Geoffrey Sampson


Should Chinese studies be a private party?

Voices across the millennia

The Book of Odes (as it is usually known in English) is an anthology of poems which stands at the origin of the literature of the world’s oldest surviving civilization. In 2006 I published a little book of translations of some of its contents, choosing poems with relatively high human interest. My aim was to make this remarkable literary monument more accessible to Westerners, and perhaps to present-day Chinese too. Although the Book of Odes is almost three thousand years old, its language is unusually simple and grammatically transparent. For Westerners, though, this transparency is concealed by the Chinese writing system; and even for present-day Chinese the poetry of the Odes has been undermined by the huge sound-changes which have occurred down the millennia, so that much of the original “sound-music” has vanished when the poems are read in modern pronunciation. Furthermore, the Odes often allude to a social and physical environment which is unfamiliar to anyone today.

To overcome these barriers, I showed the poems in their original pronunciation, using our alphabet, on left-hand pages, opposite translations on right-hand pages into straightforward English prose, which aimed to be rather literal but nevertheless capable of being read for pleasure. I added a glossary giving the meaning of each word used in the poems, together with a few notes to explain obscure cultural references. This gives the general reader with no knowledge of Chinese script everything he or she needs, to be able to hear and understand the authors of the Odes speaking to us across the millennia, in their own voices. So far as I know, no-one has tried to do this before.

When I saw that I had been reviewed by Edward Shaughnessy (in Modern Philology vol. 106, 2008, pp. 197–200), I felt somewhat abashed – Shaughnessy is the University of Chicago’s Distinguished Service Professor of Early China, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, whereas my career took me away from Chinese studies after age twenty. I wondered whether he might find schoolboy howlers in my translations. But it seems there was nothing like that (unless Shaughnessy was being kind – but he is the first person who has ever called me a “crackpot” in public, so he can hardly be suspected of pulling his punches). Shaughnessy’s review included some nice remarks, for which I was grateful; but the overall tenor was disapproving. However, it seemed that Shaughnessy disapproved not because he found mistakes, but because I go too far to make the Odes readable for non-experts. I don’t usually respond to reviews (commonly, authors are not well advised to do so); but this case raises wider social issues that seem to me too important to leave undiscussed.

Making difficulties

The Book of Odes has been studied intensively by Chinese for thousands of years (and by Westerners for more than a century), so there is a great deal one could say about almost every line. There is a very long tradition in Odes studies of making things more complicated than they seem. For instance, to anyone willing to read words for their plain meaning, Ode XLI is clearly the song of a prostitute trying to pick up a bashful client; yet (as I explain in my book) pompous and prudish commentators have taught generations of Chinese that it is really an allegory about a deposed queen seeking asylum with a friendly prince. I hoped in my book to cut through these redundant complexities and get back to the original simplicity of the poems. Shaughnessy evidently belongs to the school of complexification (though in his case the complexification is not in the direction of prudishness). His central objection to my translations is that I fail to bring out all the hidden layers of meaning which, he believes, lurk below the surface of the wording.

Shaughnessy makes this point chiefly in connexion with two issues: the words used to render natural sounds, such as bird calls; and the convention of the so-called hsing 興 or “arousal”.

As it happens, both of these points are exemplified by the opening couplet of the very first Ode:

關 關 雎 鳩   在 河 之 洲
which I spell in roman letters as:
Krón, krón, tsa-kou
dzúh gáy tu tou
and render into English as:
Krón, krón calls the fish-hawk
on an islet in the river.
The poem goes on to depict a young man wading through the river to reap a water-plant used for food, while musing on his longing to find a mate.

