A Little Primer of Tu Fu

David Hawkes

New York Review Books 2016 [1967]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009 https://dannyreviews.com/
Classical Chinese poetry is one of the world's great literary traditions, but one that it is hard to appreciate in translation. In A Little Primer of Tu Fu, David Hawkes attempts to give English-speaking readers with no Chinese some understanding of the genre, presenting thirty five of the best known poems of Tu Fu, a renowned Tang Dynasty poet who lived from 712 to 770.

For each poem, Hawkes begins with the Chinese text and an interlineal pin-yin Mandarin transliteration. (As he explains in his introduction, this loses many of the rhymes of Tang Chinese, but avoids issues of phonetic reconstruction and allows readers to leverage any knowledge of Mandarin they may have.) This is followed by an explanation of the title and context of the poem and a discussion of its form.

Yuè-yè yì shè-dì
Yuè-yè 'moonlit night'. 'think of', 'remember', 'call to mind'. Shè-dì Chinese kinship terms are extremely complicated. ...
Yuè-yè modifies the verb which follows it. ... The whole title therefore means "Thinking of My Brothers on a Moonlit Night".
The fighting whose overtones darken this poem is that same bloody and protracted civil war which began with the rebellion of An Lu-shan in December 755. ...
Tu Fu, for reasons which are still in dispute, threw up his job in Hua-chou at the beginning of autumn, 759, and journeyed with his wife and children to the frontier town of Ch'in-chou, three hundred miles west of Ch'ang-an, near the western end of the Great Wall.
. .
This is a formally perfect pentasyllabic poem in Regulated Verse. An unusual feature which appears in the first of the two central antithetical couplets (i.e. in lines 3-4) is worth remarking on. Before Tu Fu's time the caesura between the second and third syllables was virtually invariable; but Tu Fu, who was a great innovator, frequently experimented with different rhythms. In these two lines the caesura comes after the first syllable, which has the effect of concentrating a very heavy emphasis on the initial words

A detailed exegesis then works through the poem line by line, this time following the pin-yin version with a word-for-word English translation. This is accompanied by notes explaining useful linguistic, cultural, geographical and historical background. These explain the allusions to Han dynasty figures that Tang writers used as a stylised way of commenting on current politics, the ways in which poetical language differed from prose, the events of the An Lushan rebellion, literary conventions, and so forth.

Shù gǔ duàn rén xíng
Garrison drums cut-off people's travel
Biān qiū yi yán shēng
Frontier autumn one goose sound
One distinguished scholar thinks Tu Fu wrote this poem while still on his way to Ch'in-chou; but I think he must be there already, complaining that he feels cut off: no postal services and no visitors. Otherwise I find the first line hard to understand.
Yí yán shēng is an ambivalent image. The migratory wild goose is a symbol of autumn; but a well-known literary convention also associates it with an exile's letter from home. The sound of the wild goose sets in motion the train of thought which begins with a feeling of beleaguerment and a melancholy awareness of winter's approach and ends with anxiety about his absent brothers.

For each poem, Hawkes concludes with a prose translation "intended as a crib" and "not meant to be beautiful or pleasing". (There is also, for those actually studying Chinese, a vocabulary covering all the words which appear in the poems.)

"Travel is interrupted by the war-drums of the garrisons. The sound of a solitary wild goose announces the coming of autumn to the frontier. ..."

Hawkes doesn't include a biography as such, but the poems are arranged in chronological order and thus give a feel for the progress of Tu Fu's career. He was a participant in affairs of state, taking a loyalist position during the An Lushan rebellion and briefly holding an official position before being relegated, but then moved around several areas of China, relying on networks of friends and supporters.

For someone with no real knowledge of Chinese, A Little Primer of Tu Fu is an enjoyable way to learn "something about the Chinese language, something about Chinese poetry, and something about the poet Tu Fu".

Note: the 2016 reissue by The Chinese University of Hong Kong and New York Review Books says "revised" on the title page, but appears unchanged from the 1987 Renditions edition except perhaps for repagination. It is however an attractive volume.

August 2009 [updated August 2016]

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%T A Little Primer of Tu Fu
%A Hawkes, David
%I New York Review Books
%D 2016 [1967]
%O paperback, vocabulary, index
%G ISBN-13 9789629966591
%P 269pp