Tag Archives: classical chinese poetry

Publications- Moonlight & Shadow: An Imaginary Portrait of Mei Yao-ch’en

Following is the Author’s Note to Moonlight & Shadow: An Imaginary Portrait of Mei Yao-ch’en, which collects the 38 poems about the time-traveling 11th-century Chinese poet Mei Yao-ch’en. Many of which appeared originally on this site, and it was the great response to the first handful of appearances by Mei that led to this book-length collection.

Moonlight & Shadow is being published as a limited edition of 20 copies, signed and numbered, in a large 11×14 format with hand-crafted covers bound in an ancient Chinese side-bound style by St Brigid Press. At the bottom of this post is a special ink to reserve a copy at a 35% discount. More information about the book and its design can be found on the Books page.



MANY of the more intrepid readers of my site Translations from the English know that for most of 2014 I was at work on a sequence of poems about 11th century Chinese poet Mei Yao-ch’en, the premise of which includes me somehow transporting him in the midst of his forty-ninth year to that same moment in my life here in the 21st century; that as Sung dynasty poets tended to do, Mei and I thought time and distance less important than wine and friendship, and that he heroically and generously consented and contented himself with being a guest in my house (and millennium) for some undetermined duration, taking it upon himself to write home occasionally about his experiences, sometimes to his friend (and his brother in law’s son) Hsieh Shih-hou.

The poems in this book, then, are in Mei Yao-ch’en’s voice. The titles are in mine — in the absence of the proper writing materials, Mei records his thoughts on walls, towels, shower curtains, poster board, on the underside of a Christmas tree skirt, whatever is at hand, much like his predecessor Han Shan was said to scrawl his poems on rocks, trees, and monastery walls — and I translate and record them, adding long explanatory titles which are themselves the type of titles that were very much part of the social transmission of poetry of the Northern Sung dynasty of Mei’s time.

I call these poems an “imaginary portrait” because, of course, the words are not Mei’s, and while I’m not sure they are entirely mine, either, there is no one else about to take credit or responsibility for them; so they are those of a Mei of my own making, and they do across their breadth begin to sketch out a portrait of that poet for twenty-first century readers. Also, in the first and only book I was able to find about Mei’s life and work, the cover and verso of the half-title page are adorned with an image of Mei that is described as an “imaginary portrait” painted roughly six hundred years after his death. Honestly, I thought if someone could take a shot at painting the guy’s likeness after six centuries, could I trespass any more on the truth by trying to throw him a thousand years into the future and read his mind?

I was moved to write about Mei after reading wonderful translations by David Hinton and Kenneth Rexroth. Seeking out additional information I found the book mentioned above, Mei Yao-ch’en and the Development of Early Sung Poetry, by Jonathan Chaves. Published in 1976, it is a gold mine of biographical information, critical perspective, and translations of dozens of Mei’s poems. I found it just after I had written the first one or two poems about Mei and decided I’d write more.

In the spring of 2014 I made contact with Professor Chaves, who teaches in Washington, DC at George Washington University, to thank him for a book he wrote forty years ago. To my surprise anddelight, Professor Chaves responded the next day, and added: “In Spring of 2011 I visited Mei Yao-ch’en’s hometown of Hsuancheng / Xuanchang in Anhui Province, where a new monumental statue has been erected in commemoration of him.” He included photos of the monument in its in-progress state, which may by now have been completed. It’s good to know my old friend’s work is getting the attention it deserves.

I found additional insight into Mei’s life as a poet by reading The Social Circulation of Poetry in the Mid-Northern Song, by Colin S.C. Hawes. It contains several translations of Mei poems I have not found in translation elsewhere, and even more of Mei’s good friend and fellow poet Ou-yang Hsiu.

The Afterword of this book contains a translation of Mei Yao-ch’en’s poem “Night”. This translation is my own, done with the great help of Chen Zhang, who at the time of this writing was serving as Literary Chinese Preceptor at Harvard University, and who provided insight into the Traditional Chinese characters of the Sung dynasty poets. The sum of what Ms Zhang provided me in my struggle to translate a single poem of Mei’s is far greater than what shows up in the merit of the translation. I made this attempt mostly to introduce to readers of contemporary English-language poetry a poem of Mei Yao-ch’en’s which had never been translated before; to absorb directly an appreciation of the actual work of translation; and to offer it as a token of appreciation and gratitude to Mei Yao-ch’en himself.

A Note on Unregulated Verse

Much of the great classical Chinese poetry is written in a style called regulated verse. The regulations of this form do not translate into any English form of verse, any more than Traditional Chinese characters translate to single English words or syllabic counts translate from Chinese to English. But I did gain some appreciation for at least the translated effects of regulated verse in the course of reading and re-reading thousands of wonderful poems from the T’ang and Sung dynasty, through the insightful translations of David Hinton, Red Pine, J.P. Seaton, Kenneth Rexroth, Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-Hu, and others; and so the form that Mei Yao-ch’en ostensibily utilizes in this collection, called by me “unregulated verse,” does indeed have its characteristics, most of which pay homage, technically or thematically, to regulated verse and the themes and memes of that work, strained (much like the ancients strained their wine before writing their poems) through a sieve of centuries, and newly tainted with the road dust of the mere fifty years of this individual’s flawed vessel. The result of certain characteristics of this form may result in what looks like inconsistent punctuation and other anomalies. My only assurance is that there is a form, and for those seeming inconsistencies I’m willing to take full blame, knowing this is one of the perils of translating one’s own work.   JS


Ten of the 20 numbered and signed copies of Moonlight & Shadow are being offered for sale. For a limited time you can reserve a copy at 35% discounted price of $75  here.


