Ancient Traditions, Rebel Voices
The Girl Mechanic Of Wanzhou features two genuine Chinese poems, and references others.
The older of the two poems is by Liu Zongyuan, “River Snow.”
Liu Zongyuan lived in the Tang Dynasty, from 773 to 819. So this poem is over 1,200 years old–more than a millenium.
Here it is in the original Chinese:
Quian(1) shan(1) niao(3) fei(1) jue(2)
Wan(4) jing(4) ren(2) zong(1) mie(4)
Gu(1) zhou(1) suo(1) li(4) weng(1)
Du(2) diao(4) han(2) jiang(1) xue(3)
qiān shān niǎo fēi jué,
wàn jìng rén zōng miè.
gū zhōu suō lì wēng,
dú diào hán jiāng xuě
Transliteration (a literal translation of each Chinese character):
Thousand hill bird flight cut
Ten thousand path person trace end
Lonely boat big straw hat old man
Alone fish cold river snow
Much of the work of translating Chinese poetry has to do with capturing the context, nuances, and overall meaning of the poem. Characters by themselves do not tell the whole story.
Here are several translations of the same poem:
These thousand peaks cut off the flight of birds
On all the trails, human tracks are gone.
A single boat—coat—hat—an old man!
Alone fishing chill river snow.
(Gary Snyder, trans.)
A thousand mountains—no bird’s flight.
A million paths—no man’s trace.
Single boat. Bamboo-leaved cape. An old man.
Fishing by himself: ice river. Snow.
(Wai-lim Yip, trans.)
A thousand mountains: no birds in flight.
Countless trails, not a single footfall.
A lone boat, in straw raincoat and bamboo hat, an old man
Fishes in the frigid river snow.
(Alan Liu, trans.)
This poem is a good example of many short lyrical Chinese poems set in nature. This particular poem has become famous over the years for its evocative mood, and has been brushed onto many paintings.
Jump forward in time 1200 years to the revolutionary poet Qiu Jin:
A LETTER TO LADY TAO QIU
Alone with my shadow,
I murmur to her,
And write strange words in the air, like Yin Hao.
It is not illness, nor wine,
Nor sadness over the dead,
Like Li Qing Qao, that causes
A nation of anxiety to swell in my heart.
To no one here I can speak
For who can understand me?
My hopes and dreams are more
Than those of men around me,
But our chance of survival diminishes.
What good is the heart of a hero
Beneath my dress?
My life unfolds according to its perilous plan.
I ask Heaven:
Did the heroines of the past
Ever feel this?
A Letter to Lady Tao Qiu, by Qiu Jin about 1907
This poem captures some of the restlessness and desire for change that many people felt at the end of the 19th century in China. For more about Qiu Jin, see Autumn Gem.