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


Autumn Thoughts

Bamboo ticking in wind speaks. In dark
isolate rooms, I listen. Demons and gods

fill my frail ears, so blurred and faint I
can’t tell them apart. Year-end leaves,

dry rain falling, scatter. Autumn clothes
thin cloud, my sick bones slice through

things clean. Though my bitter chant
still makes a poem, I’m withering autumn

ruin, strength following twilight away.
Trailed out, this fluttering thread of life:

no use saying it’s tethered to the very
source of earth’s life-bringing change.

David Hinton


Write bad poems and you’re sure to earn a post,
but good poets can only embrace the empty mountains
Embracing mountains makes me shake with cold.
My face is sad all day long.
They are so jealous of my good poems
words and spears grow out of their teeth!
They are still chewed by jealousy
of good poets who are long dead.
Though ‘my body’s like a broken twig.

Tony Barnstone and Chao Ping

Autumn Thoughts


Lonely bones can’t sleep nights. Singing
insects keep calling them, calling them.

And the old have no tears. When they sob,
autumn weeps dewdrops. Strength failing

all at once, as if cut loose, and ravages
everywhere, like weaving unraveled,

I touch thread-ends. No new feelings.
Memories crowding thickening sorrow,

how could I bear southbound sails, how
wander rivers and mountains of the past?

David Hinton

On Failing the Examination

The dawn moon struggles to shine its light.
the man of sorrows struggles with his feelings.
Who says in spring things are bound to flourish?
All I see is frost on the leaves.
The eagle sickens, his power vanishes,
while little wrens soar on borrowed wings.
But leave them, leave them be! —
these thoughts like wounds from a knife!

Burton Watson

Laments of the Gorges

Triple Gorge one thread of heaven over
ten thousand cascading thongs of water,

slivers of sun and moon sheering away
above, and wild swells walled-in below,

splintered spirits glisten, a few glints
frozen how many hundred years in dark

gorges midday light never finds, gorges
hungry froth fills with peril. Rotting

coffins locked into tree roots, isolate
bones twist and sway, dangling free,

and grieving frost roosts in branches,
keeping lament’s dark, distant harmony

fresh. Exile, tattered heart all scattered
away, you’ll simmer in seething flame

here, your life like fine-spun thread,
its road a trace of string traveled away.

Offer tears to mourn the water-ghosts,
and water-ghosts take them, glimmering.

David Hinton

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.