I go for a walk around my neighborhood,
is to search the internet for Russian poetry in vain attempts
for conversation starters, for new reasons to leave my stool
and find novel and nerdy ways to say, How are you this evening?
It is to be riveted to the bar, drunk and dreaming
of your Volgograd, one I never saw and never frequented
its taverns and winding city streets with you on my arm –
you, always on my arm, teaching me how the motherland
really calls, taking me through the real city, the real Russia,
real Eastern Europe with a love of butter, mayonnaise, beer —
and not the one Americans like me thought they read about
on Wikipedia – where a colossal concrete woman on a hill
wields a sword and gestures to the clouds, to the skyline
and to skyscrapers with an outreached and welcoming hand,
yet telling me how you can see a statue, a Slavic world, a pride
of a people and never totally stand in its tremendous shadow;
is to sit in a bar and steal glimpses of you and your silken hair,
long and flowing like the Volga and wish I could forever be
entangled there and in your arms; it is to have a heart aflame,
seething, and jealous when you politely smile at other men;
it is to wonder how your ancestors huddled in the rubble
and ruin of a besieged Stalingrad and trained their rifles
against invading fascists — and yet lived to raise lovely children;
is to practice pick-up lines using honest Anna Akhmatova
logic about the true meanings of smoldering, burning gazes,
and to fail to utter real words when you stand next to me;
is to not read Alexander Blok at all; is to be in total wonder
and stare at the bubbles in my pint of beer and ask: Will she
walk through the bar’s door tonight? Will she sit next to me?
Will she mention Mandelstam this time? Or laugh out loud
about Gogol and his notorious nose? How can I parse her
every word for profound meaning and romantic musings?
Reading Alexander Blok is to be reminded of the Russia
I daydreamed about as a sullen, heartbroken teenager
in Holland, stumbling from an American Air Force Base
and into an Utrecht anarcho-syndicalist bookstore and see
portraits of Trotsky, Bakunin, and Mayakovsky glower
over texts discounted and marked down for clearance;
It is to be reminded of other Russian writers, barren and bleak
snow swept steppes, Cossacks atop horses, charging
into hopeless battles and knowing they will never return;
it is to be an American who spent half of his life outside
America, seeking – always seeking – to find meaning
In every country he saw, every friend’s nationality around him,
only to find home in the lonely pages of Russian literature;
sometimes to read Alexander Blok is to not read him at all;
sometimes it’s to be reminded of who you don’t want to be:
it is to think somewhere else in time, Mayakovsky allegedly
spun a partially loaded revolver on his desk – only to pick it up
and push the muzzle against his chest, against his heart
it is to know the dark alleys of my mind and become very afraid
every time my cold heart thaws and beats afresh, as obsessions
and crushes are twisting, woodland pathways into oblivion.
Yet even then,
it still yearning to kiss you deeply and needing to fully know the nuances and complexities and honesty of your native tongue.
That old foreign woman was crying again. She sat on a bench near the clock tower where Lanling Road intersected with Nandajie. Most of the time, she was hunched over with her face in her hands. From time to time, she would peer up and glance around with eyes reddened by tens of thousands of tears. Slowly, a look of terror would creep across her face, and she would sobbing again. For the past week, Zhou Xiaolan had seen her sitting on the same bench every day. It was 12:50, and she was walking back to work after a lunch of Lanzhou shaved beef noodles. The sight of this elderly, disheveled western woman disturbed her.
For five days straight, Xiaolan saw people walk by this lady as if she didn’t exist. Her fellow Chinese didn’t bother to stop and ask her what was wrong and how they could help. In a way, she could almost understand. Maybe they were too afraid of her and their own lack of English skills. No, the foreigners annoyed her more. Quite often, she foreign business men in suits just stroll right by. So did the young interns and exchange students in their backpacks and baggy shorts. Here was an old woman – somebody’s grandmother – terrified and alone on a hot August day. Certainly one of those foreigners could stop and help their fellow expat? Then, Xiaolan felt a twitch of anger. Where was this woman’s son or grandson? How could they leave her alone like this? Why weren’t they taking care of their elders? That anger then turned into guilt. She, herself, had been one of those Chinese people that had ignored somebody who clearly in need – for five days straight. Sure, she had to get back to work. Sure, her boss liked to yell at her even if she was two minutes late coming back from lunch. No, Xiaolan reasoned. Not today. She worked at a language training center and with foreigner English teachers. Surely they would comprehend and at least have empathy?
