Translation Thursday: 赋得古原草送别 Bidding Farewell on the Plain, by 白居易 Bai Juyi


I actually drew a blank for this week’s translation and had to ask a friend, who immediately suggested Bai Juyi. The only surprise is that I didn’t think of that myself, honestly. 

Bai Juyi (772 – 846) belonged to a later generation than many of the writers previously featured, such as Du Fu and Li Bai, and his life was also… different, if not necessarily more comfortable. While there might not have been a civil war on, the way Du Fu suffered from the An-Shi Rebellion, Bai’s Tang Dynasty was a pretty fragmented place, with warlords (many of whom had helped the imperial side during the rebellion) and short-reigning emperors. In his 75 years, Bai Juyi lived through nine reigns. 

Coming from a family with some political background – his grandfather was a county magistrate, his father a general and inspector – he too made it quite smoothly through the imperial examinations, becoming a jinshi (imperial degree holder) on his first try in 800. His career would become quite rocky in later decades, but that’s not the period covered in the poems to come. (He had some seriously, seriously long poems in his later, bitterer years.)

The first of these poems is one of the pieces many kids learn when they dip their toes into Chinese literature; it is also a good expression of how Tang poetry had evolved by Bai’s time: still strongly impressionist, but with a stronger narrative thread running through it. 

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Sikpou Saturdays 1: 姜蔥蝦 Jiang Cong Xia (Sautéed Shrimp with Spring Onions and Ginger)

I love me a bit of alliteration, but since there isn’t a day of the week that starts with R – what kind of lexical laxness is this, English language? – I shall have to use a Cantonese word to stand in for recipe instead.

Actually, come think of it, sikpou – or 食譜 shi pu – is a much more poetic thing to call a recipe than ‘recipe’. After all, recipe literally is an order to ‘take’ (or receive), and used to mean a prescription – as if food is merely something you take to keep alive, as with the horrible ‘food is fuel’ mantra. (Food is fuel? I suppose any intellectual nourishment is just so much lubricant, and you need to stick a gauge down your throat to figure if you need to drink water? Seriously.)

Sikpou, on the other hand, literally mean ‘a script or score for food’, since the character 譜 is also used in music to mean a score or manuscript. Now that’s a lot closer to the heart of what a recipe is. A manuscript you can consult every time you perform an act of artistic generosity that warms the heart and fills the stomach.

Sautéed Shrimp with Ginger and Spring Onions

My mum has the hardest job there is, homemaking, and this dish is one of her most potent tools. That also makes it one of the great pleasures of my childhood. The slight pungency and sweetness of spring onions, and the clean, subtle heat of the ginger, takes just a minute to bring out in a hot skillet, wafting aromas through the house.

Naturally it was one of the first dishes I tried to replicate since setting up in London, and after some years I think I have it mostly right now. (I suspect getting homemade dishes completely right is something only mothers can do.) One great thing about this dish – something that’s quite true of many Chinese dishes, I find – is that its spirit lies in the seasoning; you can whip up the sauce and add any source of protein that’s close at hand. At home, we have the luxury of thinly sliced lean pork loin; in London I mostly use chicken breast, but this time it’s prawns. Vegetarians could always substitute sliced firm tofu, which would approximate the mouthfeel and soak up the flavour properly as well.

This dish is also a standard in most Chinese restaurants, and the more deluxe types even use sliced venison (‘venison’, in any case), served sizzling on a hot plate. I shan’t presume to say how posh a dish should be, of course.

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黃鶴樓 – The Yellow Crane Tower, by 崔顥 Cui Hao

Chinese towers are actually a bit of an exception in Chinese architecture. Whereas most traditional Chinese buildings emphasise width and vastness rather than height, there is nonetheless a big fascination with these buildings.

Of course, there are functional uses for many of these buildings; but a large part of the fascination is with the spiritual and mystical. After all, most Chinese towers are Buddhist pagodas, or derivations thereof. And so it is with the poem I’ll be doing this week, except the influence is not Buddhist but Taoist.