Woof, quack, to-whit-to-woo

Taking first Shaughnessy’s point about the meaning of the word used to imitate the bird call: the original meaning of krón is the cross-beam used to lock a double-leaved gate, which is thoroughly irrelevant to the context, but Shaughnessy points out that the word had extended senses including “to join, to be related” (the cross-beam joins the sides of the gate). It seems to Shaughnessy

that the fish-hawk is literally seeking ‘to join’ with his mate, and any translation that does not reflect that sense leaves the reader at an immediate loss.
Perhaps; but I should have thought that translating the line as “ ‘Join, join’ calls the fish-hawk” would leave most readers a great deal more confused than they will be by my rendering – even if I accepted Shaughnessy’s claim that krón is being used partly for its meaning. And anyway, that claim seems far-fetched. According to Shaughnessy, the animal and bird sounds which occur in the Odes were “necessarily rendered in Chinese characters, and the characters were obviously chosen not only for their sound but also for their meaning”. Is that truly obvious? In English we write a dog’s bark as “woof”, which means the cross-threads in a cloth, not because we perceive any link between dogs and weaving but purely because that is what barking sounds like to us. A duck says quack because that’s the noise ducks make, not because they put us in mind of unqualified doctors. Why would it have been different for the early Chinese?

Shaughnessy even questions the value of reconstructing the Old Chinese pronunciation: “I am not at all sure that for readers who do not know Chinese ‘Krón, krón, tsa-kou,’ … is much to be preferred over [the modern pronunciation, Kuan kuan chü-chiu]”. If the line were considered in isolation like that, there would be little or no reason to prefer one pronunciation over the other; it takes two to tango, and it certainly takes two lines of poetry to rhyme. But the fact that the Book of Odes represents the first known use of rhyme anywhere in world literature is one of the fascinating things about it. So it would not be much use to an English-speaking reader to spell out the poems in a modern version of Chinese, in which the rhymes have been destroyed by three millennia of sound-change. (In Old Chinese, tsa-kou, fish-hawk, in the first line rhymed with tou, islet, in the second line, but in modern Mandarin chü-chiu scarcely rhymes with chou. In other cases the original rhymes, assonances, and so forth have been even more thoroughly wrecked in the modern language.)

Having argued that 關, krón, should be read partly for its sense, Shaughnessy then claims to discern yet another layer of meaning: he says that this word is “similar in pronunciation” to 貫, whose primary meaning is “to pass through” but which has “the extended sense of sexual penetration”. So perhaps the translation should be not “ ‘Join, join’ …” but rather “ ‘Screw, screw’ calls the fish-hawk”.

I find it surprising that the words 關 and 貫 were similar enough to be confusable in the Old Chinese period. (They are pronounced similarly in modern Mandarin – kuan1 versus kuan4, a difference of tone only; but 貫 is normally taken to have ended in -s in Old Chinese: Shaughnessy gives it the pronunciation kons, and I would write kóns.) However, in private correspondence Shaughnessy has shown me good evidence that the words were treated as to some extent interchangeable. Nevertheless, I remain sceptical about whether the meaning, rather than the pronunciation, of either word was relevant to hearers’ appreciation of the poem. Rendering a crowing sound into human speech by using a word pronounced krón seems very natural. Translating the first word of the Book of Odes into English with a term referring to sexual penetration would not only read bizarrely but be philologically gratuitous. (It might have helped with sales, perhaps.)

Furthermore, while krón sounds plausible as a representation of a bird-call, I find it hard to hear a syllable ending in -s as a likely rendering of the cry of any bird. I realize, of course, that some readers may find it typical of academics to debate this kind of philological problem without so much as mentioning what the bird in question actually sounds like. But the truth is that no-one knows what species a tsa-kou was. The word seems to have gone out of currency early. Mathew’s dictionary gives “A kind of fish-hawk. The osprey”, and translators of the Odes often use “osprey”, but that gloss is at best a guess. I am not familiar with Pandion haliaetus, the species called osprey in English, but according to our family bird-book its call is “A shrill cheeping sound, like a young bird calling” – that does not sound like something which, heard at a distance, might serve as the evocative introduction to a wistful love lyric (and it does not sound much like krón, or even kóns, either). What is more, Pandion haliaetus is not found in North China, in modern times at any rate. These are the reasons why I preferred to translate tsa-kou as “fish-hawk”, which is an alternative English name for the osprey but sounds less zoologically precise. (A truly scholarly translation might have been “Krón, krón calls the [unkown bird]” – or even “[debatable sounds] calls the [unkown bird]” – but I don’t imagine that would have inspired many readers.)

