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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #16 (April 13, 2004), page 15.

Anthology of classic Chinese poetry is user friendly


Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse

Translated by Red Pine

Copper Canyon Press, 2003

Paperback, 496 pages, $18.00


"Recording My Thoughts While Traveling at Night"

A shore of thin reeds in light wind

a tall boat alone at night

stars hang over the barren land

the moon rises out of the Yangtze

how could writing ever lead to fame

I quit my post due to illness and age

drifting along what I am like

a solitary gull between Heaven and Earth


By Dave Johnson

In this pensive, bittersweet poem, Tu Fu, one of China’s greatest poets, talks about the struggle to resettle his family after the death of his patron and the Empire’s ongoing failure to compensate him for his talents. Although it’s a sly lament for the Empire’s callous treatment of poets, it’s also a wondrous sequence of lovely images by a master who created his lasting art out of ephemeral images of suffering.

This poem and many more by Tu Fu, who shares the squat, wooden throne of Chinese poetry with Li Po, can be found in the anthology, Poems of the Masters, translated by Red Pine and published by Copper Canyon Press.

A sumptuous volume of verse from the T’ang and Sung dynasties, it is important to both scholars and to those who delight in China’s greatest art. Translated into English for the first time, this collection has been a mainstay for students of classic literature in the Far East. Now it’s a handsome paperback with an illuminating preface from the translator, a bilingual presentation on opposing pages, and Red Pine’s notes for each poem.

Rather than plough through dense, academic drivel, the reader gets a concise, accessible, scholarly yet personable account of what was going on when the poem was written. These sidebars are tasty morsels that not only offer biographical sketches of the various poets but encapsulate the social, cultural, and political history of the Land of the Dragon.

A good example is the footnote that follows this poem by Su Shih:

"Spring Night"

A spring night hour is worth a ton of gold

the pure scent of flowers the moon’s pale light

music from the terrace finer than silk

swinging in the courtyard far into the night

Red Pine explains that Su Shih was "one of the greatest poets, essayists, calligraphers and personalities of the Sung Dynasty. He also served in a number of high-level posts, although his opposition to the policies of Wang An-shih resulted in a brief imprisonment and several banishments …" He adds that "The swing is said to have arrived in China during the first millennium B.C. via one of the nomadic groups on the country’s northern border. It still plays an important part in the harvest celebrations of such hilltribes as the Hani (Aini) along China’s southwest border, where ropes are often thirty or forty feet in length and it literally takes one’s breath away."

Most of these 224 poems are written by governmental officials in or out of favor with the Emperor or Empress, but Red Pine includes a few that capture the life and times of the resilient peasantry.

Wang Chia’s poem about a neighborhood celebration in "Festival Day" is universal in its succinct image of those moments when the party is over:

The fields below Gooselake Mountain are ready

the pigsties and chicken coops are all shut tight

mulberry shadows mean springfest is over

families all help their drunken men home

This anthology of classic Chinese poetry was published as a Kage-an Book, an imprint that refers to the Japanese term, Shadow Hermitage. Kage-an is Copper Canyon’s way of describing the shadow work of its translators. Red Pine’s life-long dedication to his scholarship as a translator and craft as a deft poet casts a long shadow, indeed.

Red Pine is a Chinese name chosen by Bill Porter. His translations include: The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom (Counterpoint, 2001), Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom by Sung Po-jen (Mercury House, 1995), and The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (Copper Canyon Press, 2000).

A frequent traveler to China, he has lived in a Buddhist monastery, married a Chinese woman, and produced over a thousand radio programs about Chinese history and culture. He lives near Seattle, Washington.


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