Five Translators Pay Tribute to the Past-Master of the Chinese Prose Poem


John Balcom, Göran Malmqvist, Silvia Marijnissen, Michelle Yeh and Wai-Lim Yip

Few modern or contemporary Chinese-language poets have published less poetry than Shang Qin but none to our knowledge enjoys a more devoted following among translators. The representation of this late, great Sichuan-born, Taipei-based "second-generation modernist" poet began as early as 1962, when a small handful of his early prose poems were rendered into French, one translation of which was read over Radio Paris, an event that is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the then thirty-two year-old poet was still seven years away from publishing his first collection.

We are thus honored to re-present the following personal favorites by five of Shang Qin's most distinguished English-language translators, among which are Shang Qin's first English translator, the Hong-Kong scholar-poet Wai-Lim Yip, who was a prominent member of Shang Qin's modernist circle back in the Sixties and remains one of his most active interpretors and advocates, and the Swedish sinologist Göran Malmqvist, who was the first translator to publish a full-length collection of Shang Qin's poetry in English. The quality of their work, and that of the other translators who have contrbuted to this feature, is a testament to the devotion this poet continues to inspire.


A CHILD told me that when the turkey is going to eat, the flesh on his beak stiffens and stands upright like a horn. My thought was that the turkey is no gossipy domestic fowl, and when he does make a sound it is only to protest something.

Tail feathers spread, the turkey resembles a peacock (even their calls are the same, which I find troubling). But the peacock flaunts its beauty out of loneliness, while the turkey is always demonstrating against the Void.

The turkey that demonstrates against the Void has no grasp of metaphysics.

He likes to eat the chlorophyll-rich tips of spring onions.

He likes to talk about love, but rarely walks with his love.

He is often thinking, but of things we know nothing about.

            translation and commentary by JOHN BALCOM
"The Turkey" was the first poem I ever read by Shang Qin, and it still remains for me one of his signature works. Replete with Shang Qin's customary humor, grace, charm, wonder, and mystery, the surface simplicity of the poem belies its greater profundity. Shang Qin is a natural-born poet in that his poems seem entirely unlabored; it is as if they emerged effortlessly, naturally from his very being.

The poem begins unpretentiously with the observations of a child about a turkey, a most un-exotic bird if ever there was one. The language is simple as befits the simple, unaffected perspective of a child. This observation is then contrasted with the thoughts of a more sophisticated adult, layering on a positive value judgment; the turkey, we are told, unlike other barnyard fowl, is no frivolous gossip, but a bird of profounder parts.

In the second stanza, the speaker compares the turkey to the more exotic peacock, noting similarities as well as differences. Once again, a contrastive pattern is employed: both the turkey and the peacock are members of the same family of birds, known as
Phasianidae, and thus exhibit the courtship behavior of strutting, and have similar calls. However, according to the speaker, the peacock's ostentatious display has more to do with loneliness, of drawing attention to himself in a vain, self-centered flaunting of superficial beauty. The turkey's display, by contrast, is of profounder significance in that it is the direct assertion of being against nothingness.

The final stanza focuses on the behavior of the turkey with regard to the basic necessities of life. I find the use of the words chlorophyll and metaphysics especially telling—both words draw attention to themselves in the text because of their elevated register. Metaphysics, as an abstract category of thought, is something of a negative here, something unnecessary; the turkey obviously possesses a metaphysic of his own, but one that is lived rather than thought. It can be read in constellation with the words "gossipy" and "flaunt" in the previous stanzas. Chlorophyll, on the other hand, is something positive, because it is something real, a sign of life-giving nourishment. Next, the speaker's portrayal of the turkey and his relationship with his love is also telling—though rarely seen with his love in a public display, he likes to talk about the experience of love, which ought to be vast, given that ornithologists, and I kid you not, consider turkeys to be promiscuous by nature. Throughout the text a dichotomy emerges between life fully lived and vain abstraction. The final line of the stanza sums up the inherent profundity of the apparently common bird—he is much deeper, and, ultimately more mysterious, than any of us can imagine.

Behind this delightful text is a whole philosophy of poetry. Heidegger can perhaps be invoked here to describe the meta-poetic level of the text: poetry as the expression of being, something organic and lived. This poem (like the turkey), despite its apparent surface simplicity, also offers us something much more profound. Shang Qin is a natural-born writer, whose poetry is a gift that allows us entry into a marvelously quirky universe, and we are the richer for it.


ONE DAY, when I had finished work and returned to my bedroom, I first pulled off one of my gloves and threw it on the bed. I then pulled out a cigarette from the packet and stuck it in my mouth. Just as I had lit a match and was preparing to inhale, I suddenly found myself staring through the black smoke curling above the flame at the rough and once white glove, that had been coloured red by red earth, black by black earth and red-brown by a mixture of red and black earth.

