Friday, August 14, 2009

Relief that they had not fallen in - some 9th century Chinese monkeys

from The South Mountains

North of the great lake of K'un-ming,
On a brilliant day, I came to view the mountain.
It dropped straight down as far as I could see
Trapped wrongside up and steeped in the clear water.
When ripples stirred on the face of the pool
The rowdy monkeys hopped and skipped,
Shrieked with amazement to see their shattered shapes,
Looked up and gaped with relief that they had not fallen in.

Han Yü (768-824)

Boy oh boy am I glad I did not start my reading of Chinese poetry with this book, Poems of the Late T'ang (1965), translated by A. C. Graham. Unlike David Hinton or Kenneth Rexroth, this earlier editor is attracted to the most difficult, allusive, or plain weird poems. It's good to see some different sides of this complex subject, but Graham would have scared me right back to Europe.

Still, I sure like those confused, happy monkeys. Still, also, on vacation.


  1. Love this kind of poetry. But it also makes me wonder what choices the translator had to make, I'm sure the original offered a series of amazing translation "issues"...

  2. What I especially like about this type of poetry is how surprisingly not old fashioned it is. This could be fairly modern or even the lyrics to some obscure indie song... It's quite nice.

  3. Remarkable...

    Within the past 3 or 4 decades, primatologists, those who study primate behavior, discovered, much to their surprise, that given sufficient exposure to mirrors, rhesus monkeys will recognize their own image.

    It appears as though Han Yu made this same discovery some 12-13 hundred years ago.

    By the way, I do like Chinese and Japanese poetry, haiku being my favorites.

  4. Maybe it would be useful to mention that this translator, A. C. Graham, is operating under the influence of Ezra Pound and other Modernists of that sort, and as a result his theory of translation almost inevitably results in a "Modernist" poem.

    And the handful of poems he chooses to translate, out of the many thousands in the Chinese canon, is relevant, too. David Hinton's translations, for example, seem more Buddhist because he picks the more Buddhist-themed poems.

    Fred, perhaps the interpretation of the monkeys' behavior is just a flight of fancy. But I'll bet it's real, keen observation, long before there was such a thing as a primatologist.

  5. Yes--it could be just an overactive imagination, but I think it's something Han Yu observed and rightfully interpreted.

    I think it was Konrad Lorenz, the great German ethologist, who once said something to the effect that many people comment on how human many animals act, but the truth is the reverse--these similarities are signs of our citizenship in the animal kingdom.

  6. Han Yu is also the author of these famous lines:
    It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being of good omen; such is declared in all the odes, annals, biographies of illustrious men and other texts whose authority is unquestionable. Even children and village women know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we could be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with a mane is a horse and that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like.

  7. Han Yu was a Borgesian, wasn't he? Wonderful lines.