Jan/Feb 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews

Dragon Liver and Phoenix Marrow

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom.
Sung Po-Jen, translated by Red Pine.
Copper Canyon Press. 2011. 242 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-378-9.

"This book has been out of print for more than a decade," Red Pine informs the reader in the revised preface to the 2011 Copper Canyon Press edition of Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom. A lot has changed for Bill Porter (a.k.a. Red Pine) since 2011, much less over the past decade. After years of living on food stamps while producing some dozen or so translations of Chinese classics, much beloved by those who know them, he now makes a veritable middle-class living through sales of his travel books by Chinese publishers and a recent Guggenheim grant.

The Guide, among his first published translations, is revised here but still reflects an early effort—a prototype, as it were, of the format that has since worked so well in his exceptional translations of classic Chinese poetry, such as Poems of the Masters (Copper Canyon, 2003) and In Such Hard Times (Copper Canyon, 2009). The Chinese text appears, as always, on the page facing his translation, but in this instance the Chinese is a reproduction of the original black-and-white woodblock print from "the world's earliest-known printed book of art."

Porter stumbled across a rare 1928 edition of an even rarer 1261 edition (from which a single copy survived to preserve the Guide for posterity) at a singularly inauspicious time and place:

…I found Sung Po-jen's Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom in China's old cultural capital of Hangchou, west of Shanghai. That was six years ago, a few days before the tanks rolled through Tienanmen in June of 1989. I was browsing through the only bookstore in Hangchou that sold old books, and I found a hand-bound copy of the 1928 edition of Sung's Guide on a shelf with other dusty survivors of the Cultural Revolution.

Porter and a friend, much more familiar with the history of Chinese art and poetry, got together every Wednesday for four months and made their way through the difficulties of the 13th century text. Five years later, Porter would move back to the U.S. from Taiwan and complete a translation of the Guide.

In Porter's introduction to the Guide, we learn how the sole copy of the 1261 edition managed to survive the Mongol conquest of China and the ravages of time until "the famous collector and book connoisseur Huang P'i-lieh" came upon it, in 1801, at the Wentsui Bookstore, in the Peking antique market. A generous swatch from Huang's charming firsthand account is given in translation.

Sung Po-Jen seems to have written a brief preface to his book, also translated in the introduction, in which he claims little skill in painting the plum blossom. The reproductions on the facing pages, to follow, do nothing to argue that he was being overly humble. It is the poems that are to the point. Still, flipping the pages showing the reproductions of the 13th century Chinese calligraphy goes a long way toward informing the reader with a sense of the delicate foreignness of the original text.—of our imperfect access to the original experience.

The fact that the Chinese civil service exams historically required the applicant to pass a rigorous section on the art and history of poetry should make the point that we are entering a world we can hardly imagine.

82. Butterfly among Flowers

it dreamed it was human once
and the east wind blew in vain
but while Chuang-tzu floated in the dark
what led him to this flowering branch

While a modern American reader might recognize the name Chuang-tzu, a hundred other names will only hint at a hundred delightful small discoveries to be revealed in Porter's commentaries. Nearly every word is replete with references to classical Chinese literature and lifestyle and the symbols that infused them. This is a world in which:

Along with such metaphorical dishes as dragon liver and phoenix marrow, bear paws were included among the eight delicacies reserved for special banquets.

The majority of the references in Sung's four-line poems would be locked away from us without those brief commentaries.

Red Pine's translation of Sung Po-Jen's Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom is a delight-filled book.


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