damn the Man

Lately I’ve become fascinated with classical Chinese protest poetry.

There’s a great book out called 中国文人的非正常死亡 (“The Unnatural Deaths of Chinese Literati”) which follows the cases of Chinese writers, poets, and historians who pissed off the wrong eunuch and subsequently found themselves exiled, castrated, tortured, or minus a head.
It starts with the story of Sima Qian (~145 BCE – ~90 BCE), the Han-dynasty historian who picked the wrong governmental faction to back, and, faced with a choice between beheading and castration (considered a more horrible punishment), chose castration so that he could finish his work on the 史记 Records of the Grand Historian. It ends with Wang Guowei (1877 – 1927), a poet, scholar, and professor at Qinghua University, who was hounded by the corrupt Guomindang regime until he committed suicide by diving into the Kunming Lake, on the grounds of the former Imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing.

Also included is Su Dongpo (1037 – 1101), generally considered the greatest poet of the Song dynasty, who was as bad a judge of political ascendancy as Sima Qian. So he got his ass exiled to successively more remote posts, and died, the story goes, at 天涯海角, “the fringe of the sky, the edge of the sea.”

Su continued writing poetry in his exile. Apparently figuring that he didn’t have much else to lose, he wrote quite a few snide, rebellious poems, like “Xi’er Xizuo,” “Wishes for My Son,” which goes something like this:

In raising children, all would hope for wit;
But I, whose life was ruined by cleverness,
Wish only for my boy to be a lout.
He’ll rise to Minister with no distress.

Chinese people are often very curious about the outside world. As a foreigner in China, you’ll get asked all kinds of questions about your homeland; these range from incredibly dull inquiries into, say, the price of cars to interesting discussions of the basic values and characteristics of a country. Quite often, you’ll walk away from such a conversation feeling good about having served as, essentially, an ambassador of your home. Sometimes you just walk away feeling tired.

It is especially tiring to be an American these days.

The big question – and not just in China – is “my God, what is your government doing?” And “how could these guys get elected?” And (sometimes) “why don’t you just overthrow them?” And these questions were tiring for me because I really had no answers.

As my father pointed out, one of the central tenets of leftist political philosophy is that people will be smart enough to act in their own interests, and it’s more than a little bit crushing to see – as evinced by the polls that show Bush and Kerry at neck and neck – that it isn’t actually the case.

Last night, I went to watch the first Kerry-Bush debate in South Philly. It was being shown on a projection screen in a public park, and there was quite a large, cheerful crowd there to watch. People brought chairs and chips and sodas, and whenever Kerry finished a remark, they cheered. When Bush opened his mouth, they booed, hissed, and pointed out, among other things, that he’s a “chuckleheaded moron” and “the idiot son of an asshole.”

It was heartening, I guess.

I can’t get behind Kerry. I mean, yes, I’ll vote for him, but nothing would give me more pleasure than going into the voting booth and voting for a better write-in candidate, like “Ralph Nader” or “my ass.”
The Democratic party is holding the left hostage and saying, in effect, “we didn’t get the message in 2000 when you voted for Nader, and we’re just going to keep ignoring you. Who else are you going to vote for?” And I’ll play along this time, but it won’t happen again.

Bai Juyi (772 – 846) is one of the most famous Tang dynasty poets. Unlike Su Dongpo and Sima Qian, he died a natural death with all of his parts intact – remarkable, given that he wrote stuff like 轻肥 “Fine Furs and Fat Horses.” The title is a reference to Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius, which is itself a remarkable passage. I like to think of it as Confucius on tax reform; it goes:

Zi Hua was sent on a mission to Qi, and Master Ran asked for grain for Zi Hua’s mother. The Master said: “Give her a pot-full.” Ran asked for more. The Master said: “Give her a measure.” Master Ran gave her five bushels.
The Master said: “Chi went to Qi, riding sleek horses and wearing fine furs. I have heard it said that a good man helps the needy; he does not make the rich richer.”

When Yuan Si was made a governor, someone offered him 900 [measures] of grain, but he refused. The Master said: “Is there no-one among your people who would not be glad of it?”

Bai Juyi’s poem, which draws its title from this passage, is even more current. It goes like this:

Full of pride, they fill the road,
their saddled horses shining on the dust.
I ask a passerby who they might be;
he says they’re trusted advisers.
The ones with vermillion cords are high officials;
The ones with purple ribbons, probably generals.

