“Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry” by David Hinton & “The Selected Poems of Tu Fu”, translated by David Hinton

Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry, David Hinton (Shambhala, October 2019); The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, Expanded and Newly Translated, David Hinton (trans) (New Directions, February 2020) Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry, David Hinton (Shambhala, October 2019); The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, Expanded and Newly Translated, David Hinton (trans) (New Directions, February 2020)

Serendipity, we may say, is a wonderful thing sometimes. Here are both a newly expanded edition of Hinton’s translation of Tu Fu’s poems, and at the same time his book about Tu Fu’s life as exemplified in an examination of some of these poems as they relate to the poet’s precipitous journey through life.

Hinton’s first foray, thirty years ago, into translating Chinese poetry and making it accessible to English-speaking readers was a volume of Tu Fu, and his augmented new translation forms the perfect companion to his book on the poetry, as Hinton takes us through “the mind of classical Chinese poetry” as it was manifested in the life and work of that one remarkable poet. In his Selected Poems of Tu Fu Hinton offers readers “a new approach to translation that has developed over the decades since I worked on that first book.” Awakened Cosmos takes us inside that new approach.


Tu Fu, as even a cursory reading of his poems shows, was a writer who reacted to serious challenges throughout his life by writing poetry that was at once personal and very much of the material world he inhabited, yet at the same time linking with an invisible world of profoundly philosophical dimensions, another level altogether.

Tu Fu (712-770) led a rather precarious life; he came from a line of ancestors who had imperial connections, but he was never rich, and he never occupied any significant government positions. Indeed, in spite of his formidable intellect, he failed the civil service examinations and had to rely on patronage appointments to keep a roof over his head and his family fed, as Tu Fu wryly puts it in “Hundred Worries Gathering Chant”, lamenting


and when I return home, everything’s the same as ever:
cupboards empty, old wife sharing the look on my face.


He moved around a lot and eventually became impoverished and homeless, caught up in the turmoil of civil and internecine strife. The hardships Tu Fu endured did not dull his poetic spirit, and he produced many of his best poems during the last years of his life: “When my spirits ebb away,” he wrote movingly in the final poem of Hinton’s selection,


I feel relieved,
And when grief comes, I let it come. I drift
shorelines of life, both sinking and floating,
occurrence now a perfect ruin of desertion.


My own introduction to Tu Fu came through a selection of his poems translated (1962) by Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who spent decades in China and became a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party, dying in Beijing at the age of ninety in 1987. In addition to other skills, Alley was a multi-genre writer, although he described himself as “not much of a poet” and admitted it sometimes took him days to get a poem by Tu Fu translated satisfactorily. Alley was attracted to Tu Fu’s work because of what he saw as its link with ordinary people and the poet’s social engagement with them and their lives.

For him, Tu Fu was important because he was a poet of understandable emotions, not because of any connections with abstruse philosophy. This is where David Hinton and Awakened Cosmos comes in, not that Alley’s translation is “inferior”—I don’t read Chinese and can’t judge that aspect—merely that as a translator he puts a different emphasis on what he believed Tu Fu was doing and had a different agenda. As Hinton writes, “A typical classical Chinese poem appears to be a plain-spoken utterance about a poet’s immediate experience,” and this is what appealed to a translator like Alley and his desire to make Tu Fu’s poems accessible to English-speaking readers as well as, one suspects, more acceptable to the cultural authorities in China and his own passionate commitment to communism. Hinton, however, moves beyond the literal meaning of the poems, their “apparent content”, and opens up a universe far beyond their emotional appeal, and that’s why anyone now reading Tu Fu should definitely keep a copy of Awakened Cosmos handy. We will then understand how Tu Fu was able to give us “a biography of the Cosmos awakened to itself in the form of a magisterial poet alive in T’ang Dynasty China.”

