wang weiIntroduction

Wang Wei (699-761), one of the three great poets of the earlier Tang Dynasty, was born in Shensi, his father a local official and his mother a member of a distinguished literary family. At 16 Wei and a brother were introduced to society in the Tang capital of Chang-an, then the largest city in the world, and at 23 he passed the shin-shih which guaranteed entry into literary and official circles (exams which Du Fu failed and Li Bai never deigned to sit).

A man of outstanding talents courtier, administrator, poet, calligrapher, musician and painter Wang was immediately appointed Assistant Secretary for Music, which he seems to have found irksome. After a minor indiscretion, was exiled to the provinces in Shantung, where he remained some years before resigning and returning to Chang-an. He married and set about developing an estate in the Changnan hills south of the capital, to which he returned whenever possible. Wang's wife died when he was 30, and, not remarrying, the poet returned to Government service a few years later, dividing his time between Changnan and various missions, including three years on the northwest frontier. In 750 AD, when his mother died, Wang retired to write and paint and meditate in his beloved Changnan.

Far more than the mercurial Li Bai or the plain-spoken Du Fu, Wang Wei was a successful official he amassed several fortunes and gave lavishly to monasteries but he too was caught up in the 755-9 An Lushan rebellion. Captured by rebels, Wang was obliged to collaborate, for which he was briefly imprisoned when imperial order was restored. But always valuable, Wang returned to Government service and belonged to the Council of State when he died in 761.

Modest, supremely gifted but detached from life, Wang was the model scholar official, and his 400 poems are in many anthologies. An enormous quantity of poetry was written throughout the Tang period, and its greatest exponents illustrate the three fundamental strands of Chinese thought: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Wang Wei was a Buddhist mystic, viewing the world with a detached compassion. Life is an illusion, and its ensnaring passions and appetites keep us from our better natures the more so in the sophisticated court life of the Tang where Chinese culture reached its apogee. All three poets were ambivalent towards its refined charms, particularly during the corrupting last years of Taizong's rule, though also bitterly sad at its destruction by the An Lushan rebels. Li Bai's membership of the celebrated Han-lin Academy lasted only two years, Du Fu never held more than minor posts, and even the courtly Wang Wei was happiest in the Changnan, in monastery gardens or reflecting on unspoiled nature.

Translation commonly serves several different if overlapping aims: 1. a close paraphrase (emphasizing the nuances of meaning), 2. a representation of how the original appears to a native speaker (finding corollaries of mood, tone, voice, intention, etc.), or 3. something that actually works as an English poem (recreating the essence of the original through the very different resources and traditions of English poetry). Chinese poetry differs particularly in its writing system, use of tones and tone patterns, etymology, concision (no conjunctions, articles or plurals) fluid relationship between nouns and verbs, free word order, and allusion to previous events or poems (often hundreds of years in the past). Also different are the rules and conventions of Chinese poetry that necessarily exploit the features of Chinese, which raises the bar further.

Until the twentieth century, translations tended to follow aim 3, producing poems that are not to be despised but do not seem very Chinese. Under Modernism, translations were often loose paraphrases (Pound) and/or a form of stress verse (Waley and Rexroth) at their best achieving something aims 1 and 3 but not much of 2. Today, often through collaboration between poet and a native speaker, the emphasis is more on aims 1 and 2, with aim 3 only being achieved when translators are themselves good poets. Naturally, there are many exceptions and variations translation has become an academic industry. Finally, it should be noted that poets often make translations to push their own development in new directions, either in sensibility or more effective use of their own language.

Readable introductions to Chinese poetry include Neinhuaser, Hartman and Galer's The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (1998), J.J.Y. Liu's The Art of Chinese Poetry (1962). B.S. Miller's Masterworks of Asian Literature (1994), B. Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984), S. Owen's The Great Age of Chinese Poetry (1977) W-L. Yip's Chinese Poetry (1997) and A.C. Graham's Poems of the Late T'ang (1965). Books specifically on Wang Wei include D. Young's Five Tang Poets (1990), Chang and Waimsley's Poems by Wang Wei (1958), Wai-lim Yip's Hiding the Universe (1972) and G. Robinson's Poems by Wang Wei (1973).

Suggestion: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated. Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. Moyer Bell. 1987. $7.95.

You'll get closer to the spirit of Chinese poetry through this little book. After a four-line poem by Wang Wei comes a transliteration into pinyin, a character-by-character translation, and 13 translations into English of rather mixed quality, and 2 each into French and Spanish.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.