She turned, walked over, and sat next to the sobbing woman. For a moment, she stared at the woman’s gray, curly hair and the back of her neck. A wide neckline also showed the woman’s gaunt, bony shoulders. Odd, asymmetric purple blotches marred her dried out-skin. Xiaolan averted her gaze not out of disgust, but more out of decency. It didn’t seem polite to stare. Still, she awkwardly reached out and patted the woman on her knee. “What’s wrong?
The old woman sat up and turned to face Xiaolan. Her inflamed, red eyes prompted Xiaolan to reach into her purse for a packet of tissues. She opened it and held it out to her. The old woman took a few began wiping her eyes.
“I’m lost,” she said. “I came to Changzhou with my son, and now I can’t find him.” She took a few more tissues to wipe the tears off her cheek. “I worry about him all the time.”
“What’s his name? Where does he work?” Xiaolan put her hand on the foreign woman’s shoulders and earnestly looked into her eyes. “I will take you to him.”
A few new tears leaked from the corner of her eyes. She took a few more tissues to deal with them. “That’s the problem. I can’t remember.” The old woman stared at her knees. “My memory hasn’t been all that great the last two years.”
For some reason, the small device taped near to the woman’s collar bone grabbed Xiaolan’s attention. It was a small, heart-shaped machine encased in drap, beige plastic; a small tube ran from it and through her skin and into a dark vein Xiaolan could see through pale, translucent skin. Xiaolan tried not to stare; it felt disrespectful. Instead, she looked up and made eye contact. “My English name is Lanny. What’s your name?”
“What’s your family name? Maybe I can help you find your son that way?
The old woman took another tissue and wiped her eyes. “That’s the problem. I can’t remember. My memory left me ever since I was in the hospital.”
“What’s your son like?”
“Depressed.” She took another tissue. She shook her head and blew her nose before taking yet another tissue. No matter how many she took, her eyes still looked darkly enflamed. “Drinks too much beer. I always thought he was an alcoholic, and that was before I ever got sick. Ever since we came to China a year ago, he just likes to sit behind his computer, get drunk, and eat cheese and salami on crackers.” She took another tissue. “He has no friends. He tries not even tried to make friends. It worries me a lot.”
Xiaolan thought for a moment. She wanted a physical description, not an emotional profile. Yet, as much as she wanted to help, she felt a strange, instinctual need to get away from her. She also remembered that every moment she was late would just make her boss angrier. “I have to get to work,” Xiaolan said. She thought about getting her iPhone out of her purse and checking for angry messages from her boss, but she resisted. “Please, come with me. I have western colleagues, and if you describe your son to them, maybe they can help? Maybe they will know him? Or, maybe they will know who can help you.”
The woman took Xiaolan’s now nearly empty packet of tissues and slipped them into her small black purse. “Okay.”
Both stood. Xiaolan led the way, and Elma followed. They took an escalator down into an underpass beneath Lanling Road. Small boutique shops surrounded them. The few times Xiaolan glanced over her shoulder, she noticed Elma never turned to look at the mannequins displaying local fashions. The shop selling cheap versions of traditional Changzhou combs didn’t interest her. The old woman kept her stare locked straight forward. She also never blinked. Her eyes were still somewhere between dark pink and red, but at least she no longer cried. Once they climbed a set of stairs, they walked north on Beidajie Road. Xiaolan crossed the road and cut through an almost empty shopping center where Parksons used to be. They left that, navigated though a few more side streets until they reached a decrepit building of dirty-white bricks. A door-frosted lettering read Eastern-Western Global International English Worldwide.