Proudly they go to the regimental feast,
Passing by on horseback like clouds.
Goblets brim over with nine kinds of wine;
The finest foods from sea and land spread over the table.
For fruit, they peel Dongting tangerines;
For mincemeat, they slice up Tianchi fish.
Stuffed with food, they feel sated and merry;
Blissed with wine, their spirits soar higher than ever.

This year there was drought-famine south of the River,
And in Quzhou starving men ate one another.

Comments (34)

  1. Prince Roy wrote::

    Maybe we need a protest poet literati class in the US. Sharpen your stylus–the current dynasty in the US may demand loyalty oaths, but as yet no beheadings or castrations, so your nads are safe for the time being.

    I think all the Tang poets were disgruntled, frustrated politicians to some extent. Some were better at masking it than others. I wish I had shipped my 全唐诗 with me. I’ve been meaning to take a closer look at 寒山, because actually, I’m a low-level underappreciated government official myself, who ‘pased the exams’, so maybe I should practice what I preach.

    Sunday, October 3, 2004 at 9:13 am #
  2. Yoshio wrote::

    brendan, on the subject of protest poetry, any good specific recommendations for me to start with?

    Monday, October 4, 2004 at 11:56 am #
  3. Brendan wrote::

    Roy – I’ve decided that Bai Juyi and Li Shangyin are my two favorite Tang poets. And Li didn’t even write any political poems; he just backed the wrong horse.

    Yosh – Bai Juyi (/Po Chü-i/Bo Juyi, depending on the translator’s choice of Romanization) wrote quite a lot of subversive stuff. Consider “The Red Parrot,” translated here by Arthur Waley as “The Red Cockatoo” —

    Sent as a present from Annam—
    A red cockatoo.
    Colored like the peach-tree blossom,
    Speaking with the speech of men.
    And they did to it what is always done
    To the learned and eloquent.
    They took a cage with stout bars
    And shut it up inside.

    There’s also an incredible poem, entitled “The Old Man with the Crippled Arm,” translated pretty well here. And one of Bai’s most famous poems was “The Old Charcoal Seller,” translated here.

    I haven’t seen much modern stuff that I thought was very good – I’m generally a stickler for, you know, scansion, meter, rhyme, literary ability, and things like that – but a lot of Bei Dao’s stuff is excellent. There’s at least one volume of his stuff available in the States, in pretty good translation like David Hinton.

    Tuesday, October 5, 2004 at 5:46 pm #
  4. Lindsey wrote::

    Hi, I just stumbled on your site while looking for HSK information. I attend BeiDa too. I’m an international student. I just finished a year at Notre Dame and I’m spending a semester here. Yes, I’m an international student at Notre Dame too (which is not a happy situation to be in especially if you are an undergrad). I was so upset that cable TV at Shao Yuan #9 didn’t show the debate. I didn’t know you could watch it somewhere else. I’d love to be able to watch the third one. Can you tell me where it’s going to be held? THANKS!

    Wednesday, October 13, 2004 at 1:11 pm #
  5. Andrea wrote::

    I just want to say a thank you for sharing Second Hand Rose’s music on your site. As you said, they are awesome!

    Before I came to your site, I had only heard track # 3 and #6 from the same album that you got the mp3s from. I like both of songs very well because of its originality and the Chinese folk elements that were infused in modern rock music. The lyrics for #3 are actually quite funny – it’s a social satire in musical form.

    Sunday, October 17, 2004 at 5:19 am #
  6. Elise wrote::

    Entirely coincidentally, I thought you might be able to help me find a book.

    I’m looking for “Eight songs for a western string instrument” (aka. “Songs of the Clavichord”?) written by Father Matteo Ricci upon his 1601 visit to Beijing. I’m interested in the music notation as well as perhaps an english translation of the text.

    I don’t know where to look or if I’m just being silly even trying to find it, but I figure you’re a better shot than Google. :)

    Monday, October 18, 2004 at 1:36 pm #
  7. Eóin wrote::

    Hello Brendan. I was interested in your comments about Chinese people asking you you about life in your country. I’m from Ireland and i once spent a summer working on what they call the (New) “Jersey shore”. I had a great time, met a lot of nice people, it was interesting to be there and i really came to appreciate how Americanised we are on this side of the Atlantic. But I was often amazed at how little knowledge many Americans have, and how many misconceptions they have, about the rest of the world. It’s a real a contrast with people like yourself. As George Bernard Shaw used to say “More power to your elbow.”

