city of Dunhuang, it served as a vital conduit for trade on the Silk Road. And so, a few days before we met the calligrapher in the Chengdu park, we had stood sweltering inside the shell of Li Bai’s ‘Jade Pass’, trying to imagine what it must have been like for the ancient soldiers to be stationed inside that hellhole of heat and dust.
In a further little twist, googling this Li Bai poem on the English language internet mainly brings up results associated with Chow Yun-fat’s role as a suspiciously Orientalist pirate captain in Pirates of the Caribbean 3, who recites (in Cantonese) its last four lines during the film. But the reason English language newspapers were so interested was because the poem was cut from the version of the film screened in China itself, along with almost half of Chow Yun-fat’s 20-minutes of screen time. Hollywood films are regularly censored in China for sex and violence, but it seems likely that the Chinese government takes special exception to what they perceive as retrograde Hollywood representations of Chineseness. I was tickled to read that the scene, towards the start of Men in Black 3, where Will Smith ‘neuralizes’ the gathered crowd of Chinese onlookers to the chaos in New York Chinatown was also cut in China, possibly because it was taken as an allegory of Chinese government censorship as an attempt to induce mass amnesia. If the scriptwriters had really been that on top of their covert political allegorizing, it might have been a better film!
I didn’t get the chance to quiz the old calligrapher any further about the poem, because we had a date later that afternoon with a two-week-old baby panda called Hesheng, in whose company I shall leave you now...