Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A book collection

Some 1200 years ago, Bai Juyi (白居易, 772–846) wrote this poem about his books:

   On the Cabinet for My Literary Collection

   I broke up cypress to make a book cabinet,
   the cabinet sturdy and the cypress strong.
   Whose collection is stored there?-
   the heading says "Bai Ledan."
   My lifetime’s capital is in writing
   from childhood on to old age.
   Seventy scrolls from beginning to end,
   in size, three thousand pieces.
   I know well that at last they will be scattered,
   but I cannot bear to rashly throw them away.
   I open it up, I lock it tight,
   placing it by my study curtain.
   I am childless Deng You,
   and there is no Wang Can in this age.*
   I can only entrust it to my daughter
   to keep and pass on to my grandchild.

*Deng You was a famous literatus who gave all this books to the young Wang Can.

Stephen Owen trans., The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (Harvard, 2006), p. 55.

Here's the original:

題文集櫃》白居易

  破柏作書櫃,櫃牢柏複堅。收貯誰家集,題雲白樂天。

  我生業文字,自幼及老年。前後七十卷,小大三千篇。

  誠知終散失,未忍遽棄捐。自開自鎖閉,置在書帷前。

  身是鄧伯道,世無王仲宣。只應分付女,留與外孫傳。

For this poem, I tip my hat to Frog in a Well's Alan Baumler, with whom I shared many a meal in Nanjing many years ago.

Isn't it sad that Bai Juyi felt that his books were somehow wasted on his daughter? That's how I read the word "only" (只) in the poem. Perhaps if the great (female) poet Li Qingzhao (李清照, 1080-ca. 1151) had been born in his lifetime, he would have felt differently. But maybe not, because Xue Tao (薛濤 768–831), another major (woman) poet, lived before Bai Juyi. Yu Xuanji (魚玄機, 844–869), considered by some to have been China's first feminist poet, began to write a few years after Bai Juyi's death.

But I wonder if 外孫 shouldn't be translated as "grandchildren."