Monday, November 30, 2009

Updated Archive Link

Here is an updated archive link to the Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

The following are blog posts written since the last update:-

- Unravelling Diplomatic Language (China Current Events)

- Obama's Dilemma (China Current Events)

- Culture and System (China Current Events)

- My First Encounter with Death (Culture)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Updated Archive Link

Here is the updated archive link to the Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

The following are blog posts written since the last update:-

- Stories of the Poor Lack Market (Hong Kong Current Events)

- Fret of the 4th Generation HKers (Hong Kong Current Events)

- Chinese Peasants and Democracy (Democracy)

- Identity Not Equal to Pride (Hong Kong Current Events)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Updated Archive Link

Here is an updated archive link to Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

These are blog posts written since the last update:-

- The Grey Area of Chinese Filmmaking (Culture)

- Learning from the Past (World Current Events)

- Hong Kong In Your Eyes (Hong Kong Current Events)

- Black is White, White is Black (Hong Kong Current Events)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Updated Archive Link

Here is an updated archive link to the Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

This is a list of blog posts written since the last update:-

- A Brown Nose (Democracy)

- The Meaning of a Deep Bow (World Current Events)

- Manners and Morals (Culture)

- Discussing the Unspeakable - Euthanasia (Culture)

- An Open Letter in Support of Xu Zhiyong (Civic Rights)

- A Corporate Drama of Perfidy (China Current Events)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Updated Archive Link to Alice Poon Blog

Here is an updated archive link to the Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

The following is a list of blog posts since the last update:-

- A Deadly Education System (China Current Events)

- U.S. Fed in the Hot Seat (U.S. Economy)

- HSBC and the Negative Equity Rich Man (China Current Events)

- Venal Chinese Corporates (China Current Events)

- Unhappy Hong Kong (Hong Kong Current Events)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In Praise of Bai Juyi and Su Shi



In Praise of Bai Juyi:

Lately, some perverse comments on June 4th on the internet and as reported in the Hong Kong media so sickened me that I tried to find temporary refuge in graceful classical Chinese poetry. I accidentally stumbled across a moving story about Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi (白居易) and would like to share it.

During the time when Bai Juyi was a Qian Tang Jiang (in Hangzhou) government official (it was the latter part of his officialdom career), one day he passed by the Green Creek Bridge and saw a crowd gathering before a Buddhist monk and hearing him talk. He thought it strange that people would come to such a remote countryside to listen to a monk. The monk must be very learned, he reckoned. So he rode his horse in the direction of the crowd.

When Bai came face to face with the monk, he said: “Master, the place where you are seated is quite dangerous.” The Buddhist monk was the famous Bird’s Nest Monk. Just one glance at Bai, he knew that this man was an arrogant and conceited elitist. So Bird’s Nest said to him, “It is your position that is in danger.”

Bai was quite thrown off by this remark and said, “My position is one that is rooted in the country. How can it be in danger?” The monk replied, “Worries and pressures alternate with each other and the conscience is put to an unending test. Neither the body nor the soul can get any rest. Isn’t that dangerous?”

Then Bai asked Bird’s Nest, “Please tell me, Master, what is the essence of Buddhism?” Bird’s Nest decided to let him learn a moral lesson: “Do no evil deed and engage in deeds of kindness.” Bai, who knew a little about Buddhism, immediately retorted, “I’ve known this for a long time. Not only I know it, even a three-year old child knows it.”

Seeing Bai disparaging Buddhist teachings, Bird’s Nest said to him, “A three-year old child may well know the Way. But an eighty-year old man may no longer have the energy to practice it.”

When Bai heard that, he could read between the lines and knew that Bird’s Nest was right. He felt ashamed of himself. Then he said to Bird’s Nest, “You’ve opened my mind. I hope to learn more about Buddhism from you. One day I will come again to be your follower.” And he left.

Bird’s Nest knew that Bai had a receptive heart towards Buddhism. But after almost a year, Bai still did not turn up for his lectures. So one day Bird’s Nest paid a visit to Bai’s residence but found that Bai was out on an appointment. He took a pen-brush and wrote down this poem for Bai:

You have penned your thoughts in court for forty years,
In the company of boundless rights and wrongs.
One household fares well while thousands more are woebegone;
Half your life brings fame but invokes gripe in many a netherworld.

