Cantonese Poetry Recitation.

A recent Log post by Victor Mair presenting an “amazing video of a Hong Kong high school student reciting a couple of Classical Chinese poems” is great not only for the clip, which is lots of fun — that kid is really into the poetry! — but for the discussion, which has a striking variety of interpretations of what’s going on and why the video has gone viral in China. The South China Morning Post says “While some said they found Leung’s emotionally charged performance entertaining and creative, others said it was an overkill”; Mair asked (at least) seventeen “friends, colleagues, and students” and got seventeen different answers, and the commenters weigh in with plenty more. I myself tend to accept the idea that it’s actually (based on) a traditional, highly dramatic (to modern ears) way of reciting poetry, since I’m familiar with that kind of thing from old recordings of English and Russian poets reciting — a graduate student from Hong Kong writes Mair “I actually heard several Chinese (highly educated) say that 梁同学’s way is probably how the Tang poets recited back then! Unfortunately, people probably have to be really highly-educated to realize that…” — but it’s fascinating to see how differently people approach it. See for yourself (and enjoy the video).

(And if you’re interested in Cantonese, by all means see Mair’s latest post, Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?)

Comments

  1. This is most likely not the old way of reciting poetry, though. The old way is quite chanting, cf. in Mandarin and in Taiwanese.

  2. But both of those sound like the poems are being treated as songs rather than as recited texts, at least to me. And of course different regions presumably have different traditions of reciting ancient poetry. But if you know from other evidence/experience that Leung Yat-fung (the student) was just doing his own thing rather than following any sort of tradition, I’m perfectly willing to accept it, since I know nothing whatever about it!

  3. I’ve sometimes wondered if anyone ever tries to recite old Chinese poetry with a reconstructed pronunciation. Or is it that something only a foreigner would try?

  4. Alan Shaw, I certainly have heard reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation, most likely on Youku. I don’t have time to search for it now, but I’ll try and find some later. And it was a Chinese person doing it.

  5. Alan Shaw, now that I’ve had a little time to poke around, for Tang poetry read in reconstructed Middle Chinese by a Chinese person, try here: http://tinyurl.com/43nmo9l or here: http://tinyurl.com/larstbe

  6. Thanks, if you find a link, I would be curious to hear it (though I know no Chinese).

  7. Fascinating, thanks!

  8. Matt Anderson says:

    Here’s someone reciting a poem from the Shī jīng 詩經 (Book of Odes/Songs/Poetry), from the first half of the first millennium BCE. He reads it first in reconstructed Old Chinese (the language of the period in which it was written), second in early Middle Chinese, next in late Middle Chinese, next in early Mandarin pronunciation, and finally in Modern Standard Mandarin pronunciation.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZSIvf-YCtA

  9. Wow, I had no idea. I think I asked the same question on another forum a few years ago and was told flatly that modern Chinese had no interest in such things, that old poetry was always pronounced like modern Mandarin or Cantonese or whatever.

    I’m guessing some of these would sound quite a bit more outlandish to most Chinese than the student in the original clip.

  10. That was extraordinarily interesting. I just wish I knew what the color-coding meant (and which poem it was!).

  11. Matt Anderson says:

    I didn’t even notice the color-coding, so I’m glad you pointed it out; it’s there to show tone. Old Chinese is all black, as it wasn’t tonal. For early MC, black is used for both level 平 and entering 入 tones, blue is used for rising 上 tone, and green is used for departing 去 tone. For Modern Mandarin, black is 1st tone, red is 2nd tone, blue is 3rd tone, and green is 4th tone. Late MC and early Mandarin are somewhere in between.

    The poem is #148 “Xí yǒu cháng chǔ” 隰有萇楚.

    隰有萇楚、猗儺其枝。
    夭之沃沃、樂子之無知。

    隰有萇楚、猗儺其華。
    夭之沃沃、樂子之無家。

    隰有萇楚、猗儺其實。
    夭之沃沃、樂子之無室。

    In Karlgren’s translation:

    Si yu ch’ang chu

    In the swamp there is the ch’ang thorn, luxuriant are its branches;
    how glossy their delicate beauty; I am glad that you have no (intimate:) mate.

    In the swamp there is the ch’ang thorn, luxuriant are its flowers;
    how glossy their delicate beauty; I am glad that you have no house.

    In the swamp there is the ch’ang thorn, luxuriant are its fruits;
    how glossy their delicate beauty; I am glad that you have no chamber.

    & in Waley’s translation:

    In the Lowlands Is the Goat’s-Peach

    In the lowlands is the goat’s-peach;
    Very delicate are its boughs.
    Oh, soft and tender,
    Glad I am that you have no friend.

