BOOK REVIEW: Dao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi [Trans. Bruce R. Linnell]

Dao De Jing: A Minimalist TranslationDao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available Free on Project Gutenberg

The Dao De Jing presents the core philosophy of Taoism, a philosophy that values simplification, non-action, naturalness, spontaneity, and recognition of opposites in [and their influence on] each other. There are numerous editions (this is the Wang Bi / “standard” ed.) and English translations of this Daoist tract, and the translation matters because the Dao De Jing is at once simply stated and arcane. I liked what Linnell did with this translation, which – as the subtitle suggests – he aimed to make simple and straightforward.

One nice feature of this translation is that each of the 81 chapters has four segments: the original Chinese text, a readable English translation, a word-for-word literal translation, and notes. Having the Chinese, a literal translation, and notes can be helpful when one has trouble deciphering the more cryptic passages. Another nice feature is an appendix in which the author discusses another scholar’s hypothesis that the chapters of the Dao De Jing were composed in layers, and Linnell re-orders the chapters as suggested by this hypothesis. Finally, the book ends with a Jefferson Bible-esque excerpt collection that takes all the places where Lao Zi wrote “Thus the sage:” and builds a single composition describing a wise person.

If you’re interested in Taoist philosophy, you may want to read this translation, whether you’re new to the Dao De Jing or you’ve read other translations or editions in the past.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Mountain Poems Translated by Gary Snyder

Cold Mountain PoemsCold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This collection consists of twenty-four of the three-hundred-plus surviving poems by the Tang-era poet-hermit who went by the name “Cold Mountain” [i.e. Han-Shan.] This translation was produced by the Beat poet, Gary Snyder, and both the translation and the selection are informed by Snyder’s sensibilities and worldview. Snyder is known for nature-centric poetry infused with Buddhist and Native American sentiments, but, like other Beats (though far less than, say, Allen Ginsberg,) Snyder sometimes engages in social commentary. This makes Han-Shan’s body of work a fertile field because it, too, focuses heavily on the beauty and harshness of nature, is framed by Buddhist and Taoist perspectives, and occasionally interjects a societal rebuke. The poems are mostly octave (eight-line) poems which often follow the format of a “straight” sestet that sets up a “punchline” in the last couplet. [Not to suggest the poems are jokes, but they often present a clever twist or commentary at the end.]

Han-Shan’s poems focus heavily on his life as a hermit and the dichotomy of Cold Mountain (the locale) as both a harsh place to live and the only place for him. The Snyder selection focuses heavily on the appeal of nature and the living of a simple and natural life — as well as on the shunning of materialism.

Han-Shan is a mysterious figure, but what is known of him is intriguing. He is considered a mad saint by some, though most of what is known about the man comes from his surviving poems. (Some believe that the 313 known poems maybe only about half of what the hermit composed during the course of his life.)

Even if you’ve read one of the full collections (e.g. Red Pine’s,) you may find some unique insight and imagery in Snyder’s select translation. I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song [Trans. by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang]

Poetry and prose of the Tang and SongPoetry and prose of the Tang and Song by Yang Xianyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This collection includes works from eighteen prominent poets and writers from the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties of China. Among the most famous of the included authors are: Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Wang Yucheng, and Su Shi. The included works (mostly poems but including some brief prose writings) explore subjects such as nature, social justice, patriotism, travel, and drinking. If some of those topics surprise you, you’re not alone. I may be letting my biases show, but I was surprised by how much social outrage and humor was contained in these works from the China of 750 to 1,400 years ago. That said, most of the works do present the kind of sparse imagist depictions of natural scenes one would likely expect from Chines poets in days of yore. (Think haiku, but longer — though no less devoid of analysis or judgement.)

As someone who isn’t an expert on Chinese literature or even a speaker of any of the Chinese languages, I can’t comment intelligently on how precise the translations are. However, the English language versions contained in this volume are evocative, clever, and, occasionally, funny.

To give one an idea of the kind of humor, I’ll offer this quote from a poem by Xin Qiji:

Last night by the pine I staggered tipsily
And asked the pine, “How drunk am I?”
When I imagined the pine sidling over to support me,
I pushed it off saying, “Away!”

I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-Shan

Cold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the t'Ang Poet Han-ShanCold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the t’Ang Poet Han-Shan by Hanshan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


This brief collection gathers one hundred poems from the T’ang Dynasty poet Han-Shan. Most of the poems included consist of a single eight-line stanza of unrhymed verse of varied meter. [With a few exceptions that had more or fewer lines (often four or twelve.)] I do like that they didn’t pad out edition that I read with a lot of inane babble [as publishers are want to do when a volume is on the thin side.] Part of the reason that they may not have done so is that there is virtually nothing known about the author. It’s not even known whether there was a Han-Shan (i.e. as opposed to a group of people whose poems were anthologized under one name.)

The poems reflect Taoism’s disdain for pretension, authority, or scholarship for scholarship’s sake. Many of the poems reflect Zen sensibilities (which became entwined with Taoist sensibilities.) That is to say, like Zen koan, they seek to interrupt the tendency to overintellectualize matters. That said, in places the poems take a bit of a mocking attitude toward Buddhism. Nature plays prominently among the poems. And some of the poems are humorous or irreverent.