As soon as both of them walked through the door, a short man – with a feeble attempt at a moustache — sneered and turned on Xiaolan. He pointed a stubby little finger up into Xiaolan’s face. He shouted in Chinese: Where have you been? You have a corporate training, and the factory’s driver has been waiting. I let the foreigners get away with this because they are foreigners. You? You should know better and be on time. Xiaolan glanced over her shoulder at the elderly woman behind her. Xiaolan tried to speak, but when it came to her boss, she knew she would always be drowned out. This time, she knew something more important was at stake. But before she could interject, Elma merely whispered, “There he is.”
Elma walked further into the center. Xiaolan tuned out her boss and watched the old woman navigate the language center. All the walls were made out of glass, so anybody could see into every classroom and office. This made leading potential new students around on a tour much easier. Elma navigated these glass corridors as if she worked there. While Xiaolan’s boss continued on in elaborate detail about her “unprofessional conduct,” she watched Elma wander into Brian Brozek’s classroom and take a seat. Elma’s frown softened. She even put two elbows onto a desk and rested her chin into her hands. Her frown melted into something more friendly and loving as Brian taught. Xiaolan wanted to follow Elma into the classroom, but by now, her boss was now forcefully pushing her out of the building shouting Go! Teach! in Chinese.
Soon enough, Xiaolan found herself in a factory’s company car being whisked away from Changzhou’s downtown and towards southern Changzhou’s industrial parks. Xiaolan didn’t know what to think. She stared at her mobile phone and waited for QQ and Wechat complaints about a sick, elderly woman sitting in on English lessons. Those complaints never came. The factory training came and went. Both Elma and Brian were gone once Xiaolan returned. Throughout the day, nobody even mentioned the woman at all. Brian worked at the center part time, and Xiaolan didn’t have him on Wechat. So, she couldn’t follow up with him even if she wanted. Sure, she could have asked around for his phone number, but if nobody was talking about Elma barging into a classroom, then she wasn’t going to raise the issue. Xiaolan eventually forgot about Elma. Her own grandmother’s eightieth birthday was quickly approaching, and she had agreed to help her mother and father plan a party in her elder’s honor.
The next day, at 12:50, Xiaolan walked by the clock tower area again, and the bench was empty. It was also empty the day after that, too. She did see her again, but it was only in passing. Xiaolan had gone to the Xinbei Wanda on her day off. She wanted to buy a new pair of heels, but she found herself unimpressed by the selection available. She decided to go home empty handed, and as she walked to the BRT Bus station, dark clouds grayed out the sky. Xiaolan could smell rain.
That’s when Brian walked by. Elma followed him, and the entire time neither of them talked. A few fat rain drops began splattering against the concrete, and that coincided with a gust of wind. It was so strong it blew off Elma’s short, gray, curly hair. It was actually a wig. The head it previously hid had only patches of thin hair – some longer than others. For the most part, though, Elma was bald. The rain began to pick up, and so Xiaolan had to run to the BRT station in a futile attempt to keep dry. Slightly damp, Xiaolan sat on the B1 both going south. She really wished she had Brian’s phone number or Wechat contact. But before she could text somebody about it, her mother called regarding Xiaolan’s grandmother’s eightieth birthday party. From there, Xiaolan got caught up in event planning.
She only saw Elma one more time. It was a day that she finally convinced Hua Aiguo, her boyfriend, to relent and take her out for an expensive German dinner. They were at Jagerwirt in the southern end of Changzhou. While her boyfriend dithered over the menu and scratched his head, he looked up from time to time with pleading expressions of What is this weird food you want to eat? Xiaolan just ignored him – like she had grown used to doing. This time, the sight a few tables away captured her attention.
Brian sat opposite a slender European woman with dark blonde hair. They both were eating salads, but Brian seemed to pick at his food. It looked like he was more interested in talking than eating. Xiaolan wondered about this: Brian never socialized with her or anybody at her language center. Most of the times, he just seemed devoid of anything. He came in, did his classes and left. Xiaolan never imagined him remotely capable of even having female friends. And that’s when she spotted Elma.
