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Chinese poetry book for non-Chinese speaker


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I've been asked to recommend a Chinese poetry book for a non-speaker of Chinese. I don't really know anything about Chinese poetry, but the requester is a big poetry reader and has enjoyed the recent Michael Wood book on Du Fu, so something in that vein would be good. I was also considering something like this - she doesn't speak Chinese, but she'd probably enjoy looking inside the language and seeing a little of how it works. 


Any ideas?

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I don't know the book you're considering but looking at its Amazon page I don't think either of my two tentative suggestions are necessarily better at all:


Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry by David Hinton is a slim book (I bought it but have only skimmed it actually) that takes a Taoist view of Du Fu, with half a dozen poems showing literal translation and then proper one, as well as a few pages of discussion, screenshots below.


How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity Through the Tang - is a fat, textbook sized book that presupposes no knowledge of Chinese and contains plenty of translated poems (but just chinese + regular-translation) in each pretty comprehensive chapter, a cross between a beginner's guide and an academic book I guess.






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Awakened Cosmos sounds interesting, will take a look, although a broader take than half a dozen poems might be preferred. The 'fat textbook sized book' sounds a bit too fat and textbooky. Thanks!


Have you read the Michael Wood one? I've been reading a bit of poetry-adjacent stuff lately - this was interesting and probably helpful for anyone who has to write stuff that's meant to be read, and am working through a charity shop find - so I should perhaps read something in/about Chinese. Trouble is that after a day of staring at Chinese on the screen, it feels a bit of a chore to read more of it in the evening and I can't help but try and translate everything and mutter about needing to check ambiguous wordings with the client.

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Are you looking for books in English about poets, like the Michael Wood book or Arthur Waley's The Poetry and Career of Li Po [Li Bai]? Or do you want books of poetry translated and explained?


If the latter, I have quite a few I can recommend. There's one I bought in in China that I particularly like. (It's packed away in a box, so the following description is from memory, but I'll dig it out today or tomorrow.) It's a small paperback, but it is dual-language. It has a few hundred poems (mostly Tang and Song), with each poem given in Chinese (characters and pinyin), a literal English gloss, and a translation. Each poem is followed by a brief write up on the poem and poet (in Chinese and English). The English is a bit stilted in places, but it's a good introduction as the poems. Also, background notes are short, and so it's not a big involved read.


You could also try anthologies in English (Penguin, Norton, Grove, etc) as they include poetry and notes (but also other genres).

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On 2/1/2024 at 7:46 PM, roddy said:

so I should perhaps read something in/about Chinese. Trouble is that after a day of staring at Chinese on the screen, it feels a bit of a chore to read more of it in the evening and I can't help but try and translate everything and mutter about needing to check ambiguous wordings with the client.


The Archie Barnes books is good https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/7376-how-to-appreciate-chinese-poetry/?do=findComment&comment=478460

... but I think you do have to force yourself to plough through the early chapters where what seems like algebra kind of dominates - forces you to parse the grammar for each line. Which probably makes it even more of chore! At least your clients in this instance will have been dead for over a millennium.

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As a comprehensive introduction for beginners and not-quite-beginners I would recommend "The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: from Ancient to Contemporary" by T Barnstone and Chou Ping (Eds). It covers the whole lot, has plenty of notes (as most Chinese books and websites have but western anthologies often lack) and very good, readable translations.


"How to Read Chinese Poetry" is excellent, but I think it is more enjoyable if one has some knowledge already. It comprises 3 books (a main anthology, a workbook, and the in context volume already mentioned). 



There's also a 50ish episodes podcast extracted from the main anthology widely available in several platforms:  


How to Read Chinese Poetry Podcast | Department of Chinese | Lingnan University (ln.edu.hk)  

The sites include downloadable transcripts of the poems



For individual poets, check the Library of Chinese Humanities by DeGruyter (publishers)
It has published bilingual editions of the complete works of Du Fu, Wang Wei, Meng Haoran and others, with translations and copious notes by top notch western scholars in the field (S Owen, P Rouzer, P Kroll, etc). The ePub and pdf books are Open Access (downloadable freely)


ETA: Roddy's recommendation, Edward C Chang's little book How to Read a Chinese Poerm is one of the clearest introductions I have ever found. Thanks Roddy, I looked for it in my bookshelves but it is so small I can never find it and can never remember the exact title!


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This is interesting. I always want to read Chinese poetry in Chinese, but I haven't got far beyond buying books.


I have not only the Michael Wood (not read yet) but Du Fu, A life in poetry by David Young and David Hawkes, A Little Primer of Tu Fu, which has a lot of Chinese in it.


I have got How to Read Chinese Poetry, and the workbook, but not the book with context. I will definitely profit from these suggestions myself!

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I have got How to Read Chinese Poetry, but not the context book, so I have now listened to five of the podcasts. I love the introduction, ending "Without further ado...", although perhaps it will wear on me after 52 episodes. I had hoped it would follow the book I have, but I am a bit lost from episode 5, "The Book of Poetry and Diplomacy", which does seem to relate to the Context book. However, there is a PDF with text and translation etc. for each episode.

I am good at buying books but don't always get round to reading them. The Chang book does look good.  I was aware of the DeGruyter books.


There is one other book in my collection, published by the Foreign Languages Press, and I don't know what to make of it. It is "Chinese Classical poems with English Translations & Comments", by Hon Prof Josephine Bishop. The translations clearly try very hard to reproduce the rhymes and rhythms of the original.


Digressing from the thread title, I attach a photocopy from Bishop's book and one from Chang's. I will be going with Chang (and How to Read Chinese Poetry podcasts).



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I really like Whincup’s book The Heart of Chinese Poetry. It provides the Chinese text, a transliteration, a literal translation of each character, then Whincup’s translation of the poem as a whole. It really gives a sense of how each character is packed with meaning and how translators have to make a lot of tough choices. Note that the transliteration uses the Yale system which basically no one uses but which I find more intuitive than Wade-Giles and Pinyin.

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'300 Tang Poems' by Xu Yuanchong


Xu is a famous translator in China.




Although the author's understanding is creditable, it has many Chinese characters.


There are other versions translated by western writers, like:


'Three Hundred Tang Poems (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets Series)' by Peter Harris



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I also recommend 'A Dream of Red Mansions' (https://www.amazon.com/Mansions-Chinese-Classics-Classic-Volumes/dp/7119006436/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1YU3WKOBSSBJ9&keywords=A+Dream+of+Red+Mansions&qid=1707803738&sprefix=a+dream+of+red+mansions%2Caps%2C435&sr=8-1), which is translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Although it's not a poetry book, it contains coutless poems in the story. That's because nearly all ancient Chinese scholars were poets.


Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang were a husband-and-wife team renowned for their exceptional translation work, particularly their English translation of "Dream of the Red Chamber" (also known as "The Stone"). Yang Xianyi, a Chinese scholar, and Gladys Yang, a British linguist, combined their talents to produce one of the most highly regarded translations of this Chinese literary classic into English.

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