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Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’

Six More Public Cases

September 27, 2016 | by


In March 2016, our correspondent Anthony Madrid began composing a set of quasi-kōans (on the theme “What is poetry for?”) for the Chicago arts and commentary magazine The Point. What follows is the second of two sets written for the Daily. (The first one ran in July.) Madrid’s unwieldy and indeed unusable title for the first set was “Both speech and silence are involved in transcendent detachment and subtle wisdom. How can we pass through without error?” His unusable title for the present set is “I always remember Jiangnan in May; where the partridges call, the hundred flowers are fragrant.” (Taken together, the two titles constitute Case 24 in the Song Dynasty kōan collection Wumenguan.)

Public Case 6: Ancient Chinese

Our teacher said: “Has anyone ever noticed that many of the most attractive ancient Chinese poets have the same ideas about poetry as modern American high school students? Anyhow, the themes are the same. What am I doing today. How am I feeling. What’s my philosophy. What can I see from where I’m sitting. What just happened. I am kind of a loser. What are my favorite quotes.”

One of the students said: “James Schuyler.”

Comment. It is hard for twenty-first-century USA poets to really understand old Chinese poetry: no surprise there. The surprise is that we find our own childhoods as difficult to “relate to” as the literary world of premodern China. We rub our eyes in disbelief when we have anything in common with either.

Tao Qian, James Schuyler, our own sixteen-year-old selves—of course they write about what they can see from where they’re sitting. What else can be seen? 

The truth is almost everyone has almost everything in common. The main exception is the people who are “too smart for that.” They make a point of not having anything in common with anybody. Read More »

Shanghai 1962

August 18, 2016 | by

How my mother’s accordion led to a chance encounter in Mao’s China.


For years my parents have told me about a photograph that shows my mother shaking hands with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China under Mao Zedong. The photograph was taken in 1962, four years before the Cultural Revolution began, but it was lost until a few weeks ago, when a barrage of Instagram notifications, texts, e-mails, and WeChat messages alerted me that the picture had been found. It had turned up on Facebook, of all places, in a post detailing the history of my mother’s grade school in Shanghai. (A point of recent pride: Yao Ming, the basketball player, was a student at the same school, albeit decades later). An aunt of mine who lives in Hong Kong forwarded the picture to my father, who then distributed it across the Internet.

In the picture, my mother is fourteen. Her hair is in a low ponytail and she has an accordion strapped over her shoulders. She wears a checked knee-length skirt, a white blouse, white ankle socks, and Mary Janes. Several rows of Chinese flags fly in the background; in front of these stand many smiling girls holding bouquets of flowers. All eyes in the picture are on Zhou Enlai as he grips my mother’s hand. He’s tall and handsome, in a Mao suit and strappy sandals. Her smile is easy and uncalculated, bordering on surprise.Read More »

Letter from Shanghai

September 11, 2015 | by

How a scandal about a Chinese name has been received in China.

This past February, the Chinese media widely announced that the Chinese poet Biqujibu, an ethnic Yi from western Sichuan, had been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, international category. Only twenty-three years old, he was selected for his very first book of poetry, a 1,500-line epic poem written in English, called A Poem Sacrifice for a Mountain Dream. Among the literary stars who wrote glowing reviews of the book were Biden Sitland (a famous American poet), Liffen Lushby (a prominent American translator, critic, and member of the Nobel selection committee), and Didian Linda (an American woman poet, a proponent of “rural writing”). This was an astonishing honor for a young ethnic-minority writer living in a country whose great literary works have been largely overlooked by American critics and readers.

But of course it never happened. The entire thing, including the unconvincing names and the assertion that the Pulitzer committee created the “international” prize just for Biqujibu’s sake, was made up. Even the poet in question turned out not to be ethnic Yi, but Han (the majority ethnicity in China). News of this fantastically ambitious ruse never made it to the States. And why should it have? It had nothing to do with the U.S., really; it had to do with the distant fame of the Pulitzer, and a lust for outside recognition in a dusty mountain town somewhere near the border of Yunnan. Read More »

One Wine, Two Wine, Red Wine, Blue Wine

February 10, 2015 | by

Naming wines in translation.


Georg Emanuel Opitz, Der Säufer, 1804.

If, to bedazzle your beau or belle, your tastes often turn to thoughts of white tablecloths and candlelight, your thoughts will likely turn to tastes of wine.

But which wine? It can be hard to navigate those artisanal descriptions, so easy to mock—notes of saddle leather, jujubes, and turpentine with a hint of combed cotton, and so on. The basic questions are no simpler, though. “Red or white?” ignores orange wine, whites tinted a little longer than usual from the grape skins: basically the opposite of rosé, where red-wine grapes are peeled faster than usual. There’s also gray wine (vin gris, actually pinkish), which is white wine from black grapes usually used for red wine such as pinot noir, and even yellow wine (vin jaune), a special variety from the Jura in eastern France, though what white wine isn’t yellow when you think about it. Provençal pink wines—rosés—are colored gooseberry, peach, grapefruit, cantaloupe, mango, or mandarin, according to the Provence Wine Council: vote for your favorite here. Read More »


Fake Locales with Real Visitors, and Other News

March 21, 2014 | by

timberline lodge

The Timberline Lodge, in Mount Hood, Oregon—more often taken for the Overlook Hotel, which it portrayed in 1980’s The Shining. Photo:



Ezra Pound’s “Exile’s Letter”

February 2, 2012 | by

Li Po chanting a poem, by Liang K’ai (13th century).

I’ve loved Pound since I was a teenager. My first lover, Charles Burch, who was a poet himself, used to read Pound to me and swoon over it. I feel that most of our enthusiasms are imitated from people we admire or are in love with, and so this particular poem I used to read to David Kalstone, the great poetry critic and champion of Elizabeth Bishop, who was also my best friend. He introduced me to so much great modern poetry—Merrill, Bishop, Ammons, Ashbery—so I was happy to introduce him to a poem that had so much resonance for us as two friends.

Ezra Pound’s beautiful translation of a poem by Li Po, from Pound’s great early book Cathay, is a compendium of all his many gifts. Somewhere Pound says that the ideas in poetry should be simple, even banal, and universal and human; he points out that the chorus in Greek tragedies always sticks close to home truths of the sort “All men are born to die.” “Exile’s Letter” has this universal simplicity (“There is no end of things in the heart”). It is about the sadness of parting from dear friends. As someone who was himself often living far from writer-friends, Pound knew all about the exquisite melancholy of leave-taking. Read More »