Monday, October 22, 2018

My Choice of Two Poems to Illuminate Characters in "The Green Phoenix"

For readers who have read The Green Phoenix, they will have noticed that I had incorporated in it two famous Chinese lyric poems (“ci” , i.e. lyrics that are set to tunes): “Reminiscing Red Cliffs” 念奴嬌之赤壁懷古 by Song dynasty poet Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037 – 1101) and “The Immortals by the River” 臨江仙 by Ming poet Yang Shen 楊慎 (1488 – 1559). I would just like to say a few words as to why I had chosen them.

In the opening chapters, the first poem appears in a scene where the young Bumbutai performs a recital of it to entertain her two Jurchen (Manchu) royal guests in her Mongolian home estate. This poem is about the poet's nostalgic memory of the ancient hero Zhou Yu from the Three Kingdoms era, and it was chosen to reflect Bumbutai’s love of Chinese culture and history, and, in a premonitory way, her sense of humility in face of history as the big picture and her belief that chance or fate works on the individual and collective levels to make history happen.

Near the end of Part Two, the second poem is presented during a second meeting between the young Shunzhi Emperor and the beautiful but already married Lady Bombogor, who is to become his favorite Consort Donggo. By brushing the poem on a painting that Shunzhi just finished working on, she shows her intelligent understanding of his thwarted dream to live a commoner’s simple and peaceful life. The poem laments the futility and emptiness of worldly pursuits and the transience of life itself, with an implied Buddhist mantra of letting go (放下). It mirrors Shunzhi’s escapist mentality and presages his later decision to become a monk.

念奴嬌之赤壁懷古 -蘇軾



My Translation: Reminiscing Red Cliffs – Su Shi:

The Great Yangtze scurries forever east, many an ancient hero buried in its sweep.
West of the old forts, they say, was fought Zhou Yu’s Battle of Red Cliffs.
Rampant cliffs that pierced clouds, angry waves that ripped shores, churning up snowy foam;
Such a picturesque country, so full of gallant men in times of old.

Thinking of Zhou Yu in that distant past, he must’ve looked valiant with Xiaoqiao his new bride.
Feather fan in hand, hair tied in silk, his enemies crushed to dust as he joked.
Such was my dreamy tour; mock me as maudlin, but I’m just a young white-haired bloke.
Life is but a dream; let me offer wine to the river moon.

臨江仙 -楊慎


My Translation: The Immortals by the River – Yang Shen

On and on to the east rolls the Great Yangtze,
Burying in its current hordes of gallant men.
Right or wrong, shame or glory, all comes to naught.
Only the green hills linger, after many a glowing sunset.
White-haired men by the river, mind the seasons not;
All they care is in the bottle, and meeting with old friends.
Stories new and old, come alive in their witty repartee.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Cantonese Opera Recital on October 14, 2018

This past Sunday I went with a volunteer who worked at the LiterASIAN Festival to see a Cantonese opera excerpt singing show at the Norman Rothstein Theatre in Vancouver. It was really enjoyable and brought back fond childhood memories. My grandmother used to take me to watch Cantonese operas like 帝女花 (Princess Changping), 再世紅梅記, 牡丹亭驚夢 (The Peony Pavilion) at the old Lee Theatre in Hong Kong.

At the show, I didn't recognize the tunes of the songs but they were melodic and catchy and totally engrossing. With Cantonese operas, the singing skills of the performers (especially the female lead vocal) are crucial in holding the audience's attention. I was mesmerized by the female leads' trilling and thought the accompaniment of strings and winds and percussion went exceedingly well. But I must admit that I am nowhere close to qualifying as a critic.

From the lyrics I could tell which of the classical tales the songs are based on. All the songs are expertly chosen in terms of their literary value, as they epitomize the canon of Chinese classical literature.

Three of the songs are based on a sad departing scene in Water Margin 水滸傳 where the lead character Lin Chong 林冲 is being exiled for offending a corrupt high official and is forced to separate from his wife; one is from a scene in the famous legend "Goddess of River Luo" 洛神傳 where Cao Zhi 曹植 reunites with his deceased lover Consort Mi 宓妃 in a fantasy; one from a romantic dream scene in the renowned drama The Peony Pavilion 牡丹亭 (written by iconic Ming playwright Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖); one is about the star-crossed lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who turned into a pair of butterflies after death - 梁祝恨史; one is based on the real tragic love story of Song poet Lu You 陸游 and his first wife Tang Yuan 唐婉; and the last one based on a fantasy dialogue between Jia Baoyu 賈宝玉 and Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 in the Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢

A round of applause to the Pacific Coast Heritage Centre Museum of Migration Society (PCHCMoM), the organizers of this spectacular show!