    Thursday, October 21, 2004 at 5:54 pm #
  8. Eóin wrote::

    I also meant to ask, most of the O’Kanes I ever came across originated in South Derry (Gleann Con Catháin – the Valley of Kane’s Hound by coincidence). It’s obvious that you have an Irish connection so please forgive the nosiness, but where did your people come from?

    Thursday, October 21, 2004 at 6:08 pm #
  9. Brendan wrote::

    Eoin – good call; my dad’s family is from Buncrana; they operated P. O’Kane & Co. liquor distributors out of Derry for a couple of generations.

    Thursday, October 21, 2004 at 6:14 pm #
  10. grlm wrote::

    Учи албанский, сука!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 4:33 am #


    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 4:55 am #
  12. Anonymous wrote::


    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 4:58 am #
  13. йцу wrote::

    Ты заебал! … Когда нахуй выучишь албанский ???

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 4:59 am #
  14. dz wrote::


    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:00 am #
  15. albania wrote::

    Lean albanian!!!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:00 am #
  16. qwe wrote::

    Ты кагда сцука выучишь албанский нахъ ?

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:01 am #
  17. Хуй с горы wrote::


    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:04 am #
  18. Karapuz wrote::

    LEarn Albanian!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:08 am #
  19. grasskiller wrote::

    learn albanian! it’s all you need in your life!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:10 am #
  20. yappie wrote::

    Учи албанский, сцука! В окупации пригодица – будеш палицаем!!!!!! Беспезды!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:13 am #
  21. Anonymous wrote::

    Post in you Journal “Я знаю Албанский. Беспизды”

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:15 am #
  22. Хуй wrote::

    Albania Foreva!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:16 am #
  23. albanian_4life wrote::

    зря ты так Брэндан… зря ты не позволяешь нам учить тебя албанскому в своем LJ… будем здесь учить ))

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:18 am #
  24. Албан wrote::

    Брэндон, ты последняя ссука. Открой комментарии!!!
    open the comments in your LJ

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:19 am #
  25. Albania 4ever! wrote::

    Never! remember it! Never mess with russians and albanians even in internet!
    and post in your stupid LJ
    Отъебитесь бляди, я уже выучил албанский!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:20 am #
  26. Albania 4ever! wrote::

    Never! remember it! Never mess with russians and albanians even in internet!
    and post in your stupid LJ
    Отъебитесь бляди, я уже выучил албанский!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:20 am #
  27. albanian-ticher wrote::

    Отъебитесь бляди, я уже выучил албанский!

    Friday, October 22, 2004 at 5:25 am #
  28. Anonymous wrote::

    who would have ever thought that Albanians are such boring losers? Oh yeah, the whole world, which is why most people can’t even tell you where the fuck it is.

    Saturday, October 23, 2004 at 12:03 pm #
  29. Meighan wrote::

    brendan- long time no talk man. how are things going for you across the globe?

    Saturday, October 23, 2004 at 6:46 pm #
  30. 一休 wrote::


    Saturday, October 23, 2004 at 11:05 pm #
  31. TT wrote::

    Arthur Waley give other people no place to interpret this poem by his translation.

    Saturday, October 23, 2004 at 11:19 pm #
  32. Заеби покойника wrote::

    I’ll kick your ass, motherfucker!!!

    Saturday, October 30, 2004 at 11:47 am #
  33. Jesse wrote::

    I much prefer for the last line of “Fine fur and Fat Horses” This summer in the state of Qu / People are eating people” Don’t know if that helps anyone.

    Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 2:42 am #
  34. Brendan wrote::

    Hi, Jesse — thanks for commenting!

    “The state of Qu” doesn’t seem right to me, as this is being written during a unified era — hence ‘Quzhou’ as a place-name. For “people eating people,” I suppose it’s just a matter of preference — “men eating men” seems to me more shocking than “people eating people,” though I’ve got no better grounds on which to argue than that. I will say, though, that if I were going to translate this poem again now, I’d do it very differently in other areas.

    Thursday, June 5, 2008 at 6:07 am #