The Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion ( 蘭亭集序; Lántíngjí Xu), from the 4th century AD, is generally regarded as the greatest work of Chinese calligraphy. Although the Preface itself is not poetry, it introduces a set of poems and the Chinese language itself is especially poetic because of its repeated sounds, use of tones, and clear monosyllabic rhythm. Thus, this poetic translation has sought to capture the sense of poetry in the air. Learn more about the Preface’s history here.

Evan Mantyk, translator

 

Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion

by Wang Xizhi

It is the ninth year of Emperor Mu of the Jin Dynasty’s reign, in the year of the Yin Water Ox, at the beginning of the third month (after April 20, 353 AD). We are all gathered at the Orchid Pavilion in Shanyin County, Guiji Commandery, for the Spring Purification Festival.

The noblemen arrive this day in Spring,
From old to young, amidst these lofty mountains,
Amidst luxuriant bamboos such days bring,
Where spotless water gurgles by like fountains
Round the pavilion and reflecting sun.
The guests send wine cups floating down the stream,
And when the nearest wine cup’s floating’s done
The guest must then compose and wine redeem.
Although we lack a minstrel’s cheerful glow,
A cup of wine and poetry suffice
For letting conversation warmly flow.
Today the sky is bright; the air is nice.
A gentle breeze blows freely like our mirth.
When looking up, the universe is vast;
When looking down, abundance fills the earth
Contentment greets the mind that wanders past
A host of sights and sounds of pure delight.
How wonderful to know joy’s greatest height!

All men together live upon this earth
And some of them will share their deepest dreams
In private with a friend who seems of worth,
While others recklessly pursue their schemes.
And yet whatever choice one makes in life,
Whether very sound or very rash,
When something happy happens, joy is rife—
But this, and youth too, lose to History’s dash.
One becomes weary, losing heart, regretting;
The joy is gone as quickly as a blink,
A memory distant as a star that’s setting.
All is ordained to turn to dust and sink.
It’s been said, “Birth and death are both great days.”
I sigh. How sadly on my mind this plays!

When thinking upon those who’ve come before me,
Their words and their regrets, I’m left
In sadness, though I know not why I should be.
Of course, I know life’s gift is not death’s theft—
To die when old is not like dying young.
And yet when future people think of me,
I’ll be the same as those who Time’s undone.
How sad! And so, I’ve written faithfully
The names of those who’re here, their poetry,
For even though the times and trends will change,
What we regret remains eternally
The same, and you and I are not so strange.
For those who read our words in future years,
Perhaps, you too, will fight back swelling tears.

 

An early Tang Dynasty copy of the Preface by Feng Chengsu

The First Day of the New Year

by Wang Anshi (1021-1086)

Exploding fireworks resound
__And one year fades away.
Warm winds of Spring are flowing round;
__Herb wine has come this way.

A thousand doors, ten thousand houses
__Shining in the sun.
Replacing talismans* arouses;
__Hands for peach wood run.

*The new peach wood talisman was hung on the door to ward off troubles and evil spirits in the new year.

Original

爆竹聲中一歲除
春風送暖入屠蘇
千門萬戶曈曈日
總把新桃換舊符

Bàozhú shēng zhōng yī suì chú
chūnfēng sòng nuǎn rù túsū
qiān mén wàn hù tóng tóng rì
zǒng bǎ xīn táo huàn jiù fú

 

 


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11 Responses

  1. J. Simon Harris

    Both of these are good. I found the Preface especially interesting, and I like the way you set the stage for it (placing us in the moment of history, as it were). The original was in prose? I like the idea of translating prose into poetry. I may try my hand at it myself, sometime.

    My favorite lines were: “For even though the times and trends will change, / What we regret remains eternally / The same, and you and I are not so strange.” What a perfectly succinct way to capture the timelessness of poetry. I love the enjambment of the words “The same”. Nicely done!

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Mr. Harris,
      The original is entirely prose and had a somewhat mundane beginning that set the year and location, so I left that part in prose at the beginning and put it in italics like a prefatory note. A very literal translation can be found here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Preface_to_the_Poems_Composed_at_the_Orchid_Pavilion

      The original is a very popular work and in theory it is because of the calligraphy, but I think the sentiments in it are actually quite profound as well, with resonances of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. There is a powerful nexus of the meaning and art form that I think is exceptionally effective and hopefully I’ve caught a glimpse of that in this translation.

      Reply
  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Most admirable here is Mantyk’s ability to identify and then underscore through beautifully effective phraseology the most lyrical elements of the Preface in a manner worthy the finest productions of the language into which he has translated it.

    Boasting the oldest alphabet in continuous use, China is justifiably proud of her magnificent calligraphic tradition. Mantyk has done well to honor this art through the splendor of exquisite, lyric verse.

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Mr. MacKenzie! From an accomplished calligrapher like yourself those words are especially meaningful.

      Reply
  3. Sally Cook

    Dear Evan

    Making a delightful game composed of one beautiful setting, and using cups of wine as pawns to facilitate the making of a poem seems to me to illuminate the essence of the poetic spirit. You have made the antique immediate, and by doing so proved not only a connection between centuries, but the truth that the essence of poetry is joy, enhanced by knowledge and skill

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Sally! I could not find a good translation of this work and so I set out to make one.

      Reply
  4. David Watt

    I regard it as a fine accomplishment to have translated the melodic ancient prose of ‘Preface..’ into modern classical poetry. The moment in time is captured as fresh as if it occurred yesterday.

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Mr. Watt. Yes, I feel we have our own meeting at the Orchid Pavilion right here at the Society of Classical Poets.

      Reply
  5. C.B. Anderson

    How fitting it is, Evan, that you posted this around the time of the Chinese New year. Auld lang syne indeed! Reading the Robert Burns poem, I found there to be some interesting parallels with the feelings brought to light in the preface, including the raising of cups. Beautifully executed. How wonderful it would be to throw a party such as the one described: Write a poem, or else be obligated to drink cups of wine (though in Scotland it would likely be whisky).

    Reply
    • Evan Mantyk

      Indeed, Kip! You have nailed it. There is no coincidence on the timing, which coincided with the Chinese, or Lunar, New Year. Auld lang syne had not entered my mind, but you are absolutely right. The parallels are clearly there. Thank you for the connection.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        A funny thing, Evan, is that I knew it was the Chinese New Year only because my wife works at a Montessori school attended by a number of Chinese pupils, and she insisted last night that we have Chinese take-out for dinner, which turned out well for everyone.

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