Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Chinese Water: Yangzhou and the Red Bridge Autumn Ceremony

Our last weekend in Shanghai we caught a 330 kilometres an hour train to the city of Yangzhou, north west of Shanghai and across the vast Yang
tze River. The train station was big as a Heathrow terminal. Yang Lian upgraded our first class tickets to super first with just one word whispered in the conductor's ear, so we settled in the sleek, private, dragon-head of the train and got to work. George Szirtes and I had one hour to write our translations of the Qing Dynasty 'Poem for the Red Bridge Autumn Ceremony' by Wang Hang – a devil of a quatrain in strict classical form, with a flood of info stuffed into the first two lines and what boiled down to two very short last lines in English. The original has seven characters per line and a strict tonal rhyme scheme. We did not yet have the literal translation, so most of the hurtling of the train ride was taken up with Lian giving us his version of the gist. 

We would have one hour for 'polishing' in the hotel before going out to banquet with our hosts, then an early rise to read our efforts at the 9am ceremony.  I'm a dedicated free verser, so my failure to meet the challenge wasn't important, as long as I tried to produce something and made the gesture. 

Shortly after dawn, we settled into our gaudy gondola and set off across Slender West Lake, the subject of the poem, which is about its naming, and warmed our hands on porcelain mugs of hot green tea with cozy lids, as banks of willow, bamboo and lily grass slid past and a girl played the zither. Rainbow bridges and curly pavilion roofs with tiles like dragon scales came into view; the water was photogenic as it always is even though it's often not itself and famous here for reflecting a fairy moon. We disembarked on a dreamlike lawn where I imagined there might only be a small huddle of poets reciting to each other. People were gathering beyond the bonsai tubs, but surely nothing to do with us. 

Our hosts led us towards them and we stood in a line facing the crowd. Beautiful slender girls in purple costumes gave us sprigs of lily grass and scented red silk pouches to hold. Then a round table materialised decked with familiar glasses and I knew that a toast was imminent with the white liquor baijiu, which, thankfully, must be downed in one gulp. Perhaps the baijiu arrived after the readings – it's all a blur now – though I do remember that I had to read my attempt first, relieved that none of our hosts would understand it. Here it is, with some later amendments:

Poem for the Red Bridge Autumn Ceremony

The willow leaves trail to where lily grass yellows,
the fang of flying geese and arched bridge paint echoes.
Here in this crucible where the sun's molten gold flames
we should call our own haven Slender Western Lake.

And click here for George Szirtes' translation, in his blog. Later, he read his haunting sonnet 'Water', which begins "The hard beautiful rules of water..." and includes the magical line "That it shall arch its back in the sun". I read my poem 'What the Water Gave Me (VI)', which was translated into Chinese by both Lian and Kaiyu, so there was a distinct watery theme to our visit. As we only had a few of our poems translated during the fortnight, I heard George's 'Water' many times, that cat-like back-arching echoed by rainbow bridges. From our dragon-boat I spied waterfalls and wished we could stop to see them up close, though I suspected they were man-made.

Last time I was in China, in 2007, I flew from Shanghai to Beijing and from Beijing to Chengdu, and saw just how Shan-Shui China is with the almost continuous vistas of mountains, lakes and rivers that unfolded beneath my window. Yet the two mountains I climbed then – Huangshan (in Anhui Province) and Qingcheng (in Sichuan Province) – were both extremely wild and extremely tamed, with steps carved into every slope and sheer wall. On the summits of Huangshan there were otherworldly cloud- and mist-seas floating between the striated rock cliffs, there were also hordes of people squeezed onto the narrow paths of each jagged peak. Which reminds me of Victor Hugo's opening chapter to Notre Dame of Paris, where crowds surge along the streets, bridges and squares of medieval Paris like floodwater, as if humanity is alien as water and water is human as home.

 A lunar arch for viewing the Five Pavilions Bridge

 Many pleasure boats ply the Slender Western Lake

 Our dragon driven gondola

 A boat and a mirror-boat

 A crowd gathers behind the bonsai tubs for the Red Bridge Autumn Ceremony when Wang Hang's poem is recited and we add our translations

 Trailing willows like being behind a waterfall

 Is this tree painted or real?