Hinton thus presents in Awakened Cosmos not just a life of Tu Fu as seen in a careful selection of his poems, but also shows readers how the poet himself becomes not just a representative of the Cosmos, but the very essence of it as it awakens in his person. “Poetry,” Hinton explains, “is the cosmos awakened to itself.” Tu Fu achieved this, Hinton explains, by drawing on his profound knowledge of Taoism and Zen, incorporating aspects of both these systems into “the untranslatable philosophical dimensions of the poem.” They may be untranslatable, but they can be unfolded and laid out through careful discussion based on the evidence found in the language of Tu Fu’s poems. Awakened Cosmos, Hinton says, “provides the necessary conceptual framework through which to more deeply read the full range of poems in the Selected Poems.


Hinton divides his book into nineteen chapters, each one dedicated to one poem written at a different stage of Tu Fu’s life, producing in the end a kind of poetical autobiography of the poet which he did not, of course, write himself, but in which every episode is authentically recorded by the poet himself. Each chapter has a heading drawn from the poem under examination, and Hinton then gives the poem in its Chinese original, with each character translated literally in superscript, then the completed translation, followed finally by an essay about the “untranslatable” aspects of the poem. What surprises most is the very complexity of the poems; they do indeed reflect personal events in Tu Fu’s life, but with Hinton’s guidance we can understand so much more. If an analogy is needed, here goes: one can, for example, John Donne’s secular poems, get a sense of how Donne deals with the physical and emotional aspects of love on an understandable basis. He uses ordinary (17th-century) language, but this is a deceptive cover for the “metaphysical” nature of the poetry. When made aware of Donne’s Catholic background, his interest in science or Neoplatonism and his propensity for punning and double entendre, another world opens up, and then we can look more intelligently at technical aspects such as his use of logical argument, religious imagery and legal terminology as that world unfolds. Similarly with Tu Fu, it’s not absolutely necessary to know something about Daoism, Confucianism or Zen, but when we do, the ordinary language which Tu Fu uses, will, like Donne’s, lead us into another, more profound dimension, which Hinton terms “untranslatable”.

An example, is Hinton’s translation of “Spring Landscape,” one of Tu Fu’s best-known poems and one which has “the most famous line in Chinese poetry,” namely the opening line


The country in ruins, rivers and mountains
continue. The city grows lush with spring.


Spring, which is green and lush, is depicted as overrunning the ruined city, but the fact that it does so, Hinton points out, is not a positive thing, but an indication of how “heartless” the Cosmos is to human suffering. It would be a mistake to see these lines as portending some kind of re-awakening or renewal, as an image of spring might suggest to a western reader. The blossoms and birds mentioned in the next lines don’t care either, but Tu Fu, even as he knows this, makes them lament human misery nonetheless, the human predicament in wartime and his own dire situation. And he ends with a whimsically funny picture of the narrator (himself, most likely), an elderly querulous man:


and worry’s thinned my hair to such white
confusion I can’t even keep this hairpin in.


Hinton explains this as the Cosmos itself laughing in the person of Tu Fu, who is laughing at the spectacle of himself worried, full of grief and unable to come up with a strong response. Might this be the Chinese equivalent of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm in the imagery of a poet like John Donne, not to mention the use of self-deprecating humour? t It certainly seems like it.


Hinton’s analysis of the poems often goes into much more detail than the above brief explanation suggests. He shows how Tu Fu’s studies in Daoism and Zen come through in the poetry, and how Tu Fu used his poetic talent to help him cope with the vicissitudes of his own personal odyssey. As Hinton notes in his introduction to The Selected Poems:


Tu included all aspects of experience… It is what we might call a rigorous realism, and in the Ch’an [Zen]/ Taoist framework, that realism is almost synonymous with enlightenment: consciousness as the awakened Cosmos open equally to creation and destruction, beauty and terror, joy and grief.


Hinton’s translations are lively, delicately-nuanced and elegant. Tu Fu is fortunate to have such a sensitive and loving translator. Read both these books together, and a new world will surely spring up—certainly you will probably never read a classical Chinese poem in quite the same way again! As Tu Fu says,


River flowing boundless poise— I sit still,
mind carried vast into its distances away.


That’s the way to read these poems.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.