There are footnotes that are helpful in explaining verse that references teachings and events that would have been known to Han-Shan’s readership back in his day, but which most individuals who aren’t experts on Chinese folklore, literature, or religious teachings wouldn’t be likely to get, otherwise.

I enjoyed these poems tremendously. While I can’t say how they related to the original text, the translations were — on their own – works that conveyed wit and wisdom. I’d highly recommend this collection for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Three Tang Dynasty Poets by Wang Wei, Li Po, and Tu Fu

Three Tang Dynasty PoetsThree Tang Dynasty Poets by Wang Wei
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is in a series put out by Penguin Books entitled “Little Black Classics.” As the series name implies, these are booklets featuring classic works (or fragments, thereof.) This book features a combined 33 poems by three Chinese poets who lived in the eight century.

In the 14 poems by Wang Wei (a.k.a. Wang Youcheng) we see his famed mastery of landscape and nature poems, and we feel the effect of his Cha’an (Zen) Buddhist mindset.

Among the ten poems by Li Po (a.k.a. Li Bai) we are introduced from the beginning to the poet’s legendary proclivity for drink. While it’s not all carousing, human characters do play a more central role in Li Po’s work.
There are nine poems by Tu Fu (or, Du Fu), which share Li Po’s inclination to feature humanity at the heart of each poem, if in a more straight-laced way.

I enjoyed the poems in both their imagery and sound quality. I can’t really speak to how skilled the translation was, i.e. how much better or worse they could have been. The translators were G.W. Robinson and Arthur Cooper, who I know nothing of, but who apparently both translated a considerable amount of classic Chinese literature.

The poems are almost all short form works, so – with one exception – the poems are included in their entirety (i.e. not excerpted.)

The booklet has an appendix that features a two-page prose story entitled “The Story of the Peach Blossom Spring” by Tao Yuanming. The reason for including the story is that it’s the inspiration for the Wang Wei poem that opens the volume.

I enjoyed reading this little booklet of poetry. The translations are easy to follow, and the imagery is appealing. The Zen / Taoist feel that is widespread in these works is pleasant.

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BOOK REVIEW: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

Life and Death are Wearing Me OutLife and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This strange title turns out to be a perfect summation of the book. The narrator / protagonist was a wealthy land owner named Ximen Nao who was executed when the Communists gained power in China. In heaven, Lord Yama (the judge in Chinese folklore’s version of the afterlife) sentences Ximen Nao to be sent back to Earth as a donkey, and—in subsequent lives—as an ox, a pig, a dog, and, finally and briefly, as a monkey. He’s always sent back to the family of one of his former underlings, Lan Lian, and the story follows that family over the course of several decades through the Cultural Revolution and China’s grand reforms.

The early parts (the lives of donkey, ox, and part of pig) are centered on Lan Lian’s decision to remain an independent farmer. Mao Zedong promised all farmers the right to remain independent contractors if they wished, but there was great pressure—first from the community and later from his own family—to become part of the commune. This ends up dividing the family, and ultimately Lan Lian ends up on his own. The latter part of the book (i.e. dog and monkey lives) deals with Lan Lian’s children (and eventually their children), and—particularly–with Lan Jiefang who shares a birthmark and a stubborn streak with his father. Lan Jiefang’s stubbornness is revealed as a desire to divorce his wife and to marry a younger woman. His equally stubborn wife refuses the divorce, and Jiefang and his young lover become ostracized. At the tail end of the book we see how Lan Jiefang’s son is afflicted by the same dogged determination to pursue a costly path—as a respected member of the police force he falls for a former classmate who has become a pariah.

The book mixes humor with tragedy. The animal incarnations of Ximen Nao each have its own personality, but retain some of the landlord’s character and memories. The animal stories are both part of and comedic counterpoint to the tales of woe experienced by Lan Lian’s family. Mo Yan has cameo appearances throughout the book, though in the dog’s life section he plays a more substantial role. References to Mo Yan’s character invariably come with self-deprecating humor. The author creates characters that the reader is interested in. What I call stubbornness is really a tenacious willingness to suffer for the principle of pursing one’s own happiness. In the case of Lan Jiefang and his wife, the reader is likely to be torn by the gray situation. The wife seems the more sympathetic character, but, still, one can’t help but appreciating the tenacity of Lan Jiefang and his willingness to suffer so greatly on the principle that “the heart wants what the heart wants.”

In addition to a good story with vibrant characters, this book offers a birds-eye view of China in the latter half of the 20th century. What is happening in the lives of the characters isn’t divorced from what is going on in the world, but is shaped by it. One notices this most vividly across the three generations over which the book’s story unfolds—with the middle generation (Lan Jiefang’s) serving as hinge point. When Lan Jiefang’s half-brother goes from being a Communist Party apparatchik to the wealthy CEO of a large firm, it’s a reflection of the societal undercurrents.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it for readers of fiction—and particularly translated literary fiction.

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