She had never retrieved her wig, and her head was still a patchwork of thin clumps and thatches of hair. Brian didn’t seem to notice. He and his friend had plates in front of them. Elma did not. The two never stopped to look at Elma or even acknowledge her existence. Elma just enjoyed the smile on her son’s face. Light radiated around her the more her smile warmly grew. The light nearly became blinding. Xiaolan shielded her eyes.
“What’s wrong,” said her boyfriend.
Xiaolan pointed at Elma. “That.”
“That.” She stabbed her finger in Elma’s direction.
“You mean,” Hua Aiguo said, “The foreign couple eating salad?”
“Not them, the old woman sitting with them.”
“What are you talking about? There is no old woman. It’s just two laowai eating salad.”
For Xiaolan, the light was now blinding, but she lowered her hand to look into it. Elma was there at the center. The texture of the light fluctuated and swirled around her. It reminded Xiaolan of a whirlpool of water – but only in cloudy gradients of yellow. At the center of this vortex, Elma looked at Brian and his date. Then, she looked at Xiaolan. She closed her eyes and gave only a slight smile suggesting peace and contentment. That’s when Elma vanished.
The first time I ever visit a city, I like to wander around without a plan. The idea is that the new location will reveal itself to me in its own time and manner. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Recently, I decided to go to Zhangjiagang, because, well, I have been meaning to for two years now. I mean, it’s only a little over an hour by bus from Changzhou. Not that far from the city center, I ran into a a statue of what looked like an ancient statesman.
Public sculpture has always intrigued me — especially when it’s not abstract. It usually signifies and represents the history and the stories a city or a town wants to tell. Since the above photoed figure is holding a sword, it probably means he was some sort of heroic figure. Unfortunately for me, the Chinese text on the wall behind the statue didn’t read well on my phone.
All I could really get was “许蓉抗倭…” And that translated as “Xu Rong fights Japanese.” In this case, 倭 is an archaic character for “Japanese.” It’s no longer used in everyday Chinese, so the ones he had to be fighting had to be really, really old. Thankfully, there was a bas relief sculpture on the other side of the wall. It depicted a very chaotic scene. Here are two details.
Further intrigued, a made a few more attempts at translating the explanatory text behind the Xu statue. All I could glean was another word: 倭寇. In English, that would be Wokou — with a spelling variant (from a different Romanization scheme) of “wako.” These were Japanese pirates. I left the statue and wandered around to see what else downtown Zhangjiagang had to offer. My thought was once I eventually returned to my hotel room, the Internet would help me fill in the rest of the story. Of course, it didn’t. I searched in both English and Chinese and turned up next to nothing on who Xu Rong was.
So, the next day, I went The Zhangjiagang Musuem. Surely, there had to be a mentions of the Xu there.
There was some mention of him, but not a lot. He lived from 1500 to 1570 — basically, during the Ming Dynasty. There were more mentions of Japanese pirates, but that was about it. Apparently, these Wokou attacked the town and sacked it several times.
The above obviously is from Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s of Chow Yun Fat 周润发. It is also the highest profile representation of the Wokou in western culture. Because, the more I could not find information about Xu Rong and why he’s a hero, I was able to piece together a bigger picture.
The Wokou started off as Japanese pirates raiding and pillaging Korea and coastal China. But, Zhangjiagang is not a coastal town. However, it is near the Yangtze delta and the Wokou had no problem sailing up river and causing chaos inland. That being said, if these pirates were Japanese, why do you have a Chinese actor playing one? History is a little more complicated. So, let’s back up and talk about this dude.
This is the Jiajing Emperor — born as Zhu Houcong. Pretty much, he was an useless ruler and a terrible human being. He was an ardent Taoist and was into alchemy. He thought if he drank the menstrual blood of virgins, he could prolong his life and attain immortality. He actually kept a harem of young girls for this exact purpose, but he treated them so badly that his phalanx of concubines tried to assassinate him and failed. That was the Renyin Plot, and those concubines were slowly tortured to death for the efforts. Oh, and their family members were also beheaded. It’s pretty gory reading, as far as history goes.
