How to Read Chinese Poetry

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One of my favourite Chinese books is How to Read Chinese Poetry by Zong-qi Cai. It is, as the subtitle proclaims, a “guided anthology” and includes many wonderful poems as well as a huge amount of information about how these poems can be read. Whether you know Chinese or not, this book is a must-have for the light it throws on a glorious poetic tradition (or, to be more precise, on centuries of different poetic traditions).

An accompanying volume, a How to Read Chinese Poetry Workbook, is also excellent. Surprisingly, it covers a slightly different range of poems, but that does at least mean that we get masterpieces like ‘Written on the Wall of the West Wood Temple’ by Su Shi. (I’ve also just discovered that there is a third volume: How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context – another book for the To Read pile.) Here is Su Shi’s poem in Chinese, followed by Zong-qi Cai’s translation:

《题西林壁》

横看成岭侧成峰,

远近高低各不同。

不识庐山真面目,

只缘身在此山中。

 

苏轼(1037-1101)

 

‘Written on the Wall of the West Wood Temple’

All broad ridges it is, if seen lengthwise, all soaring peaks it becomes, if seen sideways;

Viewed from afar and near, high and low, it looks all different.

The true face of Mount Lu I cannot tell

Only because I am in the midst of it.

Su Shi (1037-1101)

 

How to translate such taut verse is a real problem, so I shall return to possible translations of the famous final couplet later in the year. For now, the poem is more than capable of standing on its own twenty-eight feet without any additional comment from me.