THE COLUMBIA BOOK OF CHINESE POETRY : From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. Translated and Edited by BURTON WATSON. 385 pp. (Translations from the Oriental Classics). New York : Columbia University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-231-05682-6 (hbk.)
Burton Watson has always struck me as an eminently civilized scholar and as a fine translator. Unlike certain others, he wears his scholarship lightly, and doesn't overburden the text with extraneous matter. His many translations from Chinese and Japanese Literature are of uniformly high quality, and are well worth having as they are books one often wants to returns to.
The present anthology has always been one of my favorite books. In contrast to the more recent mammoth anthologies of Victor Mair (1335 pages) and John Minford (1176 pages), Watson's, at a mere 385 pages, is a far more modest and manageable proposition.
Unlike the Mair and Minford, it can be held easily in the hand while reading, and it is printed in a large clear font on spacious pages in which the lines have room to breathe. Modest in size it is also modest in presentation. Selections are preceded by only the briefest of introductions, and footnotes have been kept to an absolute minimum.
In his brief but extremely well-written and informative Introduction, Watson tells us that : "The present anthology is intended to give a representative selection of Chinese poetry in the 'shih' form from the first two thousand years of China's long literary history ... as well as outstanding works in the 'fu' and 'tz'u' forms and a few other works such as the 'Li Sao' or 'Encountering Sorrow' that are unique in form" (p.13).
His book includes selections from 'The Book of Odes,' 'The Ch'u Tzu,' Early Songs, Poems in Rhyme-Prose Form, Poems of the Han and Wei, T'ao Yuan-ming, Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Han Yu, Po Chu-i, Han Shan, Su T'ung-po, Lu Yu, and much else besides.
Here, as an example of his superb style, is his translation of Liu Tsung-yuan's 'River Snow' (with my obliques added to indicate line breaks) :
"From a thousand hills, bird flights have vanished; / on ten thousand paths, human traces wiped out : / lone boat, an old man in straw cape and hat, / fishing alone in the cold river snow" (p.282).
The truth of Burton Watson's statement that the "Chinese poetic world is one that is remarkably easy to enter.... Even works that are many centuries removed from us in time come across with a freshness and immediacy that is often quite miraculous" (p.3) is very much in evidence here.
Anyone who would like to get a good idea of what Chinese poetry is all about, and to actually enjoy the experience of finding out, should certainly consider the present anthology. Anthologies such as those of Mair and Minford are all very well in their way and can serve as useful references, but they are hardly books that one can sit down and read with pleasure from beginning to end.
Watson's, however, is just such a book, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who would like to begin exploring some of the richest and most interesting poetry in the world.