The following poem is by an early Tang poet, Cui Hao 崔顥 (704 – c. 754), who was one of the openers of the tradition of poems with regular lines of five or seven characters (seven in this instance), grouped mostly into quatrains. The sort of poems, in other words, which made Li Bai, Du Fu and all the rest of them legends; and those great poets also recognised the value of Cui as an early adopter.

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Some Sort of Triumph

Yesterday I saw the key to victory, though it was too late for me to act on it. Coming down the steps at Royal Festival Hall I catch the Hoarder with the Black Jacket sauntering across the ballroom floor, already taking out the charger for his handphone. 

I could not act – the Festival Hall is hallowed space, and you don’t run in it if you’re over 10 years of age – but I noted the time. 

And today, today, victory is mine. I have breakfast and a quick shower; take the trains to Waterloo under a mutely threatening sky and enter the Festival Hall in the face of a very vociferous wind, like a inscrutable cop/bad cop routine. And there it is – two sockets on the far wall, no one at the table. 

Fuck yeah. 


Almost everyone who engages in combat does so in the belief that victory comes from moral superiority; that might be a key manifestation of the difference between humanity and animals. It’s not that we took the moment to learn the foe’s tactics (though we do); it’s not that we were faster, fiercer, or have weapons of comparatively massive destruction (though we often do). No; behind that is a better person, better as a fox or a tiger cannot ever be better.

(Once there *is* a better tiger, then the tiger is tamed; it is now within the sphere of morality, and will be rewarded richly (and materially), until it bites someone to death or slips out through a little gap in the fence.) 

So what is the moral content of my victory? I come to the Royal Festival Hall to write. And every time the Hoarder sits down at the yellow chair and slouches back and puts earphones in his ear, the muses themselves force me to take a table nearby – on the off chance he keels over dead, but also to scream in my ear. OUR WORK IS UNDONE! ALL YE VOICES OF LITERATURE GATHERED, BUT FOR WANT OF A POWER SOURCE THEY ARE SCATTERED! 

That’s not strictly true; I have a battery that lasts me for three hours, minimum. But I spend quite a bit of those three hours (four without internet) glancing up at him as he listens to his music. This passive… parasite of culture. This… idle… lazy… feckless… GRRRRARGH HRR GRRR RRRRGH


Now the Hoarder in the Black Jacket comes, with his turned up jeans and his widow’s peak, and he takes the exact same table that is normally mine. The tables are quite literally… never mind. But there is a difference. 

He normally sits with his back to me, but because of my laptop’s configurations, I have to sit facing him. So he sits there, not taking out his charger or his handphone, nursing a cup of what seems to be coffee. And every now and then he glances in my direction, or maybe directly towards me, but mostly he is looking at a copy of a free paper. 

Of course, I know all this because I am looking at him. Is it out of fear? (But what is there to fear from him?) Maybe it’s gloating. Now the power runs into my computer. 

And precisely because it does and it will not run out until I choose to, I can stay online, read webcomics and write a note on Facebook. 


This story has a happy ending, and now I wonder if all or many happy endings come about because of supply and demand – that in the end all good things come down to other people who want something a lot less than you do. Down the wall from the Hoarder’s – no, my – socket there is another pair of sockets, but the table right in front of it is occupied by two pleasant ladies who are sipping coffee, eating something or other, and completely not in need of their batteries being charged. 

But when at length they leave, the Hoarder still does not head towards the table immediately, and for a while I wonder if I’ve even gotten the right person – he might just be Dude with Coffee in a Black Jacket, in which case I’ve wasted all your time even more than I intended to. But no. Ten minutes or so later, he gets up and goes to the wall. 

But he does so with such a heavy and slow gait as to entertain the possibility that something, besides electricity, emanates from the socket I am now using, with which he is reluctant to part. Have I, by defeating the Hoarder, upset some sort of balance that had existed long before I found out about the Royal Festival Hall as a writing place a month ago? And what privilege either leads to or from this effort to come here early only to be just as unproductive in luxury, as I was unproductive in bemoaning my deprivation? 

Oh, never mind. He’s got his earphones in and is tapping his feet and drinking his coffee. So I’ve won the right to presume he’s won too. 

Fuck yeah.