Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It Is the Moon Festival

Today is the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar – the Mid-Autumn Festival, what people here call "the moon festival."  If you look up at the moon tonight, chances are you'll find it the roundest, brightest of the year.  When I was a child, my grandmother used to tell us that if you place a basin of clear water under the moon on this day, you'll see the jade tree and the jade rabbit in it.  I tried, and I always saw a vague shape in shadow, which could be interpreted as almost anything. (Image from

Ancient Chinese poets seemed to have a special sentiment for the moon, as evidenced by numerous poems intoning it. One of the most well-known perhaps is Su Dongpo's "Shui Diao Ge Tou," in the form of Song ci, a rhymed verse composed of lines of three to seven characters which first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and reached its perfection in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). It was 934 years ago today that Su Dongpo wrote this classic masterpiece.

Many English translations exist, however none could convey to me the sentiments wafting through the Chinese words.  As an example, the following are three different translations of Su Dongpo's lines "人有悲欢离合,月有阴晴圆缺,此事古难全":

Men know joy and sorow, parting and reunion;
The moon lacks lustre, brightly shines; is al, is less.
Perfection was never easily come by.

  • As translated by Xu Zhongjie (1986):
The moon has weather that change,
Fine or foul; it wax and shine.
Mankind is sad at parting;
Happy at reunion again.
From the utmost ancient time,
Down to our own very days,
The imperfection of all things –
Has for ever been the case.

  • As translated by Yang Yixian etc (2001).:
For men the grief of parting, joy of reunion,
Just as the moon wanes and waxes, is bright or dim;
Always some flaw – and so it has been since of old.

All are fine translations, but whereas the Chinese sounds extraordinary, the English makes it dull.  It is not the translator. It is the damn language. This is the reason I almost never attempt to translate ancient poems – I simply can't get the succinct beauty, the exquisiteness, and the sonorous sound across.  An ancient Chinese poem can make my heart tremble, but an English translation of it never does.  It is not the translator. It is the damn language.

Some say a pictographic language is more primitive than an alphabetic one – or in other words, an alphabetic language is progress in civilization.  Mao seemed to agree with this.  I still remember a Mao quotation from my childhood: "Chinese language should go the common alphabetic direction of other countries in the world."  I am glad this did not happen.  I'm sure an alphabetic Chinese would never give me the joy and intimacy the square characters do.

I recently read a very enjoyable book, Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows. Her experience in learning the Chinese culture through learning the language – the frustration and triumph, the pain and pleasure, the questioning and understanding –  are presented from a refreshing angle, often surprisingly so to a native Chinese speaker like me. I'd recommend this book to anyone who's new to things Chinese.  In one of the chapters the author asks a legitimate question, "Why do the Chinese hang onto this difficult character-based writing system?" She points out its disadvantages: cumbersome, hard to learn, awkward to look up in dictionaries, etc.  She also recognizes its merits, mainly its historical and cultural significance.  I want to add a personal perspective:  I think Chinese is the richest language in the world.  For me, as probably for most Chinese, its merits clearly overweigh the inconveniences.  (As a native speaker I actually never felt the inconveniences anyway.)

Why then, you might ask, am I writing in English now?  In fact several editors who interviewed me have asked that question. The answer is:  for communication.  I live among English speakers and I feel the need to communicate.  (If you want to know why I came to the US, the short answer is "for love."  Read the story here if you are interested.)  In other words, Chinese is a passion, English is a tool.  Today I still prefer to read Chinese books over English ones, and in fact I can read Chinese 30 times faster.

It is a pain to love one language and use another in daily life. It causes a schism in my consciousness.  But that's imperfection of life, and I accept it.  Su Dongpo has said it, 此事古难全.


Lew Perin said...

I simply can't get the succinct beauty, the exquisiteness, and the sonorous sound across.

I hope this doesn't seem like a challenge - it's a question from ignorance: When you revel in the sound of Su Dongpo, is it the sound of Song era Chinese or modern Chinese? They're fairly different, aren't they?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Lew, I don't think it's possible for me to know how the Song era Chinese sounded exactly. :-)