Academic journal article Chicago Review

Some Notes on Transmigration (or, the Live Bird Decoy)

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Some Notes on Transmigration (or, the Live Bird Decoy)

Article excerpt


"I fly, my dust will be what I am."

--Hafez (via Borges)

T.S. Eliot makes two appearances in Qian Zhongshu's tragic-picaresque novel of modern, drifting literati, Fortress Besieged ([??][??] Wei Cheng), first published serially in a Chinese newspaper in the 1940s. Once in reference to a "neoclassical" poem "Adulterous Smorgasbord" written by Mr. Ts'ao, a poet with a "plump face as round as a T'ai-chi diagram," who cribs one of Eliot's--and several other writers'--phrases to create a jumbled fourteen-line poem without a hint of originality or meaning: "If the poem has any meaning, so much the worse for it," says Mr. Ts'ao to Miss T'ang. A few pages later, when discussing another such poem "on foreign loan," Mr. Ts'ao says: "Mr. Fang, if you read T.S. Eliot's poetry, you'd realize that every phrase in modern Western poetry has its source, but we never accuse those poets of plagiarism. Do we, Miss Su?" In both places Qian transliterates/translates Eliot's tri-syllabic surname into an ancient four-character proverb, [??][??][??][??] (Ai Li E De), which translates back into English as "Loves Profit Hates Morality."


When Qian turned one, his parents followed the custom of choosing a permanent name for him by placing some objects before him and seeing what he would grab. He reached for a book, and so he was called Zhongshu ([??][??]), "he who cherishes books." Indeed, as time passed Qian became one of the most awe-inspiring library cormorants ever to inhabit the earth, proficient and widely read in several languages, though he would never translate any books. Instead the essays of his epic four-volume work on Chinese philology and philosophy, [??][??][??] Guanzhui bian ("tube and awl collection"--alluding to the ancient saying "using a tube to scan the sky or an awl to measure the depth of the earth") are filled with thousands of literary fragments translated (or paraphrased in Chinese) from foreign sources, ancient and modern. This in addition to the thousands of Chinese works he refers to. Qian's Way in these essays, rooted in the "random notes" ([??][??] zha ji) style of traditional Chinese letters, is to "strike a connection" ([??][??] da tong)--"between Chinese literature and foreign literature ... between the various forms of traditional Chinese poetry and Chinese fiction"--in order to reveal new meanings through flashes of insight. Scholar and translator Ronald Egan writes in his impressive collection of Qian's "notes" Limited Views: "For over a thousand years the 'random notes' style has served as an alternative to the classical commentary and the formal essay. It has given writers the opportunity to record their reflections or scholarly insights free of any commitment to a full-scale classical exegesis or, for that matter, to any elaborate and rigorously consistent intellectual stance."

When Qian was nine, his father gave him another name, Mocun ([??][??]), "silence and keeping one's thoughts to oneself." Apparently Qian had become a voluble child, "regardless of propriety or possible offense." Some years later he and his wife along with thousands of other intellectuals would be arrested during the Cultural Revolution and sent to the countryside to become politically reeducated through manual labor and intense study of class struggle. Eight years after their release he would write: "For it was people like me who, although aware of the injustices being perpetrated on those around us, were too cowardly to take a stand and speak out against what was happening."

During his confinement, however, he would continue to take notes (from memory) for his epic study, and though he worked systematically, arranging the work as "commentaries" to the ten ancient classics, he did not create a systemized theory of anything. Writing on Lessing's Laocoon, he says: "If we examine the history of theories, what we find is that many of the most tightly constructed and comprehensive systems of thought and philosophy have not withstood the corrosion of time. …

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