筆刀為官四十年
是是非非有萬千
一家飽暖千家怨
半世功名百世冤

When he finished writing the poem, he left Bai’s place.

When Bai came home and saw the poem written on the wall, a strong sentiment suddenly took hold of him. It dawned on him that all these years he had always wished to take up Buddhism, but somehow had never got round to doing it as he was always bogged down by the daily humdrum of administration affairs and contentions. He was constantly overwhelmed by unending work-related conflicts. The poem awakened him to his cherished wish and so he decided to quit his job to become a secular follower of Bird’s Nest’s.

 - End of Story -


Bai Juyi (“白居易”) was one of the most loved poets from the Tang dynasty because of his integrity and sense of justice while he held official posts and because of his compassion and kindheartedness as a human being.

He was known for his interest in the “yuefu” form (“樂府”) of poetry, which was a folk ballad genre from the Han dynasty, collected or written by the Music Bureau, and was typically used to convey social grievances. In fact, writing poetry to promote social progress was explicitly one of his objectives.

Two of his most famous long narrative poems are “The Song of Everlasting Regret” (“長恨歌”) which tells the story of Yang Guifei (“楊貴妃”), the beautiful consort of Tang Emperor Xuanzong (“唐玄宗”), and “The Song of the Pipa Player” or “Pipa Xing” (“琵琶行”). (Note: “Pipa” is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument). I love both these poems but I am not up to the task of translating these!

When Bai Juyi was sixteen years old, he wrote a poem as a submission piece in a scholars’ examination, which brought him immediate fame and honor and later led to a successful career in the officialdom. He could never have imagined at the time that the poem could remain famous for over a thousand years after his death.

The poem is called “Farewell on the Ancient Grassland” (賦得古原草送別):-
[The first two characters ‘賦得’ refer to the specific format in which the poem must be written in the exam.]

The Original (“Farewell on the Ancient Grassland”):

離離原上草,
一枯榮;
野火燒不盡,
春風吹又生;
遼芳侵古道,
晴翠接荒城;
又送王孫去,
萋萋滿別情。

My Translation:-

Yonder sprouts a field of grass;
One season it dies, in the next it revives;
Wild fires try in vain to wipe it out,
Spring breezes bring it back to life, no doubt.
Its scent wafts from afar to fill this ancient path,
The lush verdure stretches to the old town.
Many farewells are said on this grass,
By royal travelers in spirit downcast.

The 3rd and 4th lines “火燒不盡 , 春風吹又生” have become an often-used adage to give encouragement to the oppressed and the downtrodden (like grass), bidding them never to give in when faced with adversity and dire circumstances (like wild fires) in their strife for survival or quest for justice, as their tenacity and perseverance, as well as help from the heavens (like spring breezes), will ultimately bring them victory.

In Praise of Su Shi:

 
Like Bai Juyi and other talented, high-principled and patriotic Chinese poets, Song dynasty poet Su Shi (aka “Su Tung-po”) (蘇軾) started off an impassioned, full-of-ideals officialdom career at a young age, only to become totally disillusioned as it progressed amidst peer jealousy, betrayal and back-stabbing, which led to his incarceration in mid-life and later to forced exile. Su has been one of my favorite poets not only for his extraordinary literary and artistic flair but also for his compassionate, noble and forgiving character.

The Song dynasty was renowned for a less rigid style of poetry than Tang poems, which includes prose-poems (“fu” “”) and lyric poems (“ci” “”).

For a literary comparison of Tang poems and Song prose-poems (“fu” “”), here is an excerpt from an essay by Qian Zhongshu (錢鍾書), written primarily as a foreword to C. D. Le Gros Clark’s translation work “Su Tung-po’s Prose-Poems”:-