At that moment, as it had left my hand, the glove was naturally quite empty and flat. The index finger was bent and formed an angle of thirty degrees, the little finger I couldn't see, as it was squashed and hidden under the ring finger and the middle finger; it looked indeed as if the glove had lost one finger—oh, how it must suffer from feelings of loneliness and pain. I hurriedly shook my hand and extinguished the match, pulled off the other glove and in great haste threw it beside the glove on the bed.

The second glove landed on its back with spread-out fingers, deprived of strength. The tips of the fingers pointed at the first glove, with which it formed a right angle, from a distance of about ten centimetres. To say that the gloves were resting wouldn't do, since they were actually quivering. There they lay, a pair of rough and red-brown gloves which had once been white. What better symbol than these gloves of total hopelessness, utterly empty sadness and a human being who has reached the utmost degree of degradation. Not even a widow who dances a slow waltz with an overcoat in her arms.

            translation and commentary by GÖRAN MALMQVIST
One evening in the late 1980s, my wife Ning-tsu and I were invited to a reception at the Yuan-shan Hotel in Taipei. I suddenly caught sight of a man standing at the opposite side of the great hall, looking as lost as I myself felt. I turned to my wife and said: “That man must be a poet! I want to translate his poetry!”

That evening Shang Qin and I spoke Sichuanese together and found out that we had friends in common, among them the Chengdu poet Liu Shahe, who has done much to introduce works of Taiwanese poets to Mainland readers. A few days later I received from Shang Qin his two collections of poetry which proved to me that my first impression had been correct. Shang Qin was indeed a uniquely gifted poet. But Shang Qin was not only a great poet, he was also a man of great integrity, a truly human quality which is becoming rather rare in our modern society. I miss him.


IT IS SAID there is a war off somewhere far . . .

Here, in a street at daybreak, a patrol man is stopped in a place without any obstacles. Instantly he puts his hand behind his back, lowers his head and walks with measured steps; wants to explain, wants to find out: where is the "boundary"; in this way he is sculpted by this one intention.

And witnessed by a street dog, is the boundary, woven by the stare of one who has got up early in the morning and washed, projecting an awareness of the tendency of last night's dream, and its echo that turns from the glass hairs on the wall of bricks and cement.

            translation and commentary by SILVIA MARIJNISSEN
In June 2002 Shang Qin was invited to participate in the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival. His reading was a great success, the audience listened to him as if glued to their chairs. But what made an even bigger impression on me were the workshops: during five mornings we gathered—Shang Qin, myself, and five Dutch poets, i.e. Erik Lindner, Wim Hofman, Martin Reints, Hester Knibbe and Jan-Willem Anker—to discuss Shang Ch'in's work and to try and make, with our combined forces, the "perfect" Dutch translation of one of his poems. We chose the intriguing "Boundary" (, 1958), of which we were not sure that "boundary" would be the best translation, did it not rather mean something like "scope"? Word choice, word order and the exact image that the poem evokes confronted us with many problems.

Opposition is central to this poem. It starts with the very first two sentences: "far off" and "here". One surmises that these places must form a contradiction, so we decided that the words "far off" and "here" should follow directly after each other, as in Chinese. But what kind of street is this "main street" (
da jie 大街) exactly, what word to use in translation? "It is a main road in a big city," explained Shang Qin, "one that is usually very crowded in daytime but not at daybreak." The first word to come to mind in Dutch, "verkeersweg," similar to "traffic route," has the word "traffic" in it, which, so we felt, would immediately rouse a sense of noise. After much discussion we decided that the more neutral "street" would have to do, even though its range of meaning is too big. What we did know for sure now is that the war over there is contrasted with the peacefulness, the quietness of that early hour that is found here.

The daybreak itself is of course a boundary between night and day—one of Shang Qin's favorite subjects. It symbolizes many things in this poem: the boundary between dream and reality, between quietness and bustle, between the law-abiding patrol man who thinks he discovers something important, but cannot see it, and the stray dog, walking around freely, who does see. The wall with its glass hairs also is a boundary between two worlds.

Still, understanding more or less what a poem is about is not the same as translating it, and so we tried to visualize what happens in the second stanza of the poem. Shang Qin, sitting all the time patiently beside us, answering us in detail and with a good sense of humor, now rises, puts his hands on his back, starts walking with his head down, in a very slow, deliberate way, a searching glance in his eye. How about the third stanza? This time the answer is unveiled in a drawing: a patrol man, a dog, someone who has just awoken, a wall, and imaginative lines between the early riser and the pieces of broken glass on the brick wall arrive on the scene.

