The Chinese Language as a Medium for Poetry: Why No Sound for a Zhīyīn?

The divine lord Shùn said "Kuí! I ordain you to preside over music, to teach our princes to be upright yet amicable, tolerant, yet reverent; that they be firm yet not cruel; straightforward, yet not arrogant. The lyrics express true aims; singing draws forth that expression; the mode of musical accompaniment attunes the sounds, so that the eight timbres harmonize, none encroaching on the other, so Gods and Humans are brought into concord." Kuí said "I strike and stroke the sounding stones. The sundry creatures dance together." 
—The Classic of History, Canon of Shùn.

After Qí and Liáng, the true sound ebbed away — as people sought no more the ancient ways. Yet we who stir up those flagging waves may be wiser than the modernists.

— Jiǎorán's Shīyì

From his [Fenollosa's] lecture on the Chinese Character, I took what seemed to me most needed, omitting the passages re: sound

—Ezra Pound

Of course, the living sound of poetry is a crucial part of its expressiveness. It is really astonishing that so few Western students of traditional Chinese poetry write much about its aural aesthetics
—David Branner, “Tonal Prosody in Chinese Parallel Prose”

Long, long ago in another century, something weird happened to the translation of Chinese poetry. That something was a someone named Ezra Pound. I will not maunder on about Pound's ignorance of Chinese, the dishonesty of his representation of Fenollosa's writings, or what semantic gulfs separate his versions in Cathay from the Chinese. These have been treated by hands more capable than mine, and whose background in Chinese stands in the same relationship to mine as mine does to Pound's. And I will leave aside Pound’s translation of the Shijing, as it is his Cathay which has been more influential in setting the tone — or rather atonality — for Chinese verse in English.

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet (1996) is quite different - flagrantly and flippantly so - from how many have learned to appreciate Shakespeare, but it presents Shakespeare in a way that is rewarding and intelligently conceived. It is in an obvious sense "untrue" to Shakespeare, though arguably no more so than the linguistic and cultural remove of a modern English-speaker pouring over a leaden-footnoted and mercifully begloss'd Norton Shakespeare in the comfort of a freshman dorm that falls far short of the indecorum and rowdiness of an Elizabethan theater. More importantly, it is true to something of what Luhrmann saw in Shakespeare.

Likewise, though I might call Cathay untrue to the Chinese texts it purports to represent (even if it is not quite so untrue as Sinologists have wanted to claim, so long as one expands one's criteria beyond the strictly philological) it is quite true to Pound, to his vision of what English ought to be made to do. The English works it contains, and much of the tradition of Chinese poetry in English from Pound onward, are among the many important voices of Chinese literature in translation, and one of China's great contributions to western literature. In that tradition, some of the twentieth century's most skilled poets, few of them fools and not all ignorant of Chinese, have produced works where several generations have found what they didn't know they were in need of. As with human beings so too with human texts, there is little sense in stigmatizing an uncertain paternity. Bastardization is no more a moral failing than being born a bastard.

Whether a translation succeeds or not is a question of what it manages to do in the target language, whether it manages to successfully convey whatever it was that made the source text worth translating in the first place. Pound found something he needed (by means however questionable) in Chinese literature, and conveyed his findings to English-readers in a way that resonated to great effect. It would be churlish to say he was unsuccessful.

But Anglophone translation of traditional Chinese poetry has now gorged itself on an aesthetics based in part on willful misunderstanding, and could really stand to lose a few excess Pounds by getting out on its prosodic feet more. Too often a Poundcake of English, cooked up by off-brand clones of Gary Snyder, has been swallowed down as proxy for all that matters in Chinese poetry. As Sue Gouderen reminds us in On Translating the Sonnets of Pierre Menard: “in taking the creative translator to be a mere transmitter, one is ever liable to take sheer invention for mere quotation.”

