“Anyone can translate Chinese,” according to the beautiful lady who was teaching the use of the brush. This was in a backward little British school in Bangkok, wherein I was enrolled at age eleven, almost half a century ago. The class met in a small, yellow-plastered room, that opened on the side of a narrow klong, or canal. Seldom used, this klong had become clogged with water lilies. It contained catfish, who were tumultuously grateful for the occasional modest lump of sticky rice. Like everything else in Bangkok, it is now paved over; but I remember it — the room, its decaying plaster, the low weathered wooden benches, the stone slabs they rested upon, the miracle of water and the bubbles from the tippling fishes — as a premonition of paradise. The elements assembled themselves in that way.

The name of this teacher has escaped me, and it is her own fault. She used different names in different situations, quite fancifully it seemed. This is a Chinese poetical conceit. But let me settle on “Miss Ping.”

I vividly remember her long face, her willowy and thus curving form, her extremely narrow eyes, and shy laughter (always covering her mouth when she giggled). The class was hardly mandatory, and was for the benefit of several Chinese students, but anyone could attend. One might call it a drop-in clinic for victims of Communism, which the parents of these children all seemed to be. It met once or twice in a fortnight. Miss Ping had regular employment elsewhere — I think as a translator in a bank. This, because I remember from her remark, that while anyone can translate from Chinese, the translation of commercial documents into Chinese was nearly impossible.

She engaged in calligraphy and decorative painting in order to maintain her sanity, I believe. She studied the old poets. She would carry around, in an Indian choli bag, cumbersomely large books, printed in Shanghai a long time ago and in advanced states of disintegration. These provided her with “text.”

Anyone can translate Chinese, as I learnt, thanks to the genius of the language. Or rather, no one from the West can hope to do it, until he has not only mastered a few characters, but thrown off some rather Western expectations of how they should arrange themselves. Greek and Latin made the barbarians of the far, far West instinctively attentive to grammar. But there is no grammar in Chinese. There are no tenses, either, nor number nor mood; or at least that is the first impression. Everything is contextual. One might construct a sentence in Chinese without realizing one had done so. But it would likely be a silly sentence, saying only one thing, at most. Miss Ping would giggle at it, and cover her mouth. A good Chinese sentence says something new every time you look at it. It does not need subsidiary clauses; they move along with it, as a train of ghosts.

Life at dusk, in careless quiet.
The tasks are done, my mind turned free:
No more career to plan for,
Only the hills have work for me.
Pine-winds blow on my loosened sash,
Moon lights upon my lute-plucking hand.
You asked about duty. All I know:
A fisherman’s tune drifts up from the river.

This would be the latest of many attempts to translate this reasonably famous poem by Wang Wei (701?–761?) composed, or so it implies, soon after his retirement from the court life of Chang-an. I tried it myself after consulting several previous versions, and looking up characters in Karlgren. I wanted to be sure that anyone could translate Chinese, before recommending this hobby to others.

For so I remember being told: “Anyone can do it.” But first he must put all the habits associated with not doing it at a distance from himself.

Gentle reader should not imagine I can read or write Chinese, and I’ve always been defeated by the tones when speaking. For the language is not spoken but sung. This eliminates the very possibility of rhetorical emphasis, or rather sublimates it, still deeper than French. For the words must be sung, while whispered. Only some kind of northern barbarian would pick words from a sentence and fling them in your face. Only a newspaper would desecrate a text with question and exclamation marks, to say nothing of those fiendish arabic numerals. It was my impression that Miss Ping was so gentle and soft because stepping through a world that was rife with barbarians; that she nevertheless giggled to herself, because we were so funny.

Classical Chinese is sung, and whispered, but also painted. The brush is the thing. “It grows from your hand.” Whereas, a pen is a crutch, held always at an angle. One must lean against the stalk of a pen. Step one: learn to feel the tip of the brush, as it dances on the paper; as the tip beyond your fingertips; as it stands, and kneels, and bows, and twirls, and leaps from one character to another. You are the mind and the brush is your body. But not in any Cartesian sense, since the mind and the body are one.

Perhaps it is only one of those falsely “recovered memories,” for I have just been looking at an old book containing translations from that Wang Wei, and it has suddenly reminded of the character, hsien. It is a visual portmanteau: framed with the character for a “gate,” with the character for “moon” inserted in the open space between the two “doors” and under the “bridge” of that “gate” character. It is one of several plausible words for “idle” in classical Chinese. The dictionary adds: “at ease, sauntering, leisurely, quiet, unoccupied.”

I love this word. I have always loved this word: Hsien.

I could even draw it with a brush. (Not here: I do not have the technology.)

I did draw it once for the benefit of a Western-educated Chinese scholar, who assured me that everything I explained to gentle reader, just above, is rubbish. I’m working from a “romantic” theory, he said — having bought into the sort of nonsense that could only be subscribed by e.g. Wang Wei, along with all the other poets. It is mere chance that many, if not all, Chinese characters are evocative. In reality, this PhD averred, they merely “evolved” in a random way, from bone scratches — like animals according to Darwin’s theory. There is no logic to them. All the meanings they have are arbitrary, and have been “assigned,” by chance.

“They are assigned, by Heaven,” replies my inner Wang Wei.

See the I Ching on “chance”; or Stéphane Mallarmé.

On this much we were agreed: that the moon, glowing through the city gate — beckoning the poet from the griefs of the city, in a Keatsian sort of way — is an idea containing no logic at all. Poetry does not work like math; though it would be true to say that math sometimes works like poetry. Both are essentially incomprehensible, because they reach beyond human comprehension. But I have come to the conclusion, alas contra Miss Ping, that there is a certain class of idiots who cannot follow language even to the poetical equivalent of two plus two. They cannot see the point, & thus, anything they touch comes apart in their hands.


Really I am responding to a criticism posted to some squib I wrote elsewhere last Saturday. A gentleman who signed himself Adeodatus — a name he chose meaning “gift of God” — complained that my columns always ramble. He repeated several of my points, with mild sarcasm, then said he could not see the connexions. “I’m just picking at a few threads that I see in this essay,” he reports, “but they unravel if I try to pull at one for a coherent progression of thought.”

One might reply that it is a function of prose, to ramble. Too, if one starts pulling at threads, any composition will come apart. This is equally true of silk gowns, whether of fine or coarse manufacture; and as Whitehead and Russell eventually discovered (to Russell’s horror and Whitehead’s delight), also of the Principia Mathematica. It is moreover true, that if you pull the legs off ants, they will be unable to make any coherent progression; and that if you pull the wings off flies, it will be seen that they are incapable of flight.

Sometimes we see things, according at least to Wang Wei and Miss Ping, by seeing them — and not by some other method. We see them, as it were, when they are shown — arranged, perhaps, in relations like a painting, where the eye moves from one thing to another, then returns upon itself. Not a syllogism, but what the Greeks called a “syndrome” — things that go together because they belong together (tautologically enough). Painters, like poets, do not argue but arrange. Of course, one may be shown something and still not see it. One thinks, for instance, of a moon in a gate.

The modern, analytical, reductionist mind is “just like that” — like the boy who pulls the wings off flies. It has no use whatever for literature, or art. Nor, I have noticed, for klongs and water lilies.

As Wallace Stevens — perhaps the most Chinese of American poets — openly confessed in “Gubbinal,” his own point of view could be easily confuted. “That strange flower, the sun, / Is just what you say, / Have it your way,” the little poem begins. And concludes: “The world is ugly, and the people are sad.”