Meng Chiao

The glaze of decorous objectivity that is so beautiful in much of Chinese poetry is scraped off in Meng Chiao’s poems, revealing … startling, ghostly, and elegiac poems about his sorrows and idiosyncracies, happy to portray himself as despised and sick with illness and self-doubt. If it seems strange to celebrate so fallible a figure, consider his own words: “these sour moans / are also finished verse.”

Meng Chiao – David Hinton

Late in life, Meng Chiao (751-814 C.E.) developed an experimental poetry of virtuosic beauty, a poetry that anticipated landmark developments in the modern Western tradition by a millennium. With the T’ang Dynasty crumbling, Meng’s later work employed surrealist and symbolist techniques as it turned to a deep introspection. This is truly major work, work that may be the most radical in the Chinese tradition. And though written more than a thousand years ago, it is remarkably fresh and contemporary. But in spite of Meng’s significance, this is the first volume of his poetry to appear in English.

Until the age of forty, Meng Chiao lived as a poet-recluse associated with Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist poet-monks in south China. He then embarked on a rather unsuccessful career as a government official. Throughout this time, his poetry was decidedly mediocre: conventional verse inevitably undone by his penchant for the strange and surprising. After his retirement, Meng developed the innovative poetry translated in this book. His late work is singular not only for its bleak introspection and “:avant-garde” methods, but also for its dimensions: in a tradition typified by the short lyric poem, this work is made up entirely of large poetic sequences. [source]

Meng Chiao - Tony Barnstone
Meng Jiao’s… personal life was one of tragedy and loss: his three sons died young, and he lost his wife as well. Around five hundred of his poems survive, most of them in the “old style” form of poetry (gu shi). Though Meng Jiao was popular enough in his own time, his reputation went into a tailspin some centuries after his death, because of his brash, disturbing, and jarring verse, which seemed to lack grace and decorum. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that his verse has inspired not so much neglect as active hatred, even in such distinguished readers as Su Shi, who states baldly in his two poems “On Reading Meng Jiao’s Poetry” that “[he] hate[s] Meng Jiao’s poems,” which sound to him like a “cold cicada wail”:

My first impression is of eating little fishes–
What you get’s not worth the trouble;
Or of boiling tiny mud crabs
And ending up with some empty claws.

(tr. Burton Watson)

There is no doubt that Su Shi is a master of the literary put down, and, after all, a number of Meng Jiao’s poems do come across as shrill, self obsessed, and self pitying –yet in this lies much of his interest. The great Song dynasty politician and poet Ouyang Xiu admired Meng Jiao’s poetry precisely because he was a “poor poet…who liked to write lines reflecting his hard life.” Ouyang writes admiringly: “Meng has a poem on moving house:

I borrow a wagon to carry my furniture
but my goods don’t even make one load.

He is saying that he’s so poor he hasn’t anything to move. He has another poem to express his gratitude to people who have given him some charcoal.

The heat makes my crooked body straight.

People say one cannot write lines like this without actually experiencing such suffering.” [source]


Let’s compete with our tears,
let them pour into a lotus pond;
then we’ll wait this year and see
whose flowers drown in salt water.

Tony Barnstone and Chao Ping


Despise poetry, and you’ll be named to office.
But to love poetry is like clinging to a mountain:

frozen, holding tight, facing death,
days of sorrow followed by sorrow.

The bourgeoisie are jealous of those
who love poetry: they flash teeth like knives.

All the old sages are long since dead,
but bureaucrats still gnaw their bones.

Now I’m frail, dying like a frond.
All my life I sought a noble calm,

a calm I could never achieve.
And the noisy rabble mocked me.

Sam Hamill

Wanderer’s Song

The thread in the hand of a kind mother
Is the coat on the wanderer’s back.
Before he left she stitched it close
In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?

A.C. Graham

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.