However, that is beside the point. He, like other Ming Emperors, was an isolationist. Trade with the outside world had been made illegal. There were coastal communities that were basically not allowed to capitalize on their greatest local asset: proximity to the sea. So, eventually, a some Chinese people started joining the Wokou. There were even Portuguese sailors among their ranks. So, these pirates started off Japanese, but they were largely international during the Ming Dynasty according to some historians. So, having Chow Yun Fat play an Asian pirate may not be that far off from the truth.
However, let me digress back to Zhangjiagang. The years of the Jiajing Emperor were the worst when it came to Wokou incursions into China. According to Wikipedia, there were 602 pirate raids during Jiajing’s reign. At the time, China didn’t have much of a navy to defend itself because of Ming rulers thinking the world outside China was irrelevant. Some towns like Zhangjiagang had to turn to local officials like Xu Rong to try and address the issue.
So, who was Xu Rong? Truthfully, I still don’t have a clue. However, trying to figure that out did teach me some historical lessons I didn’t know before. That’s a good thing. Also, another takeaway from all of this is that some of the Chinese distrust of the of the Japanese goes back A LOT longer than World War 2, the occupation, and the war crimes that came with it. This is true if were are discussing Japanese pirates — however international their crews may have been — attacking a town like Zhangjiagang during the Ming Dynasty.
“It’s so old, it’s new again.”
Jim Cornette once said this about the new NWA Internet wrestling show Powerrr. Yes, you read that correctly; the name is spelled with three Rs. I blame the Internet phenomenon of purposefully misspelling things in the name of copyrights: Flickr, Fiverr, and so on. As professional wrestling organizations go, the NWA is one of the oldest there is in America. Then, Vince McMahon ran everybody out of business and had a defacto monopoly on sports entertainment for 20 years.
That has changed with the rising popularity of independent, alternative wrestling. A big part of that was the recent launch of Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan’s AEW on the cable channel TNT. That was to directly confront WWE. There have been other smaller promotions grinding niches for themselves. A few years ago, Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan bought the NWA with the idea of doing something new and different: studio wrestling. He likely paid a minuscule fraction of what it may have been worth 60 years ago — if you adjust for inflation. Only, studio wrestling is not all that new.
In the annals of pro wrestling, “studio wrestling” used to be a staple on TV. This was partly due to how cheap it was to produce. Basically, a ring was set up in a television studio, a small audience would be brought in, and matches happened. It was a more intimate setting than the arena shows WWE would later profit off of. There was a long, rich history of this type of TV program, but in the course of the 1980’s the concept ceased to be. As stated earlier, McMahon killed the territory system and ushered in a new, micro-managed, corporate era. As much as I love professional wrestling, there is something else about Cornette’s words that interests me.
“It’s so old it’s new again.” The 1980’s is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence. You see it with TV shows like GLOW, Stranger Things, and the current season of American Horror Story. Now, it’s popping up again with an Internet wrestling show made to look like it came from the 80’s. Nostalgia cycles are not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Here’s a frightening thought: 40 years from now, somebody will wistfully look back at 2019 and will make an entertainment product about it. While I am currently in my mid 40s, that scares the crap out of me.
This is well and fine, but why am I pontificating on this on a blog about Changzhou? Seriously? I highly doubt Jim Cornette even knows the city of Changzhou exists. Most Americans probably don’t. Well, the connection in my brain is because of this guy.
This is Zhao Yi, and he was from Changzhou. He was a poet, historian, and literary critic during the Qing Dynasty. His former residence is downtown in the Qianbeihou historic area near the Wenhuagong subway station.
I had always been curious as to who Zhao Yi was, because I have been walking by this place for years. Just because there is a historical preservation marker doesn’t mean that it’s actually open to the public as a museum. The one time I did poke my head through an open door, it looked like people actually live here, still.