Chinese poetry, hitherto ethereal and delicate, seems in the Song dynasty to take on flesh and becomes a solid, full-blooded thing. It is more weighted with the burden of thought. Of course, it still looks light and slight enough by the side of Western poetry. But the lightness of the Song poetry is that of an aeroplane describing graceful curves, and no longer that of a moth fluttering in the mellow twilight. In the Song poetry one finds very little of that suggestiveness, that charm of a beautiful thing imperfectly beheld, which Westerners think characteristic of Chinese poetry in general. Instead, one meets with a great deal of naked thinking and outright speaking. It may be called ‘sentimental’ in contradistinction to the Tang poetry, which is on the whole ‘naïve’, to adopt Schiller’s useful antithesis. The Song poets, however, make up for their loss in lisping naivete and lyric glow by a finesse in feeling and observation. In their descriptive poetry, they have a knack of taking the thing to be described ‘sur le vif’: witness Lu You (陸游) and Yang Wan-li (楊萬里). They have also a better perception of the nuances of emotion than the Tang poets, as can be seen particularly in their lyric poems “ci” (“”), a species of songs for which the Song dynasty is justly famous.

Indeed, one of Su Shi’s lyric poems that I particularly like, 定風波 , is one that describes superbly the nuances of his feelings when his life was at a low point: at once vulnerable and courageous, both resigned and resilient, sad but forgiving. The lyric poem was written shortly after Su got out of jail, where he spent over a hundred days for having written poems that were disrespectful of the emperor (which was a fraudulent charge that his peers maliciously laid against him, deliberately presenting his writings out of context to the emperor). The incident was called the “Crow Terrace Poetry Trial” (烏臺詩案) and it happened when Su was forty-three years old.

While in jail, Su got very nervous about his fate, fearing he might get a death sentence any time, as expressed in several poems that he wrote to his brother Su Che (蘇徹) and his wife. Somehow those deeply emotional poems reached the emperor’s hands, and the latter was so touched that he ordered a pardon for Su Shi. His days of nightmarish imprisonment profoundly changed his attitude towards life in general, in particular towards his career as a court official.

Had he not been a big-hearted soul, he would have carried a big chip on his shoulder and become a bitter person and would have sought revenge. But, as evident from his lyric poem “定風波”, he took his ill fate in stride and determined not to let bitterness ruin his outlook on life. Though he was demoted to a low rank in a poor and remote district after he was released from jail, he chose not to wallow in self-pity or nag about the hardship but instead actively sought peace of mind and acceptance of life just as it was presented, without fear or presumption.

It is the poet’s philosophical aplomb and panache that I admire most in this lyric poem (“ci” “”) of his.

The Original “定風波“ (“Calming Wind and Wave”):-

莫聽穿林打葉聲, 何妨吟嘯且徐行;
竹杖芒鞋輕勝馬, 誰怕?  一蓑煙雨任平生;
料峭春風吹酒醒, 微冷, 山頭斜照卻相迎;
回首向來蕭瑟處,歸去, 也無風雨也無晴。

My translation:-

Stop listening to the rain pattering on leaves,
Why not enjoy a stroll, and sing your heart out?
Giving up the horse for sandals and a cane – who would mind?
A straw cloak may be all I need in misty rain.
The spring breeze wakes me up from drowsiness – a bit chilly.
The setting sun warms me though with embracing rays.
Turning back, still mindful of that cold and wretched place.
Now that I have arrived – home at last,
Nothing stirs me any more, the glaring sun, the wind or the rain.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Updated Archive Link to the Alice Poon Blog

Here is an updated archive link to the Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

This is a list of blog posts since the last update:-

- When Excessive Force Is Not Excessive (China Current Events)
- On the Anti-Graft Front, Hong Kong Can Teach (China Current Events)
- A Song To Remember (Hong Kong Culture)
- Media Control In China Has Changed In Nature (China Current Events)
- June 4th Is A Matter of Conscience (Hong Kong Current Events)
- 70 MPH Becomes An Internet Catch Phrase (China Current Events)
- Is Bubble Reinflating the Right Way to Go? (China Current Events)
- A Proper Use of Obscenities (China Current Events)
- Can Civil Society Thrive In China? (Civic Rights)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Li Bai's "Farewell to a Friend"



A couple of years ago I was asked by an ex-boss to search for an appropriate Chinese classic couplet for use in a calligraphy artwork, which was to be framed as a farewell gift for a retiring British senior manager who claimed to love Chinese art. Naturally, I was required to also give him the translation of the chosen writing. One of Li Bai’s (李白) poems titled “Farewell to A Friend” (送友人) immediately sprang to mind and I thought a pair of lines from the poem would be perfect for the purpose. Then I searched on the University of Virginia website for an English translation of the poem. I took a look at it and felt that it bothered me. So I decided to do my own translation.

