In Such Hard Times

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

In Such Hard Times finally makes available in English the acclaimed poetry of China’s celebrated Tang dynasty poet Wei Ying-wu. The excellent translation by Red Pine (the pseudonym of Bill Porter) renders Wei’s classic poetry from the eighth century in a carefully chosen language that fully echoes its direct, unobtrusive beauty. It is very accessible to contemporary English-language readers.

In Such Hard Times draws its title from the fourth and last line of its first poem, “The Ninth,” which was written in the fall of 756 when Wei was just nineteen years old. “On this day of drink and depression” (the ninth day of the ninth month according to the Chinese calendar, roughly corresponding to late October), the autobiographical persona reflects on the violent end of his sheltered aristocratic youth at the imperial court. This abrupt change was brought on by the An Lushan Rebellion’s threat to imperial rule. The Tang dynasty was challenged by a variety of internal rebellions throughout the rest of the poet’s life, and Wei’s poetry often alludes not only to personal hardship but also to that of the Chinese people of the period. At the end of “The Ninth,” the persona sadly muses that “in such hard times I can’t hope to go home.” Many of Wei’s poems have a slightly melancholic undertone born from the hardships he witnessed as an age of turbulence displaced the previous period of splendor and tranquillity.

Red Pine presents “The Ninth” in the same successful format that he uses for all of the 175 poems he has chosen out of Wei’s 592 surviving ones. Each poem is given a consecutive number and is printed both in English and in its Chinese original, with the Chinese characters typeset by Pristine Communications of Taipei, Taiwan. This allows a Chinese speaker or student of Chinese to compare the texts. In addition, Red Pine’s annotations provide substantial background information and analysis for each poem.

Readers will quickly realize that many of Wei’s most evocative poems are personally addressed to friends, family members, or colleagues. Indicative of the time in which he wrote, all addressees of his poems are male. Standing out among them is Ts’ui Cho, who married Wei’s cousin and with whom the poet frequently corresponded. The two men shared a deep friendship despite long physical separation. Thus, in “Alone at Night at My Monastic Residence: To Secretary Ts’ui” (poem 68), Wei confesses: “I didn’t realize the year was so late/ or living apart was so lonely.” In poem 125, Ts’ui is described as “Man of my heart standing alone/ beyond Ch’in Pass so far away.” Poetry here becomes a means to bridge geographical distance.

Another favorite recipient of Wei’s poems was his friend, mentor, and protector Li Huan. When Wei ran afoul of the shifting allegiances at the embattled imperial court, Li Huan secured a good official position for Wei. In consequence, Wei’s poems express admiration for his friend. In “On Li Wu-hsi Seeing Off Secretary Li to the Western Terrace” (poem 20), the location mentioned in Wei’s title refers to the Imperial Censorate, as the translator informs readers in his note. In this elevated position, Wei writes of his friend that “he wanted to join the circling hawks” and will not forget “his junior-official friends” such as Wei himself. Indicative of the high risks involved at court, to which Wei’s image of the hawks alludes, Li Huan was eventually charged with a crime and executed after the summer of 779. Some nine years later, in one of his last poems, Wei reflects with melancholy on a visit to the deserted home of the dead old friend in “Visiting Duke Shou-ch’un’s Old Home in the Kaihua Quarter” (poem 157), “walking up the steps I felt the same respect/ but when I saw your seat my tears turned to sobs.” Clear-mindedly, the persona of Wei realizes that the past is irrecoverable and “those days won’t come again” in which they celebrated their cruelly terminated friendship.

In Such Hard Times effectively presents Wei’s poems that deal with his greatest loss, the death of his beloved wife Yuan P’ing in the early fall of 776 at thirty-five. She left behind two daughters and an infant son. “Lamenting My Loss” (poem 52) is a powerful elegy that admits to personal pain and bereavement in moving words, “Likewood that’s now ash/ I recall the person I lived with/...

(The entire section is 1821 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 24 (June 15, 2009): 46.