But let me be clear about something. I am not comparing the delightfully foul mouthed, tennis racket wielding, legendary wrestling manager from Kentucky with a Chinese poet of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As a juxtaposition, that’s just too far of a stretch — even though Zhao was considered unconventional by some of his contemporaries. Or am I just doing that?
None of Zhao’s verses has been translated into English. Given that I have an MFA in poetry — and a deep desire to learn Chinese — translating Chinese poetry into English seemed like something I would eventually try my hand at. Only, I was too afraid to take that leap. I did so anyway. Recently, I realized that I was being too ambitious with disastrous results. Maybe I should start by focusing on really short verses, I thought? So, I settled on this as my first real attempt:
Mǎnyǎn shēngjī zhuǎnhuà jūn, tiān gōngrén qiǎo rì zhēng xīn. Yùzhī wǔbǎi nián xīnyì, dàole qiānnián yòu jué chén.
This comes from a sequence called 论诗. That translates as “On Poetry.” The sequence itself can be classed as “meta poetry“ — poetry about poetry. Or so to speak, using the art of language sound to comment on that exact art. So, my first crack at translating just those two sentences led to this:
One’s life and vitality abounds and changes you;
Heaven’s workers daily vie for something new.
Advance 500 years into a future of new meanings;
In the end, a thousand years can still feel stale.
Before I get back to Jim Cornette, let me reinforce something. This is my first attempt at trying to translate anything into English. I’m hyper aware that I’m missing something or there is a nuance going over my head.
In know this because of three particular characters in the original Chinese: 天工人. If you stuff Zhao Yi’s words into Baidu Translate, you get “workers of the sky.” That’s just fantastical. It’s almost like something you would expect from Tsui Hark’s special effects bonanza “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain.”
Google Translate stated that 天工人 meant “day workers.” That’s actually funny because of the proletarian bent of how that just sounds.
And thus, my first real conundrum of trying to translate from Chinese to English happens. The character 天 is problematic because it can mean so many different things. There is no true equivalent in English. That character can mean anything from day to heaven and god and more. Recently, to some of my students, I compared it to how 宅男 and 宅女 are not adequate translations of nerd.The Chinese implies somebody who spends most of their time at home ala “house man” or “house woman.” In English, both nerd and geek have taken on positive, non-derogatory meanings. Both are words for socially awkward people, but those words also now imply expert. As in: poetry nerd, drama nerd, technology geek, and so on. As far as I can tell in my discussions with my students, the Chinese translation doesn’t have that “specialist” meaning attached to it.
So, allow me to get back to Jim Cornette. Both he and Zhoa Yi are talking about cycles of time. Cornette, whether he realizes it or not, is touching the nature of nostalgia and people who age. Things do get so old that they feel brand new again — and this is after two decades of being force fed Vince McMahon’s vision of what American professional wrestling should be. You also see this with music and how it falls in and out of fashion. At one moment, disco is vogue and at another, it’s abhorrent and kitsch. Zhao Yi is more devastating than Cornette. That nostalgia curve goes away, eventually, and it’s gone for good.
Everything is destined to become antiquated. Things not only age, but they become stale in their age. What was once innovative becomes passe and boring. Don’t believe me? Ask most of the high school students that are forced to perform Romeo and Juliet in front of their peers during their English classes — or the Chinese students who are required to memorize the poems of Li Bai.
There are exceptions, of course. There are people like me who actually enjoy dissecting Shakespeare’s metaphors. Or, who think it’s fun to conjure up a silly line connecting American pro wrestling to Chinese poetry. Either way, I found the challenge of translating Zhao Yi somewhat gratifying and stimulating, even if my version of his verses may not be the best. I look forward to trying it many more times with many more poets.
A snowflake falls from a winter cloud, but it seems intent. It’s consumed with desire. As it flutters its way to earth; it works hard to avoid forests, mountains, and valleys. It does not want to land on something or somebody meaningless. It knows what it wants its destiny to be: it has to seek out a garden and fall onto a beautiful woman so that it could melt and “dissolve into the cordial waves of her heart.”
