Travels of a Culture: Chinese Poetry and the European Imagination1

By Yu, Pauline | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Travels of a Culture: Chinese Poetry and the European Imagination1


Yu, Pauline, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

THE TOPIC of classical Chinese poetry resonates in interesting ways with the time-honored mission of the American Philosophical Society. Like its Western lyric counterpart, Chinese poetry was regarded as an important means of individual self-expression, but it also served as "useful knowledge" and as an important index of a person's likely utility in the public sphere. For centuries at a time over the past millennium poetic composition was therefore tested on the most difficult civil service examination that would qualify scholars for the most prestigious career in premodern China, the government bureaucracy. And the early history of literary translation of poetry from Chinese into European languages raises equally fascinating questions about the production and transmission of knowledge that remain provocative today. Almost forgotten in that story, however, is the role played by a young Frenchwoman named Judith Gautier (1845-1917).

In 1867 Gautier published a volume of renditions of Chinese poetry into French entitled Le Livre de jade. It has gone through at least five subsequent editions or reprintings (most recently in 2004) and has been translated into numerous other languages-German, English, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Russian-not to speak of retranslations in French. Although opinions have varied significantly regarding the fidelity and quality of her translations, and, of course, about whether fidelity and quality have anything to do with one another, there is no question about the far-reaching influence they exerted. Indeed, for more than half a century her volume-described by Kenneth Rexroth as "that minor classic of French letters"-served, both directly and indirectly, as the general European public's primary access to Chinese poetry.2 That this can be said of a work produced by a twenty-two-year-old woman, a genuine amateur, constitutes a remarkable tale of literary influence.

For a partial explanation of this remarkable phenomenon we must seek not "la femme," but rather "le père." Judith Gautier was the daughter of the celebrated writer Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), who sat at the hub of mid-nineteenth-century French letters and has been singled out as the first in that milieu to develop an interest in things Chinese. His most significant contribution to shaping his daughter's future activities occurred in 1863, when he engaged a Chinese gentleman known as Ding Dunling ... (?1830-1886) as tutor for Judith and her younger sister, Estelle.3

Multiple stories accounting for Monsieur Ding's appearance in Paris circulated, but it is most likely that he had been brought to France to work on a French-Chinese dictionary and found himself suddenly without means when his patron died in 1862. Informed of Ding's predicament, Théophile Gautier initially offered to send him back to China, a proposition the refugee rejected as likely to lead to his certain execution-he had perhaps been implicated in the Taiping rebellion4-at which point the poet offered him employment. Both of his daughters studied with Ding for several years, with Judith, who was eighteen when they began, the more enthusiastic and diligent student of the two. Encouraged by her father to "unwind this yellow man and see what lies hidden in his mysterious brain,"5 no sooner had she begun to "stammer Chinese" (as a friend later recalled) than she determined to undertake "the most difficult task, the most impossible task, which made the most informed Sinologists flinch: the task of translating the untranslatable Chinese poets."6 The next four years were busy ones for both of them, with almost daily lessons and then frequent trips to the Bibliothèque Impériale to copy out texts from the Chinese manuscripts in its possession. And in 1867 Gautier's Book of Jade appeared, issued by the innovative publisher Alphonse Lemerre and dedicated to her tutor, "Tin-Tun-ling, Chinese poet. …

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