This primer on Tang dynasty–era poetry addresses Chinese history and linguistics and the tricky task of translation.
Retired surgeon Hung’s (The Chinese Language Demystified, 2018, etc.) overview of verse written during the Tang period, which lasted from 618 to 907, will be accessible to novices and a rich resource for experts. He takes a multipronged approach, beginning with a brief description of life in Tang China before delving into its literary traditions. It was a time of economic expansion that also saw an increase in artistic output. The book centers on three poets who were particularly prolific during the period: Li Bai, Du Fu, and Wang Wei, who were each influential in their home country as well as abroad. Hung explains the nuances of classical Chinese characters, which were misinterpreted by prominent Western writers, such as Ezra Pound, to be mainly pictograms. His book aims to give non-Chinese readers the tools to appreciate the beauty of Tang poetry in their original characters as well as in their translations. Hung shows creativity in how he displays the authors’ poems; first, he presents them in calligraphy, then in Pinyin (romanized words, meant to represent the sound of each character) with literal translations of each line. Afterward, he provides examples of several different English translations of each poem. (At times, the book feels like an expanded meditation on Eliot Weinberger’s 1987 book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.) Readers will receive a new appreciation not just for Tang poetry, but also for the challenges of translating such verse. Not only is classical Chinese very different from modern Chinese, but translators also have to keep in mind rhythm, details, and images, not all of which will have direct English translations. With a keen eye for detail and extraordinary patience, Hung relates the nuances of producing and translating poetry. His explanations are aided by his thoughtful historical accounts of life in Tang China and his descriptions of the political and economic circumstances that marked each poet’s life.
A compelling, detail-rich resource about Tang verse.