This is the gist of 徐志摩 Xu Zhimo’s famous poem, “A Snowflake’s Happiness” — 雪花的快樂. My summation is a bit crude, because there is more at work here. The whole poem is a complicated metaphor about love, and that gets into the mechanics of how it was written. The first line goes like this:
If I were a snowflake
The voice of the poem is not declaring, “I am a snow flake.“ The operative word here, if we are trusting the translator, is if. That means its a metaphor and not a description of real life or something following a more narrative context. Much like other effective poems, the middle is there to build tension and led to the emotional payoff of the end. Of course, I’m not basing this off the Chinese original, but a translation I found on a blog. This version reads like a few of the others that I have found.
This is well and fine, one might say. But what does this have to do with Changzhou? Xu, after all, was born in Zhejiang and spent a lot of time studying in the US and the UK. Living in England is the subject his most anthologized poem, “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” As it turns out, Xu had a few links to Changzhou. The first comes by way of his romantic relationship with Lu Xiaoman.陆小曼. She spent sometime growing up in the Dragon City and had a definite connection to it. By default, that gave Xu an connection, too.
During his writing career, Xu also wrote a poem about Tianning Temple. The temple’s website even acknowledges this. This has been translated into English, but its only available in print. It isn’t online, and the collection of verse does not have an eBook version. I would have bought a copy if it had. One can shove the Chinese version into an online translator, but that really does a bunch of indignities to poetry. Verse is a medium where the choice of language is mostly exact and precise. It’s all about the subtleties of nuance. Translating something like this with Google is like taking a beautiful, delicate, and exquisite piece of porcelain and dropping it into a blender.
Despite these literary and historical connections to Changzhou, there is something real that somebody can go see. It’s in Tianning, near a northern exit of Hongmei Park and just down the street from the downtown train station. There is a statue depicting a romantic couple, and the are standing next carved metal baring the title of Xu’s snowflake poem.
It would be easy to pass this by and think it’s the only thing referencing Xu Zhimo in the area. However, if a person were to descend a nearby staircase and stand along the canal, they would see this.
These are inscribed tablets reproducing pages from Xu Zhimo’s diaries. This, in particular comes from 爱眉小札日记. This diary has been published in Chinese as a book, but like a lot of Xu’s prose, it has not been translated into English. If one were to look at some of what has been reproduced on this wall, it’s a emblematic of Xu and the writer he was.
Of course, Xu was a hopeless romantic. He not only had a relationship with Lu Xiaoman, but he had conducted affairs with lots of other women. If you take the content and context of his writing and put that to one side, there is something more stylistic. The passages on display near Hongmei are bilingual. English sentences like
Oh May! Love me; give me all your love. Let us become one…
are interspersed into Chinese. This is no accident. Xu also worked as a translator, and he was proficient enough in English to study both in the UK and the USA. This also gets into the type of writer he was.
In some ways, Xu Zhimo can be compared to Ezra Pound in America. Pound looked at traditional forms in English language prosody and wanted to throw them out, start over, and bring in something new. He had translated Chinese poets like Li Bai and felt their influence. Pound also translated Japanese verse, and his famous “In The Station of the Metro” poem reads like a haiku. On the other hand, Xu Zhimo returned from study abroad. and did the same thing. Only, he loved western poets like Keats and Shelley. He wanted to throw out traditional Chinese poetic standards and write something more influenced by the west. In short: Xu was not immune to experimenting and playing around with language.
Whether it is by way of his Tianning Temple poem or his relationship with Lu Xiaoman, Xu had some connection with Changzhou. This city has had a long reputation for helping cultivate scholars and and people of intellect. Xu Zhimo definitely didn’t come from here, but as evidenced by sculpture and canal-side engraved passages, Changzhou will still celebrate its link to him.
This was crossposted from Real Changzhou.