Opaque arousals

Shaughnessy’s second main disagreement with my approach relates to the “arousal” (hsing) convention. For a present-day reader this convention is one of the most puzzling features of early Chinese poetry, for a reason I shall explain after saying what the term means.

Many poems begin with a line or couplet referring to some sight or sound from the external world of Nature, before the body of the poem goes on to deal with a topic more directly connected with human life. These introductory lines came to be called hsing (arousal, stimulation) by later commentators, with the idea that they serve to establish a mood or atmosphere which will colour our understanding of the body of the poem. The lines already quoted are the arousal of Ode I. A clearer example might be Ode XXXV, which opens with the arousal:

習 習 谷 風   以 陰 以 雨

Zoup zoup kók poum / luh oum luh wah

Zoup, zoup gusts the East wind / with clouds and with rain
and then continues with a wife’s lament for the life she is leading married to a husband who prefers younger women. It is easy to see how dreary weather sets the scene for discussion of a dreary life.

Incidentally: the words kók poum 谷 風, which I have translated here as “East wind”, literally mean “valley wind”, and Shaughnessy says that “it is not clear to me how ‘East Wind’ is preferable”. The fact is that the phrase “valley wind” was conventionally used for the east wind, presumably because early Chinese civilization was centred on one long valley (the valley of the Wei River and the Yellow River below their confluence) which descends from the deserts and mountains of the west towards the east and the open Pacific. When I was translating, I thought that a reader with even limited knowledge of Chinese geography might grasp why the poem associates wind from the east with clouds and rain, whereas to a typical English-speaking reader the phrase “valley wind” would just sound odd and unlikely to represent any special weather. (English valleys lie in all directions.) That still seems right to me.

What is puzzling about the arousal convention is that in many poems there is no apparent link between the content of the arousal and the remainder of the poem. Beyond establishing the rhyme or rhymes which the poem-body will use, in many cases the arousal seems to a modern reader entirely disconnected from what follows it. For instance, Ode LX expresses the feelings of a girl who fears that her young man is growing too mature and important to retain his interest in her. Its two stanzas open with lines which translate, in their entirety, as “rough-potato branches” and “rough-potato leaves” respectively. The rough-potato (Metaplexis) is a plant whose stalks apparently contain a milky sap, and this led one Chinese commentator to assert that the arousal relates to the poem-body by reminding us of the time when the young man was a milk-drinking baby. I find this explanation quite incredible.

Inevitably and obviously, there is much detail that no-one now knows about daily life in the Chou dynasty; so it could be that an arousal which looks to us bizarrely irrelevant to the poem which it heads might have had a connexion that was apparent to the poet’s contemporaries. Shaughnessy evidently feels that this is so, and indeed that he knows what the connexion is. He objects to my frequent failures to display the link. With respect to Ode I, for instance, Shaughnessy says that whatever species of bird was calling krón, krón (or kóns, kóns) on the islet, it must have been a bird which eats fish, and a fish motif is regularly associated with sex in the Book of Odes – so the arousal here is a natural way to introduce the theme of longing for a mate.

Again: perhaps. But no word for fish actually occurs in Ode I. I chose to translate tsa-kou as “fish-hawk”, for reasons already discussed, but the etymology of the Chinese word contains no fish element. In effect Shaughnessy is claiming that a Chou-dynasty audience would respond to Ode I along the lines: “We’re hearing a tsa-kou bird calling. Let’s see, what do we know about tsa-kou birds? – they eat fish. Ha, and we know what fish mean, don’t we?” It all sounds a bit like the Monty Python sketch: “Your wife interested in photography, is she, squire? Nod nod, wink wink, say no more.” I wonder whether we can really know in the 21st century that apparently-simple Odes were understood in their day as involving such tortuous chains of association.

Where an Ode mentions fish explicitly and the passage reads to me as a metaphor for sex, I translated accordingly. I did not see a reason to drag explicit sex in anywhere and everywhere I could contrive room for it.

