Quotomania

Quotomania 308: Xin Qiji

Episode Summary

Today’s Quotation is care of Xin Qiji. Listen in! Subscribe to Quotomania on quotomania.com or search for Quotomania on your favorite podcast app!

Episode Notes

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Notes from the translator and reader of this week’s Quotomania, Eileen Cheng-yin Chow:

 

Perhaps it is fitting that I join you for the first time in your Quotomania in the heart of autumn.

 

少年不識愁滋味                    In youth I knew nothing of the taste of sorrow

愛上層樓。                            I liked to climb high towers,

愛上層樓。                            I liked to climb high towers

為賦新詞強說愁。                To conjure up a bit of sorrow to make new verse.

 

而今識盡愁滋味                    Now I know only too well the taste of sorrow.

欲說還休。                            I begin to speak yet pause,

欲說還休。                            I begin to speak yet pause

卻道天涼好個秋。                And say instead, “My, what a cool and lovely autumn.”

 

- Xin Qiji 辛棄疾 (1140-1207)

trans. Eileen Cheng-yin Chow

By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the warrior-official and poet Xin Qiji 辛棄疾 (1140-1207) had been long sidelined during peacetime, demoted, and had been drifting through a decade of minor posts in remote lands. 

Xin was born in a fractious time and place: in the north, to a Han family of Song Dynasty loyalists, even while the formerly nomadic Jurchens had already vanquished the Song throughout northeastern China and were now established as the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). What remained of the Song was now driven to the southern lands, where the dynastic court set up and ruled as the Southern Song (1127-1279). Throughout his life, Xin Qiji strove to win back the “mountains and lakes” from the Jin; but even his military victories and tactical treatises came to be viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility by a Song court more interested in appeasement. Over six hundred of Xin’s poems and a few pieces of prose are extant.  All were written after his retreat to the south.

Such are the biographical particulars. 

Over the centuries, Xin Qiji has been a favorite and malleable subject of nationalist myth-making: the fierce loyalist, the Han patriot, the official whose brilliance went unappreciated in his own time, a man born time out of joint  (生不逢時 sheng bu feng shi). His poems, especially his short lyrics (ci) are widely, widely known, and taught to even young schoolchildren throughout the Sinosphere. I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t know this verse - which means I probably first encountered it when I was 3 or 4, back when I learned new poems by heart daily to recite to my grandfather. How odd, now, to imagine generations upon generations of small schoolchildren intoning, “My, what a cool and lovely autumn” – when back then we were all firmly in the first poetic stanza of life?

The poem is written as a “ci” 詞 - a metric style that reached its apogee roughly from the Six Dynasties era to the late Song Dynasty (from the 6th to the 13th centuries), though poems were very much still composed in ci long after, even to the present day. Ci literally means “song lyric” - and had its origins in popular songs mainly performed (or composed to be performed) by professional singing girls. Even after ci was transformed into an elevated literary metric form suitable for serious topics and in which musical accompaniment was optional, they still retained the suggestion of lyrical lightness –and sometimes the gendered flirtatiousness– of their origins. Ci were conventionally titled, simply, “To the tune of…” in lieu of an occasional title as would be the case for “shi” 詩, the older and more canonical equivalent to the English term “poetry.” 

By Xin Qiji’s time, poets often wrote in both verse forms, and the distinction between writing shi “poetry is that which is intently on the mind” (詩言志 shi yan zhi), and crafting ci, song lyrics metrically set to an existing popular tune (think “Yellow Rose of Texas”) – was frankly, quite blurred. Rather than as a generic song, Xin’s ci lyric here has definitely been read in light of his biography: his early brilliance and favor by the court, and his late in life disappointments. 

But the poem also stands alone. Each time I have shared this ci on Twitter, I am astounded by how widely it resonates - with those who also know it well and delight in the shock of nostalgia, and with those who know absolutely nothing of 12th century battles, of classical Chinese poetic forms, let alone the poet Xin Qiji and his life story. Its language is quite simple. No complex literary allusions or dense language; a very straightforward meter and rhyme scheme; meaning built out of simple repetition. Even in translation and almost a millenium later, we still hear him.

The beauty of this lyric is its simplicity. And so I tried to keep the English as plain as possible. 

There are a few quirks in the translation - but that could be said of any poetic translation - and of course, room for variants (e.g. the word “regret” or “melancholy” for sorrow, or “up a floor” for climbing high towers). I also did not attempt to rhyme, as I do think the contemporary English association we have with rhyme is quite different, and would produce an unintended and jarring distance from the original. Xin’s poem is a song. And so I tried to capture a bit of itsmellifluousness – vowel assonances and sonic echoes in the lines, rather than abiding by strict meter or rhyme.

愁 (chou), “sorrow,” is a very common word, but also multivalent and laden with poetic history. Throw a rock and one hits countless lines of verse, from antiquity to the latest pop ballad, all expressing “chou,” and especially in autumn. “Chou” and “qiu” also form poetically convenient end-of-line rhymes, whereas the English word  “autumn” or “fall,” alas, does not. And, to be true to the simplicity of the poem – “sorrow” works quite well, I think. Plus I guess I also take a tiny bit of trans-lingual pleasure in the fact that “sorrow” happens to rhyme with “chou”!

A final note: 愁 (chou) is constructed of two common characters stacked upon one another: 秋 (qiu) autumn, and 心(xin) heart/mind, a minor visual delight that does get lost in its metamorphosis into alphabetic language.

If one were fanciful - as I know you are, Paul - one could even say that “sorrow is composed of a heart in autumn.”

The poem, once more, with feeling and with age:

少年不識愁滋味                    In youth I knew nothing of the taste of sorrow

愛上層樓。                            I liked to climb high towers,

愛上層樓。                            I liked to climb high towers

為賦新詞強說愁。                To conjure up a bit of sorrow to make new verse.

 

而今識盡愁滋味                    Now I know only too well the taste of sorrow.

欲說還休。                            I begin to speak yet pause,

欲說還休。                            I begin to speak yet pause

卻道天涼好個秋。                And say instead, “My, what a cool and lovely autumn.”
 

Poetry, then, is that which is left unsaid. 

“My, what a cool and lovely autumn."

Eileen Cheng-yin Chow: https://scholars.duke.edu/person/eileen.chow

Episode Transcription

 

少年不識愁滋味         In youth I knew nothing of the taste of sorrow

愛上層樓。                           I liked to climb high towers,

愛上層樓。                           I liked to climb high towers

為賦新詞強說愁。           To conjure up a bit of sorrow to make new verse.

 

 

而今識盡愁滋味               Now I know only too well the taste of sorrow.

欲說還休。                           I begin to speak yet pause,

欲說還休。                           I begin to speak yet pause

卻道天涼好個秋。           And say instead, “My, what a cool and lovely autumn.”