Night (for Ruan Ji) [after and for Mei Yao-ch’en]

Night (for Ruan Ji)

日從東溟轉, 夜向西海沉.

From the east the day comes spinning, revolving towards
the strange west, where descending evening colors the ocean’s every drop.

羣物各已息, 衆星燦然森.

Every living thing is resting, or holding its breath, it’s hard to tell
on nights when the toad swallows the moon –

蝦蟇將食月, 魑魅爭出陰.

Starlight glinting from every pine needle – or is it a million swords
unsheathed, our demons striving to materialize out of the dark cluster?

阮籍獨不寐, 徘徊起彈琴.

Only you, my friend, sleepless, pacing in your room, can sense it; only you
with a word, or a wave across your zither, can turn the knife’s edge back into night.


[Note: This is the most recent draft of a work based on a poem of Mei Yao-ch’en (1002-1060), about whom I have written many poems on this blog. The first version can be found here. The three between that draft and this one were too incomplete to share, so I’m sparing you those.

My continuing thanks to Chen Zhang, Chinese Literary Preceptor at Harvard University, for her explication and patience. She not only provided a word-for-word translation but important historical and critical perspective that helped me locate this work closer to the heart of Mei’s writing; she also provided her own enthusiasm for this specific poem. Sitting alone with a cup of coffee a few days ago in a Panera Bread with a marvelous view of the twilight saturating the Blue Ridge, I found a way into this poem through the voice of the poet I have appropriated/channeled/imitated in nearly forty other poems that were not attempting to be translations. That voice I was so used to writing in already helped me re-imagine this most recent version, which I think may be closer to a true translation of my friend Sheng-yu’s work. Again, the idea to approach the poem that way came from Chen, who pinpointed so well the difference between interpretation and translation in my many amateur’s questions.

Ruan Ji (210 – 263) was a poet Mei admired. He was also, some might say, an accomplished ne’er-do-well born into a prominent family who was unafraid of leveraging that prominence and wealth to support his chosen vocation as a poet. Some stories about him include him staying drunk for over a month to avoid having to get married, and so impressing an elder in his family with his zither playing one evening that his reputation was upgraded to ne’er-do-well-who-plays-a-mean-zither,-and-that-has-gotta-mean-something. ]

Night [after and for Mei Yao-ch’en]


日從東溟轉, 夜向西海沉.

The unhurried day drizzles, turns
westward and sinks beneath the sea.

羣物各已息, 衆星燦然森.

All things hold their breath, the stars
just right, glorious like the forest.

蝦蟇將食月, 魑魅爭出陰.

The toad on the moon eats,
the demons strive to come out of the clouds.

阮籍獨不寐, 徘徊起彈琴.

The city dozed fitfully, alone, hesitated,
then rose and picked up its instrument.



[Note: This is a first draft of a work based on a poem of Mei Yao-ch’en (1002-1060), about whom I have written many poems on this blog. As with the previous poem I shared, this will likely change greatly from its current state to a final accurate version more worthy of being called a translation. The method I’m following is unusual but feels most natural for me — To write an impression of the poem gathered into my own poem in English, and then to continue to write a poem in English, and another, with the hope that each one gets closer and closer to my friend Sheng-yu’s poem in its traditional Chinese characters, till they are at least close enough to nod at each other or share a bottle of wine.  Chen Zhang, who is busy at Harvard finishing her dissertation while teaching as the Chinese Literary Preceptor up there in Cambridge, furnished me with the traditional characters for Mei’s  poem. I will keep you updated on any new versions. ]

Translation talk at Black Swan Books


I will be checking out this rather cool topic in my rather cool and little city this weekend. Angela Carter and Stan Galloway are area poets whose work I have enjoyed hearing in person.

Printer extraordinaire Emily Hancock of St Brigid Press will also be bringing copies of the mini-broadside of my translation of Li Ho’s “Sky Dream” for the event. I will not be selling this myself and I’m not sure if Emily has it for sale yet on her site, but you can always write her if you’re interested in seeing more. The poem is printed on very thin Unryu paper backed by grey Magnani Pescia paper, in Bembo typeface. The matting creates the shape of the moon which of course our poet Li would not bother to name in his brilliant and strange piece of verse, and will I think be available in a variety of night-sky-ish colors.

I believe St Brigid Press will also be issuing this poem’s companion translation of Li Po’s work, as well as a few other translations of classical Chinese verse. And of course as I attend this event I’ll be taking with me my time-travelling version of Mei Yao-ch’en, the great 11th century poet with whom I have spent so much time these last few months…




[new translations] Grasses, by Po Chü-i



Parting and parting the grasses on the plain
which one year withers and one year flourishes
which burns again but is never destroyed
a spring wind blows over this life resurging

its fragrance trespasses old paths in the distance
even to the abandoned city comes jade clarity
as we part again, my friend, separated by world’s wind
it’s as deep grasses parting on a crowded plain

–Po Chü-i (Bai Ju-yi)
translated by Jeff Schwaner