I just wish the MCs had presented the moving stories behind the songs for the benefit of Westerners and CBCs in the audience.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book Review - "Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin

This was a deeply poignant read, where the poignancy creeps up on you and drags you under water and makes you lose your breath. That is the power of Baldwin’s writing.

Part One is made up of the ending scene of the story and a series of flashbacks of the narrator David’s recent and more distant past. That ending scene involves the impending dark fate of his lover Giovanni and it gives a distinct fatalistic and remorseful air. In the recent-past flashback, it is mechanically revealed that David has a plan to marry his girlfriend Hella, who is away in Spain thinking over their relationship. This is followed by flashbacks to his motherless childhood, his relationship with his conventional father, and a sexual fling with a boy in his school days.

Part Two tells of how he meets in a Parisian bar a handsome and poverty-stricken Italian migrant Giovanni who works there, with whom he falls in love but tries to resist with all his might. Two shady characters, Jacques and Guillaume (Giovanni’s boss), also appear on the scene. During the stint spent in Giovanni’s dingy rented room, David learns of his wretched experiences with Guillaume, but feels a need to keep aloof. Giovanni finds out about Hella and taunts David about his relationship with her. Giovanni then gets blamed for a theft and sacked from the bar. Encroaching helplessness, guilt and fear compel David to decide to give up the relationship. I really felt at that moment that Judas and the Savior had met in me. Out of desperate need, Giovanni goes to Guillaume and implores him to give back his job. Then something vile happens.

Overall, what deeply moved me was the character Giovanni. There is a sweet, naked sincerity and fragility in him under his forced self-possession that is so irresistible. He looked at me and I saw in his face again something which I have fleetingly seen there during these hours: under his beauty and his bravado, terror, and a terrible desire to please; dreadfully, dreadfully moving. He will remain one of my favorite literary heroes!

This is a riveting description of Giovanni’s room:

But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening; it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder, one realized that it was not to be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief.

I’m giving this heart-breaking novel 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review - "Pavilion of Women" by Pearl S. Buck

This novel deeply moved me, not only because Pearl Buck illustrates in it her sweeping knowledge and sympathetic views of the Chinese society in early- to mid-20th century, but also because of the humanistic attitudes and nuanced philosophies that color and enliven her characters.

This particular époque in China is one of East-West cultural clashes coming to the surface as the younger generations begin to seriously contemplate a clean break from the yoke of old Chinese traditions and customs and embrace freedom of the mind and soul. This nascent way of thinking is particularly manifest in man-woman relationships and in the values and belief system. Christian missionaries play an important part in brewing social changes, but even among these, there are the dogmatic and the more liberal streams of preaching.

The protagonist Madam Wu is first portrayed as the beautiful, all-wise, fastidious and capable mistress of the wealthy Wu household (which brings to mind the character Xue Baochai in Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin). With diplomacy, tact and intelligence, she manages her large household of sixty with success and accolades from within and without the family. Yet in the depths of her soul, she is a lonely creature yearning to be freed from her duties. She feels no one understands her and views herself superior to all those who surround her, including her sons and daughters-in-law, whose marriages she feels compelled to arrange for their own good. She even arranges for her husband to take a concubine, hoping to gain her own freedom. Eventually she comes to discover that none of her family members is happy.

Then a renegade foreign missionary enters her life and lights up her soul. Using a liberal approach to religion, he wins her admiration where another dogmatic Catholic nun fails, shining a whole new light on the meaning of love and freedom. She begins to understand that to love is to not judge others harshly and that self-fulfillment is the key to setting one’s soul free, and that this applies to all man-woman relationships. Shortly thereafter, something vile happens to him, which devastates her, and she realizes that she is in love with this foreigner, and that the single most important thing that she always lacked is the capacity to love. With that epiphany, she sets out to follow the foreigner’s selfless example and to remedy her past mistakes.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounded up.