9 February 2016

Chinese Poetry: Su Shi

Su Shi, also known as Su Dong Po (Detail, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

I had not really read much Chinese poetry until I went to China earlier this year - just some by Du Fu, and a couple of really well-known ones by Li Po - but obviously, if I visit somewhere, I've got to get to know at least a bit about its literature. So I bought the Penguin Classics edition of the poetry of Li Po (also known as Li Bai) and Tu Fu (also known as Du Fu), searched out my copy of Jonathan Waley's Spring in the Ruined City, translations of Du Fu, and bought Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. I was glad I had read a bit, because when our hosts found out I wrote poetry, they were very keen to discuss the subject with me, and having done a bit of research I was able to not come across as entirely ignorant!

It was on a trip to the Fei Lai Temple, near Qingyuan, that I was introduced to Su Shi (1037 - 1101 CE), also known as Su Dongpo or Su Tungpo. I loved the frieze that depicted him reading his poetry among the mountains and the winds, so when I returned home, I added him to my reading and research list.

As I read more about Chinese poetry, I became more and more excited by it. As far as I understand it, Chinese is an almost totally uninflected language, so the relationships of words to each other in a poem are far more fluid than in English and other European languages. This allows a translator a lot of freedom in the rendering of a poem into their own language.

Here is Su Shi's Mid-Autumn Moon in Chinese and in Pinyin:

Text from http://www.chinese-poems.com/s10.html
And here is the literal translation from the excellent website Chinese Poems:

Sunset cloud gather far excess clear cold
Milky Way silent turn jade plate
This life this night not long good
Next year bright moon where see

I am now working on my own version of this almost thousand year old poem, and will post it here when it's done. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone with the slightest interest to have a look at Chinese poetry. I certainly wish I'd known more about it sooner.

Su Shi,(Complete panel, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

Poems, Li Po and Tu Fu, tr Adam Cooper, Penguin Classics
Spring in the Ruined City, Selected Poems of Du Fu, translated by Jonathan Waley, Shearsman
Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Sabina Knight, Oxford University Press