In reading traditional Chinese poetry, coming to it as I do against the background of a study of Chinese historical phonology and a grounding more in Russian than in Anglophone modernism, I find something a bit different. I find a world of sound, artists with an intimate relationship to the word as the intersection of sound and sense. There is Lǐ Bái whose shifting rhyme patterns in a ballad mirror and enhance a shift in mood. There is Liǔ Zōngyuán whose “Goshawk Song” uses a heavy concentration of harsh clipped-tone words to evoke the bolting and barreling and thrashing of the bird, punctuated by level tone sequences where the bird soars at ease. There is Sīmǎ Xiāngrú whose rhapsodic verse makes dense use of onomatopoeia, whooshing and whisking and sloshing and slashing its way through passage on passage.

Contrary to what even some recent learner's manuals may lead one to believe, traditional Chinese poetry is not - as a rule - merely for reader's or the mind's eye. Within China itself at least, it was never merely a "visual object", as one pedagogue put it. While it’s quite true that written language is not merely a copy of speech, it is equally true that when traditional Chinese literary critics discuss poetry and poetic word-choice, they have always done so in terms of sound and sense. Not character shape. Aestheticizing character-shape as a component of poetic word choice is associated with the reception of Chinese poetry outside of China, particularly in Japan and among the Westerners who acquired their understanding of Chinese via Japanese intermediaries. It would be nonsense to suggest that the writing-based aesthetic is any less legitimate simply for being non-Chinese, but it will not do to pretend.

There is a lot of testimony about the importance of poetic sound in the circumstances of reception throughout Chinese literary history. So much so, in fact, that I am impressed by the masterful inability of many Anglo-American Sinologists to treat sound-patterning in Chinese verse in anything but schematic terms as dry as the ocean is moist. The passage from the Classic of History quoted at the beginning of this screed was to become a focal point of traditional discussions of poetry in later times. We know that all sorts of poems, contemporary and not, were performed and sung during the Hàn dynasty as a matter of course. Many Hàn genres developed in the context of court performance, and such poems sometimes have long passages which may appear monotonous and repetitive to the reader but make perfect sense in the context of a performance art, and are at times abrim with sound-play which can now only be accessed via phonological reconstruction. Later, new lyrics would continue to be written for pre-existing tunes. Thanks to Meow Goh’s Sound and Sight: Poetry and Courtier Culture in the Yongming Era (483-493) English speakers now even have available to them an interesting account of the obsessive and creative concern with sound-play that occupied the poets of the Chinese “late Middle Ages.” Even during the Táng, when composition in erstwhile performative genres became bureaucratized as a requirement for the civil service examination, poems were often chanted. The prosodic and rhyme requirements which developed around the more prestigious genres are unimaginable without great concern with the sound of literary language. Later still, whole new genres which became popular during the Sòng and Yuán were drawn from popular song and operatic performance, with new lyrics composed once again to fit existing melodies. There's still more I could say about the poetry of the high Táng which only makes full sense if one also knows that many poems were composed with a sung or chanted delivery in mind, but let me move on. 

When English-reading Chinese people express dismay at English translators’ neglect of versification, rhyme and sound-patterning in Táng poetry, the Anglo-American response may be various flavors of patronizing (often something along the lines of “you just don’t get how English poetry works”.) Now the wretched and unintentionally hilarious (but rhymed) English versions of traditional Chinese poetry produced by the likes of Xǔ Yuānchōng are reason enough to believe that there can be truth in this.. But to leave it at that is to dismiss as unimportant the question of why literate Chinese even today find rhyme and ordered rhythm in Táng poetry to be so crucial to its experience.