Li Bai was one of the most renowned poets in the Tang dynasty and was honored with the name “Poem-God” (詩仙). This poem of his is in the famous collection of the “300 Tang Poems” (唐詩三百首). It is a five-character regular verse (i.e. with eight lines) (五言律詩). According to the website, the translations of all the poems are primarily taken from those in Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology (1929).

The pair of lines that I lifted from the poem was: “浮雲遊子意 , 落日故人情”, which is the essence of the poem. This is also where my translation differs substantially from Bynner’s. With due respect, I think the Bynner translation missed the similes used by the great poet to portray the friend’s long-cherished wishes to travel freely (symbolized by ”浮雲” which means “roaming clouds”) and to express the poet’s own deep sentimental attachment towards his friend at the parting (the warmth of which is symbolized by sunset).


The Original:

青山橫北郭 ,
白水遶東城;
此地一為別,
孤蓬萬里征;
浮雲遊子意,
落日故人情;
揮手自茲去,
蕭簫斑馬鳴


My Translation:

Green hills skirt the northern border,
White waters gird the eastern town;
Here we part, my friend,
You lonesome wisp of grass, ready to conquer the miles.
Your dream to roam like clouds takes you away,
May sunset bring you back to me one day.
As we wave our last good-bye,
Our horses neigh, as if for us they sigh.

Witter Bynner Translation on the UVa Website:

With a blue line of mountains north of the wall,
And east of the city a white curve of water,
Here you must leave me and drift away
Like a loosened water-plant hundreds of miles….
I shall think of you in a floating cloud;
So in the sunset think of me.
…We wave our hands to say good-bye,
And my horse is neighing again and again.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Updated Archive Link

Here is an updated archive link to the Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

This is a list of blog posts written since the last update:-

- Visible and Invisible Walls (China Current Events)
- Must A Girl Marry? (Culture)
- Why Corruption Will Never End in China (China Current Events)
- Nostalgic Images of Hong Kong (Hong Kong's Past)
- A Lost Symbol of the Rich (Hong Kong's Past)
- Ego and Freedom (Civic Rights)
- Formula That Blew Up Wall Street (U.S. Economy)
- Shameless Officials, Poor People (Social Justice)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Updated Archive Link to My Blog

Here is the updated archive link to the Alice Poon Blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

These are the blog posts written since the last update:-

- Trust No One But Yourself (Capitalism)
- An Amazingly Odd Language (Part 2) (Culture)
- An Amazingly Odd Language! (Culture)
- The UBS Irony (World Current Events)
- A Lone Wolf of A Child (China Current Events)
- Americans' View of China After 2008 (China Current Events)
- A High School Student's Nightmare (China Current Events)
- Why Aren't Regulators Co-opting Whistleblowers? (Hong Kong Current Events)
- The Chinese Internet - Sea Changes in 2008 (China Current Events)
- A Chinese Novelist's Perspective on China's Young (China Current Events)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Updated Archive Link to My Blog

Here is an updated archive link to my blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

The following are blog posts since my last update:-

- Let's Just Cross Our Fingers! (Hong Kong Current Events)
- Can Hong Kongers Relate to "Cape No. 7"? (Hong Kong Culture)
- Unconvincing Speech (Hong Kong Current Events)
- 2009 - Time for China to Remember? (China Current Events)
- Ominous Exodus from Chinese Bank Shares (China Current Events)
- Like Minds, Like Words (Democracy)
- Human Flesh Search - An Anti-Corruption Tool? (China Current Events)
- A Pompous Quagmire (Hong Kong Current Events)
- The Journalism Education Gap (China Current Events)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Updated Archive Link to My Blog at Asia Sentinel

Here is an updated archive link to my blog at Asia Sentinel:-

http://alicepoon.asiasentinel.com

List of blogposts since the last update:-

- Leaders Are No Longer Idols (China Current Events)

- Macau Tidbits (Travel)

- Hubris and Improbity (Capitalism)

- What's In A Name? (Culture)