Only several poems by the now forgotten 1930s Shanghai poet Shao Xunmei (1906-1968) have previously been rendered into English, making our translation of his two major volumes a first. We have long considered Shao well worth translating, owing as much to his colorful artistic persona as to his verse. The former mostly flowered during his studies at Cambridge in the mid-1920s, when he was exposed to Western poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine. However, it was mainly AC Swinburne who became Shao’s avatar in both art and life, as our translations below show. Cambridge also introduced Shao to the comfort of English shoes, which he wore with a traditional Chinese scholar’s silk gown—a true cultural hybrid!
Shao and the Western-influenced aesthetes he led were strongly condemned by Lu Xun and his League of Left-Wing Writers, who came to dominate Shanghai’s literary scene right before the Japanese occupation in 1937. Then the Communist victory in 1949 drove writers like Shao into oblivion. However, since there has been an upsurge of interest in obscure writers during the Nationalist Decade recently, we hope our translation is a timely contribution to a fuller understanding of what was going on in Shanghai between the wars.
Here are some short selections from Shao’s first volume of verse, Heaven and May, published in 1927. Readers will be easily able to detect the imprint of the English poet Swinburne, who is known for flower-temptress imagery. Interestingly, the Chinese word for the narcissus flower means “water sprite”, and it is a symbol of purity in China. We decided to use the English translation narcissus because its connotations are closer to Shao’s late 19th-century themes.
Since you grow inside this filthy mire,
Why do you still possess this certain perfume that
Attracts passersby like me to love you?
I step into the mud to kiss you with my mouth,
But how can I pick you up?
You are long since sunk in this filthy mire!
Wind comes and wind kisses you,
Rain comes and rain kisses you.
Why not escape or hide yourself,
Instead of standing smilingly erect in the filthy mire?
Have you lost your senses?
Then how can you have any affection for me?
Alas! Isn’t it better to speak a little with you about love, then?
Better let you alone and dwell in the filthy mire!
While a student at Cambridge, Shao spent summer vacations in Paris, where he made friends with some Chinese artists and writers who remained in contact with him back in Shanghai. His attraction to the city is evident in his poem “Complete Recovery”.
For some days I have not seen Paris,
Even the wind there seems old already.
If not, why has it become so rough
When it blows into my face?
Paris, my own Paris,
How many times have I ever forgotten you?
I saw you again in a dream last night—
I dreamt of you as a camellia girl.
So lovely are you,
How could I wish for everyone to come and adore you?
But I am afraid of going to the country with you,
For there you will loathe facing me all the time.
Thinking like this makes me weary,
So step by small step I return.
All is all in the end,
All is eventually all in the end!
These two poems are markedly Western-influenced, but Shao could also compose more Chinese-themed verse, albeit still with European Symbolist nuances. One example is “Song of Love”:
Jasper-like Heavenly Pond,
White jade-like lotus:
The lotus lives only in Heavenly Pond,
And Heavenly Pond bears only lotus.
Heavenly Pond is simply you,
The lotus is simply me:
I live only in your heart,
And you live only with me in your heart.
Like many of Shao’s shortest poems, this one has a haiku-like deceptive simplicity, with its classical Chinese allusions symbolizing a romantic attachment.
Shao produced his second and final verse volume, entitled Twenty-Five Poems, in 1936. It shows that he had matured since his youthful lines of the previous decade, but still lost none of his old inspirations, which were both sensual and spiritual. One example is “Woman”, composed in 1931:
I revere you, woman, I revere you just like
I revere a versicle of the Tang Dynasty—
Your warm and clear-cut tones of voice
Come to bind firmly my every sentence and word.
I suspect you, woman, I suspect you just like
I suspect a resplendent rainbow in the sky—
I do not know whether your red face is for me
Or still more for some other hot dream.
This poem is also eight lines, but expresses a totally different view of the Chinese classics, about which Shao made ambivalent statements, and romantic love, about which he was also divided.
This is brought into sharpest relief in his poem “Heaven and Earth”, which we consider the main work in Twenty-Five Poems, or even of Shao’s entire career. Such critics who have paid attention to Shao consider his 50-line “Xunmei’s Dream” to be his masterpiece, but we disagree and publish the sonnet “Heaven and Earth” here:
Please pardon me this empty, wanton stubbornness, immortal goddess.
Awake and asleep I invariably see you; the reason is
I long ago engraved your image into a model,
And marked it in countless imprints on my soul.
I sing your praises, no matter whether you hear or not,
Crying out exactly like a midday’s cock crow;
For me, every single second is half a day,
Every single second moreover can uplift my voice.
But I never expected you to come down from heaven—
A thunderbolt disrupting all creation.
I just wish casually, that one day in spring,
When dutiful people are cheerful by keeping themselves busy,
A breeze can calmly and collectedly deliver a message,
Saying heaven and earth may ultimately join together.
The yearnings we find in Shao’s poetry as a whole—especially for the immortals of heaven to come down to earth and inspire people down here, and for the senses to be at one with the soul—come together best in this poem.
Shao may have died in obscurity, but we hope our translation can help a wider audience know what he tried to do for the artistic life of his country nearly a century ago; Shao tried to reinvigorate Chinese culture with Western models. He lost out to larger forces than himself, but Chinese writers today may still find inspiration in the unique combination of East and West in his art and life.