Poetry in translation / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Five sections from Thirty Historical Reflections

by Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein

That Person Writing

Eighty wooden slips, lining up with the fate of little old men. Interposed in the slips the seal script writing is difficult to discern, but what it conveys about heaven, the state, war, and the thoughts of the sages remains unchanged. The work of the brush of this anonymous writer looks like the brushwork of Sima Qian or Sima Xiangru. Only at a remove of two thousand years can the customary greatness of his era be perceived! From afar he may yet have glimpsed Sima Xiangru or Sima Qian. He dips his brush in ink, working stroke upon stroke, permitting himself not one false word; writing the aphorisms of Zeng Zi, delighting in his thoughts. He’s nearly convinced that the thoughts he transcribes will be of great use to humanity. These thoughts he protects, these thoughts he transmits. Wittingly or not certain words are altered, wittingly or not he retains his own breath within the views of another. From a humble stenographer, he unwittingly transforms into a minor author beside a great author, like an ant tethering thought’s kite against the wind. Sunlight spilling onto the writing desk, he sneezes. On the street shoe sellers call out to him: “You—you’re the guy who deals in thought!” He writes on wooden slips, in a time before the invention of paper or movable type, and so what he writes is the “one” book (each book so written must be the “one” book). But later, a dead man takes his book underground. The thought that evolved from this book, the thoughts that were transformed from this book, would ultimately reshape the world, but this “one” book, through the slow stretch of time, was no more to be found. And now, even if it were to be brought back to light, those thoughts transformed from it, the thought adopted by the world, could never be corrected. Like a forgery re-entering the site of civilization. And that person writing, it’s as if he had never been born. He is a speck of dust on the earth, disseminating civilization in its limited way.


Six Dynasties Ghosts

In the Six Dynasties (265 – 588 CE), ghosts outnumbered humans. The living would dream of evil spirits at night and meet them in the day, the way that mice are never free from people. Life in the Six Dynasties was bizarre: according to The Chronicle of the Netherworld, ghosts had chest hair, underarm hair, and pubic hair. People and ghosts would fight over food. Ghosts and ghosts would come to blows.

In the Six Dynasties ghosts were educated, and could discuss The Five Classics with humans and debate atheists about the existence of ghosts.
In the Six Dynasties ghosts had powerful magic, and knew the birthdates of each emperor, plus their death dates, and when rebellion would break out under heaven.
In the Six Dynasties, with the help of ghosts, men would travel to faerie and the underworld, and write fiction when they came back.
In the Six Dynasties men had successful romances, but the successes were due to ghosts: female ghosts would host banquets in the grave, and what man wouldn't put in an appearance?
In the Six Dynasties when a female ghost's true nature was exposed, she would turn back into a white egret or swan, or anything white, through which veins would faintly show.
In the Six Dynasties swans were kindhearted, and would pursue a person for five or six miles, just to give back his slipper.
But in the Six Dynasties the tigers were the contrarians, waiting for men to take a piss outdoors so they could bite off their dicks.

Six Dynasties people say, Back in our day, animals turning into people happened every day, but that lugubrious so-and-so Kafka, always making much ado about nothing, wrote about a guy turning into an animal—obviously he got it backwards! Obviously he got it mixed up!

A Sanskrit Brick from Nanzhao (738–937): after a Vietnamese poet

An antiques shop on Jadestream Rd. in Dali's old quarter. A grey-green brick in the shop from the late Nanzhao era. Eleven lines of Sanskrit on the grey-green brick. The hands that molded the Sanskrit lines. The hands that inlaid the brick into the base of the pagoda. The late Nanzhao monk who could read the eleven lines of Sanskrit. The man or men who brought Sanskrit from India through Nepal to Nanzhao. Buddhists. Buddhists who had or had not achieved nirvana before dying, and the loiterers who couldn't give a damn about achieving nirvana. The questions Hīnayāna Buddhism never encountered when encountering Mahāyāna Buddhism. The pain the emperor of Nanzhao suffered unbeknownst to the emperor of Tang. The dusk of Nanzhao kingdom's demise. The thugs who knocked over the pagoda. The astonished onlookers. 902 CE. From then till now, countless I's have searched for this grey-green brick molded with eleven Sanskrit lines. In this antiques shop on Jadestream Rd. in Dali's old quarter, coming down with a cold and with a runny nose, I pulled the grey-green brick out of the glass case, held it in my hands, and in the end talked the clerk down from 800 to 430 RMB. Just by shifting my hand, I could have dropped it and seen it shatter into shards. But I only had such a notion for an instant. Also present were the poet Song Lin and a spider dangling off a thread hanging from the rafters.

Falcons, Swans, and Pearls

The Emperor of the Liao loved pearls, for which his troops time and again attacked the lands in the north that would later be established as Jin. Pearls were not in fact bounteous in the Jin, but the falcons that made nest and flew over that land were what the Liao soldiers coveted. Time and again, the soldiers of the Liao would bring home falcons, bringing home Jin women while they were at it. Locking the women in their rooms, they set the falcons after swans. Liao soldiers knew the basics of the forces of production: they didn't mind that swans had a more exquisite physique than the women in their rooms, since they knew the swans hungered after the delicacy of mussels. Good thing swans would go after mussels with such aplomb, they'd get the mussels' pearls down in their bellies—sometimes even expelling the pearls in their shit. The Liao soldiers would cast the falcons into the sky and wait for them to bring back swans from the Bohai Sea, when they'd pluck the pearls from their bellies. The Liao teemed with swans, and no one ever felt sentimental about having to kill one or two. Killing swans felt to them the same as killing chickens. The midsize pearls they kept for their women, while the small pearls piled up to trade with the rich hedonists of the Southern Song. They would have to bestow the biggest pearls unto the Emperor, or the Emperor would cut off their heads just as they did to the swans. The Emperor would play with his pearls, and the more he played the more he grew like the Southern Song hedonists. He played the Liao into extinction. When the Jin rose in the north, and sent no more falcons, they also stopped letting their women be kidnapped. The Jin destroyed Liao, to keep from sending more falcons.
King Jöchi Khasar's Land
700 years ago King Jöchi Khasar was granted land,
nothing but grassland stretching to the heavens, nothing but a few grey tiles in the clumps of grass. A strong wind blowing.
700 years ago, Chinggis Khaan and Ögedei's 100,000-strong Mongol horde
launched their blitzkrieg over the Central Asian mountains and the Russian steppe, proclaiming laws and setting up a postal system between Hungary, Austria, and China.
But now,
on the land of Chinggis Khaan's younger brother Jöchi Khasar, nothing but the name of Jöchi Khasar.
Night falls so quickly!
when night squeezes out rain, drop upon drop falling on the steppe, wooden wheels of abandoned carriages turning silently black,
It is time for Jöchi Khasar to take supper. We walk into a restaurant nearby.
Behind the counter,
a poster of the Mona Lisa tacked on the wall, and the smiling face of a 16 year-old Slavic girl.
After I've eaten, the Han woman who runs the place says to me:
"Help this poor girl who can't go to school. Such a pretty girl! She needs to go to Hailar for school, which would cost 3000 RMB for tuition and living expenses. Or else, you could take her with you, back to Beijing, so she could have a bright future."
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