By way of aside: what is one to make of the fact that translators do this not only with medieval, but also early modern Chinese verse? While Chinese poetry in the 21st century is very rarely rhymed, that of the early 20th was a festival of prosodic and rhyme experiments. Yet the great poets of China’s Republican period have been, with very rare exceptions, translated into English as free and prosodically unconcerned verse. The irony lies in how willfully disconnected this is from what the poets themselves were trying to do. Back before the red deluge of Maoist doggerel ruined formal verse in modern Chinese so thoroughly that only aging eccentrics like Zhèng Mǐn have the will to do it anymore, great poets like Biàn Zhīlín, Wén Yīduō, Féng Zhì, Guō Mòruò and many others devoted immense amounts of attention and polemic to hashing out experimental principles for proper formal versecraft in Modern Chinese. They even made a point of how important rhyme and rhythm were in translating rhymed and metrical verse from Western languages. Afterward, Western translators made a point of ignoring their concerns. Only one translator of Féng Zhì’s sonnets into English has rendered (some of) them into anything other than loose free verse. Others keep only the 4+4+3+3 spacing as a visual echo of the erstwhile form. It is a pity for Féng Zhì, who so admired Rilke's brilliant formal translations of Valéry and Labé, and looked to them as a model for how to translate foreign verse into Chinese. Biàn Zhīlín has fared little better, for all that he even expounded in essays on how his contemporary translators into Chinese were too unconcerned with poetic form. And what, I wonder, would Wén Yīduō think of the many translations of his poem “Deadwater” done by people who see fit to ignore the metrical technique which made that poem famous in the first place? Here the translator hasn’t the excuse of temporal and cultural distance. This wasn’t some court clique in 15th century France, rhyming because that's just What One Does.

There are form-conscious English translations — good ones — of Rilke, Valéry, Petrarch, Mallarmé, Pascoli and Stefan George.

What makes Biàn Zhīlín, Wén Yīduō or Guō Mòruò any less deserving?


And not one thing makes Dù Fǔ, Lǐ Bái, Lǐ Qīngzhào or Zhū Shūzhēn any less deserving than they.

When so many English-speaking translators, critics and theorists — when pressed — will happily hold anything and everything except prosody and sound-patterning to be important in translating or understanding a poetry whose creators and native critics conceived of it in terms of sound-aesthetics, this is not an oversight. Less still is it hypocrisy. It is ideology. Anglo-American critics in the second half of the 20th century, after all, did read pre-modern English verse in much the same way, treating rhyme as mere flourish or mnemonic ornament, and disregarding matters of versification even while discussing the well-measured strophes of Keats or Shelley, or Frost for that matter. (Whereas Roman Jakobson, raised in a very different modernist avant-garde tradition, developed his concept of “poetic function” mainly from study of sound-patterns and prosodic forms.) It was Anglo-American poetic ideology that allowed theorists to maintain that free verse is theoretically the more daring, innovative and liberating despite having become as normative as anything imaginable in practice by the end of the 20th century, and despite the fact that rhymeless and meterless poetry is recorded already from the earliest societies to have used writing. For the same reason, the modernist departure from prosodic norms heralded by Pound and Eliot has been often treated as analogous to political liberty, with continued metrical composition in the manner of (say) Edna St. Vincent Millay taken for a sign of conservatism. Never mind that Eliot was a throne-and-altar conservative, Pound a full-blown fascist, and Millay an incorrigible libertine feminist.

Without grasping the intimate association between poetry and music throughout much of the Chinese tradition, appreciation of the former is unduly limited. I don’t mean that all pre-modern Chinese poetry at all times was performed to music, or meant to be sung, but rather that Chinese poetry sprung from a musical aesthetic with which it remained in contact, however varied, throughout what is badly termed the medieval period. In this, literate Chinese civilization during the first millennium and into the second was not so different from some other societies traditionally more familiar to English-speaking readers, such as that of Ancient Greece, with its ethic and culture of μουσική or “Musecraft.” With Classical Chinese as with Classical Greek, the legacy of ancient music calls for hearing - rather than merely apprehending - in more ways than one. Even (and perhaps especially) when the texts are consigned to the undead Lethe of philology.

A good friend of Chinese poetry ought to be, at least some of the time, a 知音.


  1. Excellent! I've been saying this for many years, and attempting to put my ideas into practice, though it's difficult. Yang Lian has been using rhyme in recent years, and I have attempted to mirror that in my translations of his work. I have also been using as much rhyme as i can (including half-rhyme and consonant rhyme, and other echoic devices) in my Scots versions of classical verse.
    Nowadays I go through a final revision for sound, once I have the sense clear in my mind. If it doesn't have a sound structure, then it's not a poem.
    Yes, it's hard to do, but as practitioners don't we have an absolute obligation to extend our craft skills in the service of carrying over as much nuance as we can from the original text?
    Well said!
    Brian Holton