poetry day

Very loose translation: "How can you wait until the autumn day clears, when the sun is setting and the cicadas call!" - late Tang poet Li Shangyin. Drawing of Pa J as J distracted him with small talk.

Three anthologies of classical Chinese poetry sit on my shelves. One has pictures and pinyin (hoorah!) accompanying every poem. I bought it years ago wandering discount book fairs. Another is a 500-page tome with a grandiose title Song of the Immortals. I have forgotten how it found its way to my bookshelf. The third is an anthology of Chinese lyrics, translated by a Chinese scholar Chu Dagao, who had studied at Cambridge in the 30s. It cost me BP3.30 from a second-hand bookstore in that British university town. As if reflecting the weight of their content, they are all hardbacks - even the picture book - and are built to last.

The books left their shelf and jacket of dust some weeks ago. I was searching for a Chinese poem that would go with a drawing of Pa J that J and I made one Friday evening. We had abandoned the TV the rest of J's family was watching in the living room and sat with Pa J listening to FM95.8's dialect news broadcasts on his portable radio at the dining table. It was a hot evening. Finishing the drawing at our home, I thought of the cicada and the sound they make.

The exercise got me reading (however poorly) some of the poems again, alternating between the dense Chinese text and its almost always-awkward English translation. One of the first poets in that anthology Song of the Immortals is the Zhou Dynasty poet Qu Yuan 屈原.

If he sounds familiar, it's because we all have him to thank for this!.

Friends, just to jolt your memory (probably from your Primary School Chinese textbook) - Qu Yuan was a politician/minister to the King Chu. His advice to the King not to walk into the ambush set by the Qin King and to form an alliance with the other states instead was ignored. This and the jealousy of other officials led to his being sent into exile where his poetic sensibilities were stirred. Some of the earliest recorded Chinese poems that were attributed to a specific/named author were by Qu Yuan. When the Chu state finally fell to the Qin empire, in despair Qu Yuan jumped into the Mi Luo river. The commonfolk who loved Qu Yuan, the patriotic and righteous public servant, supposedly threw rice packets into the river in a bid to distract the fishes from eating Qu Yuan's body. If that was not enough, they beat drums and rowed boats on the river for similar effect.

But Dragon Boat Festival is an uninspiring name for what is otherwise a great story. Us amps will, from now on, eat rice dumplings on Poetry Day, the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.

p/s. Poetry Day falls on 28th of May this year.


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