    In the lowlands is the goat’s-peach;
    Very delicate are its flowers.
    Oh, soft and tender,
    Glad I am that you have no home.

    In the lowlands is the goat’s-peach;
    Very delicate is its fruit.
    Oh, soft and tender,
    Glad I am that you have no house.

  12. Many thanks! Here’s Pound’s (not very impressive) version:

    Vitex in swamp ground,
    branched loveliness,
    would I could share that shrub’s unconsciousness.

    Vitex negundo, casting thy flowers in air,
    thy joy to be, and have no family care.

    Vitex in low marsh ground,
    thy small fruit grows
    in tenderness,
    having no heavy house.

  13. “Not very impressive”? Try “total dreck, loosely inspired by the Chinese poem”.

    But like the two innkeepers, we will never agree about Pound, for we are arguing from different premises.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    Om Chu sklom stu
    Sklum stu bdefo yu

  15. Trond Engen says:

    Here‘s William Jennings:

    See the goats’-peach grow on the wet land low,
    With its branches supple and fair,
    And the glossy sheen of its vernal green:—
    Happy creature, of nought aware!

    See the goats’-peach grow on the wet land low,
    With its dainty delicate bloom,
    And the glossy sheen of its vernal green:—
    Happy thing, with no (ties of) home!

    See the goats’-peach grow on the wet land low,
    And the dainty fair fruit it bears,
    And the glossy sheen of its vernal green:—
    Happy thing, with no household (cares)!

  16. Trond Engen says:

    This meter may invoke the same melody but vastly different connotations in Scandiavians and Americans. To me it’s the hymn Kjærlighet fra Gud, to an American it’s Lilly Dale.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    My comment is awaiting moderation.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    That Jennings translation turned up when I was googling “goat’s peach” to see if it’s a Vitex. Does anyone know?

  19. Matt Anderson says:

    Here, then, is James Legge’s version:

    In the low wet grouds is the carambola tree;
    Soft and pliant are its branches,
    With the glossiness of tender beauty.
    I should rejoice to be like you, [O tree], without consciousness.

    In the low, damp grounds is the carambola tree;
    Soft and delicate are its flowers,
    With the glossiness of its tender beauty.
    I should rejoice to be like you, [O tree], without a family.

    In the low, damp grounds is the carambola tree;
    Soft and delicate is its fruit,
    With the glossiness of its tender beauty.
    I should rejoice to be like you, [O tree], without a household.

    His understanding of the poem is about the same as Jennings’s, I guess—they’re both following the traditional commentators (and Pound, I guess, is either following one of them or the tradition). It seems a bit more noble when understood that way than the way Karlgren & Waley understand it… but the Karlgren/Waley interpretation is what the original text seems to say to me.

    Karlgren & Waley were the only two translations I looked at before posting earlier, I didn’t realize there was such a divided understanding of the poem. Having now looked at the commentary traditionally appended to the book, I see it explicitly supports the Jennings/Legge/Pound side. But the commentary was written (many) hundreds of years after the poem.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    The colours are tones. No tones in the oldest version, progressive tonogenesis as we approach modern Standard Mandarin.

    The Old Chinese version seems oddly unpoetic when compared to the later versions. But I think it’s an artifact of the reading. The meticulous pronunciation of each weird sound makes him lose the beat. I surely wouldn’t hold that against him.

  21. The Oxford Latin Dictionary identifies Latin ‘vitex’ with the Mediterranean plant Vitex agnus-castus, “also called Vitex, Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Abraham’s Balm or Monk’s Pepper” (Wikipedia under the scientific name). The specific name is supposed to mean ‘chaste-chaste’ in Greek and then Latin, but that should be ‘hagnus-castus’: ‘agnus castus’ means ‘chaste [male] lamb’ in Latin. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be so chaste about it. For what it’s worth, China doesn’t seem to be mentioned either there or in the general Vitex article.

  22. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Michael Hendry:

    I’m not sure what’s supposed to be so chaste about it.

    the seeds of the plant in question were thought by Dioscorides to reduce sexual desire, and it was much used by monks in the Middle Ages who were eager to make their celibacy less onerous. There doesn’t seem to be much foundation for the belief, although it does have effects on progesterone production in females, and is sometimes used to alleviate menstrual pains.

    But far more important is agnus castus, where the author follows Dioscorides and Places in affirming that it ‘destroyeth the moysture of mannes sede’ and ‘the fowle lust of lechery, and it be dronken, or yf it be borne aboute hym’.(Williams 2001:20)

  23. John Cowan says:

    Note that it doesn’t seem to matter whether you ingest it or not: this is sympathetic magic.

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