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The Gan Yu

Chen Zi'ang is one of the early masters of Tang poetry. Now you can read some of his poems translated for the first time into English by Lan Hua

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The Gan Yu by Chen Z'iang




Chinese poetry can be a nightmare to translate sometimes because a single word or phrase has such subtlety and idiomatic meaning, making it nearly impossible to render into English without resort to a full sentence or two, at the risk of destroying all the poetry. The phrase Gan Yu is a case in point. Quite concise in Chinese, the closest I can come to capturing the full idea in English would be something cumbersome, along the lines of – Feelings Encountered Along Life’s Way.


So this week we begin our translation of the Gan Yu, a truly remarkable collection of poems written by Chen Z'iang along his life's way during the late 7th century. These poems are almost completely unknown to Western readers. Chen Z'iang is from the early Tang period with a lifespan thought to have run from 656 or 661 to 702. According to our friend and resident expert Steve Zhang, Chen is not even well known or widely read in China today, his work having fallen into obscurity due to the long shadows cast by the great Tang poets who followed. (We owe many thanks to Professor Jonathan Stalling for calling our attention to Chen's poems in his excellent collection of essays, The Poetics of Emptiness.)


In any case, Chen Z’iang’s masterwork is a group of thirty-eight poems known as the Gan Yu. This collection of poems has never been translated and made available in English that we know of. That is part of the great pleasure we take in making these translations available through our newsletter. Translators, you see, share at least one attribute with mountain climbers – we thrill to the challenge of an unclimbed peak.



There is much about these poems we find wonderful. They are steeped in Daoism and imbued with mystery but at the same time the poet's voice remains quite distinct and accessible. We’ll have more to say about this in the coming issues of the newsletter as we intend to devote the next month or two to sampling some of our favorite poems from the collection. But for now, let’s get on with it. Here is Lan Hua’s translation of Gan Yu – II. The photographs that accompany the translation are the work of contemporary artist Mei Ching Ling ( 美精灵 ), who is Lan Hua’s companion and sometime collaborator.



Gan Yu - II




orchids birthedThe orchids birthed
Through spring
And summer both

Such luxuriant growth
How can leaf
Be so green

Hidden and alone
In the forest remote

The vermillion flowers
Hang from a purplish stem

Slowly absorbing
The light as the
Daytime fades

And with the first hint
Of autumn’s wind

The blossoms reach
Their fullest extent
Falling as the stem trembles

Group or loveliesA sudden fragrance
Released that
No one expected



感遇 其二


兰若生春夏
芊蔚何青青
幽独空林色
朱蕤冒紫茎
迟迟白日晚
嫋嫋秋风生
岁华尽摇落
芳意竟何成






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In the Tang Spirit,
Lan Hua - May 1, 2012