Such answers were a great help, although our problems were not solved at once, the most important job was still to be done: to transform these long, winding sentences into a similar Dutch, a language that defies fluidity, without becoming too forced or too artificial. We finally agreed upon a version, which I have for the occasion retranslated into English.

This poem is not long, it counts only one hundred and twenty characters. But as one of us concluded, all in all, the six of us worked on its translation into Dutch for more than six and a half hours, that is altogether some two thousand and four hundred minutes, which comes down to twenty minutes of reflection for each character. A precious experience. Does one ever take only one minute to try to imagine what only a stray dog can see?


TONIGHT, the streetlights in my neighborhood went out on time at midnight again.

While I was getting my keys out, the kind-hearted taxi driver aimed the headlights at my backside as he retreated; the glaring light mercilessly projected the pitch-black silhouette of a middle-aged man onto the iron door. It wasn't until I had found the right key in the bunch and inserted it squarely into the spot where my heart was that the kind-hearted taxi driver took off.

It was then that I turned the key inserted in my heart with a gentle click, and, as I drew out the delicate piece of metal, I thrust the door open and stepped inside decidedly.

Soon I got used to the darkness within.

            translation and commentary by MICHELLE YEH
To me, the poem is typical Shang Qin. It gives a straightforward, low-keyed narrative by a first-person narrator. The setting is commonplace, the character ordinary, and the action pedestrian. However, the seemingly smooth, uneventful narrative is undercut by something a little bizarre or incongruous, which leads the reader to ask, what happens, why does it happen, and what does it mean?

In “Electric Lock,” the one-sentence opening stanza refers to power outage at midnight as something fully expected. Mind you, the streetlights are not turned off (to save energy, for example); power outage happens at exactly the same hour night after night. The narrator doesn't mind it at all, nor does he seem interested in finding out why or trying to intervene (by going to the apartment management or the local electricity company, for example). To him, darkness is simply part of life's routine. The underlying notion of “routine” is the key to the poem, which ends with the phrase “being used to.”

What is the narrator used to, besides the oddly timed power outage? The answer is embedded in his interaction with the taxi driver. Twice in the second stanza the narrator calls the driver “kind-hearted” when, in fact, backing up the taxi and casting light on the narrator is neither intended nor kindly. The driver is simply maneuvering his car out of a tight spot and heading back to where he came from. The narrator's emphasis on a stranger's kindness suggests that his life is so devoid of intimate human interaction that even a fortuitous act is interpreted as kindness and regarded with exaggerated gratitude.

Darkness in the poem is not only physical but also symbolic; it not only enshrouds the neighborhood but also permeates the narrator's heart. As a middle-aged man, he has acquired sufficient self-knowledge but is resigned to who he is and what he is. (The poem would not be as effective were the narrator a young man.) He feels alienated from the world but is too passive to change it. He is powerless, like the electric lock which is rendered useless night after night. In the third stanza, he comes face to face with his inertia as he is “mercilessly” reminded of the emptiness and loneliness of his life. There is nothing he can, or wants to, do about it because he has gotten so used to this condition. The narrator in “Electric Lock” is Shang Qin's “hollow man.” Unlike the many positive images of night in his oeuvre, the “pitch-black” world in which the narrator lives offers neither dreams nor freedom.

As a student of poetry, I have learned over the years not to get too close to a poet. Not only because it is usually not a good idea to mix work with pleasure—what if I like the person but not his/her work, or vice versa?—but also because seeing human nature in full view, compared with reading the finest creations of human imagination, is almost always disappointing. But Shang Qin was one of the rare exceptions. I have known him for more than twenty years and have held him in the highest esteem because he was a great poet and an authentic human being. There was not a particle of affectation and self-importance in everything he said and did. He saw the pettiness in the literary world, but he never let it bother him. He was sad sometimes, but he never wallowed in self-pity or bitterness. He knew many people, but he never let fame, wealth, status, or connection dictate his choices of friends. Besides writing poetry, he sketched, painted, collected antique ink wells, writing brush washers, porcelain, and Chinese New Year woodblock prints; but he never sought attention to his various talents. All the suffering and deprivation he had experienced as a young man made him prematurely old; all the things he loved doing as he aged made him contented and joyful like a child. It is sad to lose a great poet, but one can at least take comfort in knowing that his/her work will never die. Shang Qin has definitely earned immortality with his poetry. Yet, as a dear friend who can never be replaced, his death fills me with immeasurable loss and pain.


AT A BEND of a silence-paved mountain road, a vacant rental cab, like a withered leaf on a windless day, gradually, unconsciously, came to a stop. The young driver had suddenly remembered a turnout called “the leaping field.” “Yes, the leaping field!” Then he got to thinking once again of the question of why one is up, another down, and the question as well regarding leasing—the soul that is.

