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