Sacred Texts  Confucianism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

A Feast of Lanterns, by L. Cranmer-Byng, [1916], at


The great storehouse of Chinese poetry is still untouched. Forty-eight thousand nine hundred

p. 35

are the collected poems of the T‘ang dynasty alone, and of these possibly some three or four hundred have been translated into various European languages.

As the Chinese have more than 40,000 ideographs, and a good Chinese scholar is one who can commit to memory about eight or nine thousand, the difficulties in the way of translation are obvious. Nor is it easy to find one who is both a profound linguist and a poet as well. One who is so deeply indebted as I am to the researches of the great sinologues of the nineteenth century is conscious of treading on delicate ground even in referring to the relations between scholarship and literature. The fact, however, remains, that with a few rare exceptions, the scholar has attempted too much. Poetry is poetry, whether it be written in Chinese ideographs or European characters, and no knowledge of Chinese will enable one to interpret the poet's message in another tongue. There is an Italian proverb which says that to translate is to traduce, and this is profoundly true of ninety-nine translations out of a hundred. Before one line is placed on paper the translator from the Chinese must have soaked himself in the traditions of the Chinese masters, their reticence, their power of suggestion, their wonderful colour-sense, and, above all, their affinity and identification with their subject. He might well study the methods of the Chinese painters, who

p. 36

never put brush to canvas before committing all essential details to memory. He might read the story of Wu Tao-tzu, the greatest of all Chinese masters, as told by Mr. Laurence Binyon in The Flight of the Dragon: "He was sent by the Emperor to paint the scenery of a certain river. On his return, to every one's surprise, he had no sketches to show. "I have it all," he said, "in my heart."

The poems I have chosen to render belong chiefly to the school of landscape. This does not mean that Chinese poets avoided the grim realities of life and the ceaseless struggle for existence. Poets as far apart as Chu Yuan in the fourth century B.C. and Li Hua in the ninth century A.D. have given us battle pictures which have seldom been equalled. Both these mighty panoramas deal with the pomp and panoply of armed hosts, the shock of battle in the bleak plains of Tartary, and finally moonlight upon the quiet faces of the innumerable dead. In the time of the T‘angs universal conscription obtained. Tu Fu, in his famous poem "The Recruiter," gives a wonderful description of the deserted countryside from which all the menfolk had gone. Many soldiers were also poets, famous generals like Yo Fei, more often than not commanders of small military posts on the lonely caravan routes in Chinese Turkistan.

Yet, after all, the deepest feeling of the Chinese

p. 37

poets is revealed in their word-painting of woods and mountains and water. Kuo Hsi, the great artist of the Sung dynasty, in his essay on painting, says:

"Mountains make water their blood; grass and trees their hair, mist and cloud their divine colouring. Water makes of mountains its face, of houses and fences its eyebrows and its eyes, and of fishermen its soul."

And again of water he writes:

"Water is a living thing, hence its form is deep and quiet, or soft and smooth, or broad and ocean-like or thick like flesh, or circling like wings, or jetting and slender, rapid and violent like an arrow, rich as a fountain upon the sky or running down into the earth where fishermen lie at ease. Grass and trees on the river banks look joyous, and are like beautiful ladies under veils of mists and cloud, or sometimes bright and gleaming as the sun shines down the valley. Such are the living aspects of water." 1

The fishermen who become the soul of water are sages like Chang Chih Ho, and poets like Ou-Yang Hsiu of the solemn autumn dirge and moonlight threnody. In the picture of the latter exhibited a few years back at the British Museum the face of the poet is fixed and calm. His eyes have taken in all beauty and externals, and his gaze

p. 38

has swept beyond them into the beauty beyond all vision.

One with the movement of the boat, one with the mood of the glimmering waters and the surrender of the scented woods, he grasps ten thousand and secures One. Such were the Taoist fishermen of Kuo Hsi. Drifting with the winds and the currents of great rivers, adventuring by unknown streams, they attained Harmony, and their spoils are bright moments of the eternal Mood caught in golden nets, flower fairies held in gossamer. Never has the earth been so worshipped by man. She was at once the unattainable mistress and goddess surrendering to mortal lover. And never a bell of solitary convent floated across the Chinese landscape but it brought some anchorite of ancient beauty to her shrine.

When the sound of a bell is withdrawn till it fails in the green mists of twilight,
Night and the dreamer pursuing his dream return through a myriad leaves.


37:1 Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art, by Ernest Fenollosa, vol. ii. pp. 14 and 15.

Next: Lines From the Tomb of an Unknown Woman