Passing the bend a second time, this time with passengers, he suddenly slammed violently on the brakes, and laid his head upon the wheel and wept, for he had just imagined that he had crashed into the cab that had stopped there earlier, the one which he was now driving, and into himself still at the wheel.

            translation and commentary by WAI-LIM YIP
One of the effective ways to manipulate readers' psyche into a shocking awareness is to take pains to maintain a matter-of-fact tone to slowly lead them into a situation that is uncanning, or perplexing. A good case is found in the protagonist Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis who woke up from troubling dreams to find himself transformed into a giant insect. All along, the readers are led to believe, or want to believe, that this must be still a dream, or a nightmare, but the meticulously realistic narration confirms and reconfirms that this is not a dream; it is reality, and thus, the entire novella immediately takes on the power of a parabolic structure of a surreal nature. Similar effect can be found in Lu Xun's "Diary of a Madman," whose voice is calm, controlled, and logical and whose observations on current societal ills, perceptive and poignant.

Part of Shang Qin's reason for using the medium of prose poetry is that the prose flow allows him to modulate more closely to the voice and the cuts and turns of the event in question in a disarming tone: he is telling a quotidian story. Even though he embellishes the movement of the slow and stopped cab with a somewhat poetic image "unaware of itself the way a leaf, without being blown by the wind, falls off the tree," it is meant to approximate the needed rhythmic effect rather than the action. At this juncture, the readers are slightly puzzled: what is a "leaping field"? It must be pointed out that the poem was not annotated when it was originally published unlike subsequent editions. This creates a temporary delay. Is the "leaping field." which leads the cabdriver to think of the problems of "higher and lower," and "hiring and renting"—concerning the soul, philosophical and political? Let us postpone the answer for a moment. As a trope, "leaping field" is meant to interrupt and delay the action just narrated, as is often done in the progression in music, so that when the action is picked up again, it becomes incrementally more emphatic, and now, in one breath, he drives the readers into this highly neurotic moment, "And when he passed the bend a second time, carrying in it some passengers, he suddenly stepped on the brake and, bowing down his head, wept bitterly over the steering wheel, for he thought he had just crashed into the cab which was parked there and into himself still in the driver's seat." Readers are taken by surprise: What has happened to this cabdriver to cause him to have this (momentary?) hallucinosis bordering schizophrenia? A quick response can be because he has been routinely, repeatedly and meaninglessly driving the same route over and over again, and he has been condemned to do so as Sisyphus was condemned to roll the rock up the mountain top, let it roll down, and roll it up again in an unending cycle. This condition can lead to some psychic displacement, and, conceivably, schizophrenia.

But what sort of person is this driver? At the time when I first translated this poem (somewhere around 1964), I wrote to Shang Qin and asked what exactly was meant by "the leaping field." As it is, it can easily be interpreted as a "field" for launching some kind of flight, or a place where some kind of galloping can take place. Then the imaginative flight is done by a person of considerable "poetic" or "philosophical/ religious" (reading the "problems of higher and lower" concerning the soul as "metaphysical and physical/ celestial and abysmal, perhaps in the Buddhist sense"), or "political" (reading the problems of "hiring and renting" concerning the soul as a critique of the moral degeneration in society). This is no ordinary cabdriver. Shang Qin came back with this annotation: "terminology used by engineer corps for a turnout space on a hairpin mountain road," and hence, the title I used for my 1960's translation, "The Turnout on a Hairpin Mountain Road," which, in afterthought, I felt that I should have left ambiguous by retaining the original title. This clearly is important, for when Shang Qin published his
Dream or Daybreak in 1968 in which this poem was included, he did not annotate "the leaping field"; he needed the strategic puzzling delay. And yet in the later editions, he added the above annotation, I believe, as a historical marker. I suspect the poet imagined the driver to be someone like himself, an expatriate soldier from the mainland who had been conscripted into the army, had come to Taiwan only to be stranded and discharged from active duty without aid or compensation from the Kuomingtang government, and was thus forced to take any job he could find to make ends meet. Many educated soldiers, who later went on to forge careers as poets, novelists or drammatists, became cabdrivers. Although Shang Qin did not, at the time he was writing this poem—he was with the Military Police—many of his friends did in fact become cabbies, and when he was finally discharged in 1968, he had to work for more than a decade as first a coolie at the ports, then a peddler, a gardener, and beef noodle shopkeeper before he was finally offered a decent-paying job worthy of his talents, which was an editorship at a fairly respectable journal.

        Photo of Shang Qin in Stockholm by Zheng Linzhong    
All translations and commentary copyright by their respective authors. Shang Qin's illustration for "Boundary," provided by Silvia Marijnissen, as well as his one-line drawing entitled "Street Scene" 街景, are reprinted with the permission of Shang Qin's daughter and literary executor, Shan-Shan Lo 羅珊珊. All rights reserved.