Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets

v seth three poets

I’ve been reading Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets (1992) by HarperPerennial, which includes poems by Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei. His translation of these Tang verse is superior to other versions I’ve read: there is more clarity in rendering the imagery, and more attention to the rhythm of lines.

However, as in the poem on Lady Xi, I still cannot connect with the abruptness between the lines:

Lady Xi

by Wang Wei

No present royal favour could efface

the memory of the love that once she knew.

Seeing a flower filled her eyes with tears.

She did not speak a word to the King of Chu.

The last two lines might even make the reader think that the disjointed lines are part of what makes it a Chinese poem!

In another poem, ‘Birdsong Brook’

I do not understand why he translated the second line into ’empty the hill in Spring’. After all, it doesn’t really bear semblance to the syntax in the Chinese poem. Empty is the right image, yet ‘hollow’ might give it a better sound and emotional depth than the more straightforward observation (empty).



What I do like is his translation of what must be one of the most popular Chinese poems of all times, at least for the Chinese community:

In the Quiet Night

by Li Bai

The floor before my bed is bright:

Moonlight – like hoarfrost – in my room.

I lift my head and watch the moon.

I drop my head and think of home.


Hoarfrost’ sounds contrived.

The ending couplet is effective in evoking the original rhythm. Yet ‘drop my head’ is hardly the poetic phrase for bending down his head and remembering home. Perhaps Bending down, I think of home.” But then one loses the symmetry of it that is inherent in the Chinese couplet.

Is something necessarily lost in translation? When you try to share your culture with a foreign audience, is it still the same thing?

The image of the moon in Chinese poetry is very worth thinking about. It is not only in itself a legend (of the jade rabbit and Chang Er), but because it resembles so many things, and for Chinese people in particular, it symbolises family reunion.

There’s a crudeness in Chinese poetry however that I don’t enjoy. That is the lean description of objects (especially flowers and landscapes) and the little attention given to depicting the emotions. Perhaps, they consider that metaphors and similes are far more interesting in language play?

Racial equality in UK and Hong Kong

I find The Guardian’s politically correct way of describing ethnic races most fascinating. It is almost funny to me how much attention they pay to the linguistic terms. This is how it goes:

Do not use ethnic to mean black or Asian people. In a British sense, they are an ethnic minority; in a world sense, of course, white people are an ethnic minority.

Just as in the Balkans or anywhere else, internal African peoples should, where possible, be called ethnic groups or communities rather than ‘tribes’.

Avoid the world ‘immigrant’, which is very offensive to many black and Asian people, not only because it is often incorrectly used to describe people who were born in Britain, but also because it has been used negatively for so many years that it carries imagery of ‘flooding’, ‘swamping’, ‘bogus’, ‘scroungers’, etc.

The words black and Asian should not be used as nouns, but as adjectives: black people rather than ‘blacks’, an Asian woman rather than ‘an Asian’, etc.

Say African-Carribean rather than Afro-Carribean.

I remember one of my friends made fun of my ‘international’ student status when I came to England. That’s true, you cannot brand yourself international in Hong Kong: I’m a local in that city. Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong account for a mere 5 per cent, with over half of them coming from the Philippines or Indonesia, whereas in London, ethnic minorities  account for around 30 to 40 per cent of the population, and they speak 300 different languages. Whenever you call a utility company in London, you often find yourself having a dialogue with a non-native English language speaker.

Whatever application forms you need to complete here, they usually come with an ethnicity questionnaire to monitor how institutions/companies/employers evaluate your application, whether racial discrimination has influenced decisions and approvals in the process. The form is optional. On the form, I am interested to see that ‘Chinese’ has a separate category, i.e. you do not declare yourself an Asian, you have to say you are a Chinese. Probably this is because China deserves a separate category. On a global level, as China has a staggering population of 1.3 billion, which amounts to 20 per cent of the world’s population.

It is a good idea to have monitoring systems in place, and questionnaires are helpful in tracing . I am not sure how in-depth or rigourous the post-questionnaire assessment is like, but at least it gives you an impression that you will be fairly treated. I am not sure exactly how fair or unbiased it can be though, as the immigration laws are strict about immigration entry prerequisites for non-EU workers, and employers also have to justify why a native cannot be hired in lieu of an immigrant for the job. By the Guardian rule, I noticed that it is much less likely an immigrant be called an immigrant in England, however, in reality, immigration rules and declarations often remind people of their citizenship/legal status. This is quite a different way of life as compared to my home city, where cash and qualifications are used much more often as a social differentiating criteria than one’s immigration status.

In Hong Kong, people seem to worry less about racial differences. But at the same time they can be very careless in describing people in a politically correct way. There are many widespread slangs for immigrants like ‘gwai lo’ (foreign ghosts), ‘cha’ (people of Pakistani and Indian origins, for example), even the somewhat offensive ‘bun mui’ (Filipino maids). The better educated tend to be more equality-conscious and avoid these terms.

But there are many dimensions to look at racial equality. I will discuss more next time.