Modern translation of Chinese poetry has become something of a hit and miss affair. While Western audiences have some familiarity with Chinese poetry, it is an often superficial and vague awareness.
English translators and interpreters, perhaps benighted by part time jobs, insufficient institutional support, small reader interest, or boredom, have tended to cherry pick the most well known of Chinese poems, lump them together, and toss into the stratosphere countless Best Hits anthologies.
These Jurassic Classics, to borrow a term from CBS Records and my great friend Peter Munves, have given short shrift to the depth, variety and exuberant multiculturalism of the greatest Chinese poets.
Today, there are very few translations of the complete poems of major Chinese poets. I concede that it was an anthology of Chinese Poems that allowed me to discover the Tang poet Li Shangyin, but once I started reading him, it became my passion, perhaps obsession, to render all of his poems into English.
I started in 2015, and in December of 2016, while on vacation in Lamu, Kenya, amidst the sounds of donkeys at midnight, and waves cresting in the Indian Ocean, I finished this project.
This Chinese Kafka in love, as I have called him, is also a minimalist a la Wagner, in that he expresses motifs, such as homesickness, fatalism, unrequited love, frustrated ambition throughout his 600 or so poems repeatedly, but has incredibly powerful crescendos of passion that last for the briefest moments (such as the Untitled Poems).
“Poems don’t sell,” a manager at Barnes and Noble in New York wryly told me once, and I then promptly decided not to seek a publisher (at least for the complete poems). Instead, I have decided to make my interpretations available on the internet for all to enjoy.
I also want to give a special thank you to Sonya Kassam for helping get this project started, and my wife Xue Hua, who spent hours helping check the Chinese and providing great visuals.
– Mark O. Ndesandjo
About Li Shangyin 1
In his wanderings around China as an official of the feudal government, Li Shangyin turned to poems and essays to express themes of love, nostalgia, homesickness, and an appreciation of nature. The core of his work, his poems, concern the dichotomy between enduring love or friendship, and the temporality of all things.
In his 45 years (813AD – 858AD), Li Shangyin wrote many marvelous poems, on diverse topics, from his struggles with internal government politics to alleged affairs with prostitutes, imperial courtesans and Taoist nuns. His output was perhaps in the thousands, but many poems are lost and about 600 remain.
The waning days of the Tang empire were marked by a secessionist revolt that was successfully quelled by the Emperor Wuzong. Poisoned by his Taoist priestess, the emperor was succeeded by Emperor Xuanzong, whose new policies reversed Wuzong’s successes in arresting the decline of the Empire.
He was born in what is now Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, an area traditionally referred to as the ‘Mother of China’ (中国母亲) 2
Li Shangyin had studied the classics from an early age. At 17, he was drawn into military service on the staff of Chu Linghu, a famous general allied with the Niudang (牛党)confucian sect. At the time, this sect competed with the Lidang (李党)sect for the emperor’s favor. A few years into his apprenticeship in Chu’s military governorship, Chu was transferred to the capital as Deputy Cabinet Chief, a high sounding position but actually a sinecure, because he was not made an Imperial Counselor at the same time. When Li was 25, Chu died. Although the son of Li Shangyin’s mentor Chu Linghu was summoned to the Court as Imperial Counselor, he provided the poet no career assistance.
In AD 837, Li passed the Entrants Examination, qualifying for Imperial appointment, and joined the military staff of Wang Maoyuan (王茂元), a member of the Lidang sect. He eventually married his daughter. However,on account of his close relationship with his first mentor, who was seen as something of an iconoclast, and was never fully trusted by many government officials. It was as though a lifetime Republican married into the family of a Democrat. He would spend his life in fear of arbitrary government policies and intrigues. Throughout, due to the death or sudden career changes of his patrons or for other reasons, he would be shuffled between low level postings, and regularly denied the promotions to which he aspired.
After some time in Chang’An (present-day Xi’an), he joined his magistrate uncle in Haizhou, not far from the capital. Although his time there was brief (His uncle died within the year), he avoided the turmoil of an unsuccessful revolt against the power of the eunuchs that took place in the capital.
After years of moving from post to post, without a main mentor who could consistently guide him, Li finally joined the staff of a rising governor, Liu Zhongying in Sichuan in 851. At last valued by the leadership (Liu provided Li with a large signing bonus just to join his team) Li stayed for over four years. This was the only time when he wrote poems expressing happiness with his job and his colleagues. When Liu moved up to a lucrative central financial post, Li moved with him. However, just when things were looking up, Li’s health failed, and he resigned his post in AD858, dying shortly afterwards.
Throughout his life the factional division among the ministerial officials was less ominous for the Tang dynasty than the confrontation between the emperor and the eunuchs in control of the palace, and the officials outside the palace. Both sides would seek sympathizers among the military governors, until, in a final orgy of destruction, the once glorious Tang Dynasty succumbed to invasion and disintegration.
About the Chinese Language
In parts of this site Chinese words are written using the pinyin system of pronunciation. Mandarin Chinese pronunciation uses 4 tones in pronouncing syllables. Depending upon the tones the same syllable will have different meanings.
First tone (e.g. ā). This is a flat, level high-pitched tone
Second tone (e.g. á) This is an ascending pitch
Third tone (e.g. ǎ) This is a deep, centered pitch
Fourth tone (e.g. à) This is a sharp pitch, like a quick accent
For example, the original Chinese from a poem by the great Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai may be written (using simplified characters):
(Before my bed 3, the bright moonlight/ I doubt it is frost on the ground.
In the Pin Yin system these lines are written using English characters for ease of pronunciation, as follows:
chuáng qián míng yuè guāng, yí shì dì shàng shuāng
1. Much of the following is adapted from Chung Kwok’s analysis of the poet’s career (seechina.tv).
2. Although it is sometimes not respected as such. I have heard some joke about or disparage Henan hicks (河南农民工) for their poverty and perceived backwardness, in much the same way New Yorkers and Bostonians looked down on rural migrants from the South.