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Posted Mon Feb 2nd, 2009 12:47am Post subject: Chinese "Turnabout" Poetry
As far as exotic forms of poetry go, I thought you might be interested in hearing about Chinese huiwenshi, which I read about some years ago (1992) in a Chinese magazine. Unfortunately I have been able to find out no more about it (the term doesn’t appear in any of my dictionaries) and I don’t know anyone who is really up on Chinese poetry. Even when I lived in China I met very few who were.

For your amusement, I’m providing the only example of this form the article gave, with my attempt at a translation. I’m using the Pinyin romanisation system.

The article states simply:

Huíwénshī (“turnabout verse”) originated sometime in the Song Dynasty [960-1279 CE]. It is a [10-syllable] line of verse which can be read from start to finish and back again so as to make a rhyming stanza. The Qing Dynasty [1644-1912 CE] poetess Wu Jiangxue’s turnabout poem “Spring Summer Autumn Winter” is the most marvellous example, “Summer” especially being widely regarded as outstanding. It has a particular, strictly bound form which is not easy to compose.

That’s pretty much all the explanation you get. The rest of the article is simply the poem by Ms Wu, and a concluding remark that, with its heavy compositional restraints, it is no wonder so few people have attempted to emulate Wu Jiangxue’s brilliant achievement with this form. (By the way, should you attempt to find more about this poetess, in older works her name would be romanised as Wu Chiang-hsűeh.)

First, you need to create four 10-character lines of verse, one for each season.

Spring yīng tí ān líu nóng chūn qíng yè yùe míng
Orioles cry among the willows along the bank at play with the moonlight in the clear spring night.

Summer xiāng lían bì shŭi dòng fēng líang xià rì cháng
Fragrant lotuses in crystal waters move the cooling wind of the long summer day.

Autumn qīu jīang chŭ yàn sù shā zhōu qiăn shŭi líu
Beside the brambly autumn stream the wild goose sleeps on the sandy shore where shallow water flows.

Winter hóng lú tòu tàn zhì hàn fēng yù jiàng dōng
The heat of the stove penetrates the coal, warming the cold wind to delay the fall of winter.

Each 10-character line is then divided into a quatrain of seven characters per line, as follows:

Line 1: Characters 1 to 7, read left to right
Line 2: Characters 4 to 10, read left to right
Line 3: Characters 4 to 10, read right to left (i.e., line 2 backwards)
Line 4: Characters 1 to 7, read right to left (i.e., line 1 backwards)

Orioles cry along the willowy banks, at play in the fine spring weather,
the willows are bright in the spring night’s moon;
the bright moon of the fine spring night plays among the willows,
and cloudless spring makes the willows on the bank call to the orioles.

Fragrant lotuses in crystal water cool the wind,
the breeze off the waters cools summer’s long days:
through summer’s long days the cool wind stirs the water,
the breeze makes the water clear with lotus fragrance.

In autumn the wild goose sleeps on the brambly river’s sandy shore,
and the waters flow shallow at the shore where the wild goose rests;
???flowing water ?shallows? the shore sand where the wild goose rests,
???the shore sand shelters the wild goose suffering the river of autumn.

The stove’s heat enters the coals and warms the cold wind:
the coals warming the cold wind block the fall of winter,
winter descends to drive the wind cool over the warm coals,
and the wind cooling the warm coals blows the stove red.

Very tricky to translate Chinese poetry, partly because, like English poetry, if it’s a few hundred years old chances are it uses oldfashioned or even obsolete words. A further difficulty is that no Chinese word really means something; it usually stands for a range of meanings. I have a book in my collection (and this is not a joke) which is a reprint of a very old philosophical treatise. The editor’s introduction includes a brief review of the five or six different schools of thought regarding the meaning of the book’s title. This would be unremarkable in a book translated into English; it was in fact a book compiled by Chinese for Chinese.

It is usually not possible to reflect this in English. Add to this the fact that Chinese is even less inflected than English. No cases, declensions, conjugations, not even plurals – and only two prepositions, which are identical, one being colloquial and the other literary, and either can act like verbs.

To give an example: the word nong (fifth word in the Spring line) can mean “to make (s.t. happen or s.o. do something)”, or “to play”. The second meaning seems to suit the sense of the poem.

A little harder, the word yu (eighth in the Winter line) can mean “to drive (horse, mule, etc)”, “to block”, or be an adjective meaning “associated with the Emperor or his family”. What is the wind doing in this poem?

“Autumn” gave me a lot of trouble. The word chu (third word in the Autumn line) can refer to a kingdom during the Warring States Period (770-220 BCE), a medicinal plant (vitex) which seems to be a kind of bramble, or the verb “to feel a pang”.

So much for my problems. Mind you, I've read Chinese poetry before which doesn't give me as much trouble as these verses, which contain relatively non-literary words. Perhaps even the Chinese have to really force the language to make this format work. You might have better luck finding a person more specialised in Chinese literature than me, who can help you make better sense of these. If you do, please let me know. For now, I’m going to take it easy and stick to sestinas and Spenserians.

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