If I underplay the relevance of some of the arousals to the Odes they introduce, I am in good company. One of the very greatest names in Chinese intellectual history is Chu Hsi of the Sung dynasty. He once said that the hsing “often arouses feelings by simply referring to something else, not employing its meanings at all” (quoted in English translation by Fu Hongchu in Pacific Coast Philology vol. 29, 1994, p. 19). Commentators down the centuries have offered very various suggestions about the relevance of a particular arousal to its poem-body, and this includes the arousal of Ode I – a standard traditional explanation asserted not that tsa-kou birds were fish-eaters but that they were known for keeping their distance from the opposite sex. (Since the commentators did not actually know what bird a tsa-kou was, this explanation would most kindly be described as speculative.)

The judicious conclusion seems to be that some arousals (for instance the east wind in Ode XXXV) have a clear role in establishing the atmosphere for the poem-body; some appear to have a relatively casual link with their poem-body, and there I would include Ode I (the cry of a waterfowl serves to establish the river scene where the action of the poem-body takes place); and in other cases again, such as the rough-potato in Ode LX, there is no plausible link at all for a present-day reader between an arousal and its poem-body. I am agnostic about whether every arousal had an original relevance which is often now irrecoverable, or whether some of them always were as disconnected from their poem-bodies as they now seem.

In an edition aimed at the general reader, the best approach to the arousals is to avoid thrusting them forward as central to the appreciation of the poems – since a modern reader has no hope of appreciating some of them. I translated those arousals that have at least some minimal apparent link to their poem-bodies without comment; in cases like the rough-potato Ode, I added a brief note about the inscrutability of the arousal. That is the best way to help the modern reader to take as much as he can from the poems, without leaving him beating his head against the wall trying to get more.

Why traditional China is worth learning about

I worked on my volume of Odes translations with a specific goal in mind: to do something, even if it could be only a little, to encourage more of our contemporaries to take an interest in pre-modern China. We are living in an age crippled by cultural parochialism. Economic globalization has spread Western styles of life across the planet, and many people’s perception of the world is nowadays mediated entirely by television and the internet, technologies that were invented the day before yesterday. Leaders of our society in the 1950s would have felt ashamed not to possess a working knowledge of life in ancient Rome and Greece; their successors today often seem to have only a cartoonish conception of life in the 1950s. As a result, people who should know better take it absolutely for granted that the political and social arrangements which happen to be the norm at the beginning of the 21st century are the only arrangements which could be taken seriously ever, anywhere.

No task for academics is more urgent than to dispel that illusion. If some aspects of our society are superior to alternatives (as I think they are), we should believe that on the basis of comparison, not ignorance. Unless we are aware of how diversely human beings are capable of organizing their affairs, we shall not be sensitive to cases where our own society develops in undesirable directions.

For raising consciousness about the potential diversity of human societies, there is no study better than that of China before its encounter with the West in the 19th century. China was by far the greatest civilization to have developed independently of Europe – together with its daughter cultures (such as Japan) the only one, I suspect, whose leaders would not appear to us as children if we could meet and talk to them today. We would do ourselves a favour if we could induce more of our population to become interested in traditional China. The love songs in the Book of Odes struck me as one possible lure that might help to attract a few more Westerners towards Chinese studies.

But any such lure must be offered to people where they are. If sinological knowledge is to be revealed only to those who are willing to grapple with all the complexities of millennia of sinological scholarship, then one has lost in advance. The audience will shrug and return to its comfort zone.

The Odes are essentially simple songs that emerged from an unsophisticated society in the dawn of Chinese history, which have since been encrusted with thousands of years’ worth of commentary and interpretation. If I had produced a translation which gave full weight to these encrustations (even supposing I were capable of that), then it might have been read by a few professional sinologists – but what would that achieve? Society does not pay academics in order for them to indulge solely in discourse within private coteries of fellow enthusiasts. Exchanges among experts are needed for learning to thrive and deepen; but unless learning sometimes leads to products in which non-experts can find value, society has thrown its money away.

I don’t believe Chinese studies ought to be a private party.

Geoffrey Sampson

last changed 29 Aug 2009