Watery zither music on the boat

 These beautiful slender musicians were waiting for us in an upper room of one of the many stately homes we visited

 Portraits of poets with beautiful musicians, from left to right: George Szirtes; Zi Chuan, editor of Yangzte River Poetry Review and our host; Xiao Kaiyu; Tang Xiaodu eminent critic and poet from Beijing.

 Upstairs in the daughter's quarters of a stately home, light on the floor

 The daughter's bathtub, for light-bathing.

The Daughter's Bedroom

 These rocks are real but glued together. In another part of this garden there was a grotto retreat, complete with rock chaise longue, stone table, bookshelves and toilet!

 We cross the road back to our minibus

The evening ends with another banquet followed by calligraphy. Here is Xiao Kaiyu drawing the ceremonial poem on rice paper, watched by George and Clarissa.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Chinese Water: Jinze village near Shanghai, 2011

George Szirtes and Clarissa Upchurch on the water stage in 'The Big House', our mystery home for the night

Although I've just spent two weeks based in Shanghai, what I'll blog about first is the watery village of Jinze. Jinze (pronounced Gin Zeu– with long tone descending to rhyme with French 'peu') is about 80 miles from Shanghai but calm, rural and built around meanders of a river or a canal. Where exactly it is is still a mystery, as it was a late night mystery tour arranged by our gentle Chinese poet friend Xiao Kaiyu, to fill in the blank in our very sketchy 'programme'. Even Yang Lian doesn't know where it is, nor google, so it remains a dream of water, rain and rainbow bridges without sides that can be slipped on and over. I spent most of the journey trying to pronounce the name. 

We arrived at night, and I slept in a vast room with ensuite jacuzzi and power shower room and an ensuite loo with heated toilet seat that raised its lid on approach. I woke at 5am and worked on my translations at the large trestle table before the windows, while waiting for dawn. When I opened the curtains I found I was next to a wide waterway swirling past my huge, wood-filigreed window. It had rained all night and the water seemed almost under the floor, and I wondered what happened during floods. 

But it was a sunny day, so George Szirtes, Clarissa Upchurch and myself walked along the river/canal and over the numerous ancient arched bridges over it. At times the waterways forked. The complex we slept in was itself built between water, with water channels outside each door. We visited a Taoist temple and a Buddhist temple built around a 650 year old gingko tree strung with red lanterns. I think it was the first time I relaxed since I'd arrived in China, away from the cacophony of horns outside our Fudan University hotel.

After clambering over many bridges and ambling along narrow lanes of the village, and Yang Lian had lured George onto a dragon boat, we had lunch and were joined by Kaiyu, who whisked us away to what I thought was going to be a stroll in the vegetable gardens. And this is where the mystery tour became surreal, a Russian doll of surrealism was slowly opened behind the willow and bamboo paths. Hall after hall of exquisitely designed galleries were unlocked for us, their floorboards pastel shades of woods from the factories they had been reconstructed from. They contained antique furniture, craft objects, books, dolls, gourds, sedan chairs, wardrobes, puppets, emperors' beds, seals, and happiest of all – textiles. Heavily embossed silk robes for Buddhas, more 3D than embroidery. Locked in one endless hall were a mother and daughter of the Miao southwest China ethnic group, weaving their sumptuous cloth, silver in their hair. I'd come across them before on Qingcheng Mountain in Sichuan Province. Up more stairs to an attic where designer cloaks were being woven from silk organza and a raffia-like wool. Clarissa tried one on and it suited her perfectly.

We were led out onto terraces with views of the waterways and their bridges. Kaiyu pointed to a room where he comes to write and we were invited to return for a writing retreat, an invitation I almost took up, before I remembered how far it was from home, this land of water like woven silk, of silk like woven water, yellow gingko leaves strewn on the ground like confetti.

So back to the endless fifty-floor towers of Shanghai, via a visit to one of the founders of the Jinze Craft Museum, the quiet ex-artist Mr Hu, his champagne coloured poodles and talk of his friendship with Prince Charles and the royalty who have visited the Mystery for architectural design tips, before a dash for the rush-hour subway where we swayed with our luggage for hours before ascending at the Centre for the Oriental Arts, to another gift from Kaiyu – a concert by the fusion group Amrta, almost all women, and their spellbinding music. In my first row seat I waited and waited to hear the Erhu, a kind of two stringed fiddle, as it features in a poem of Kaiyu's I was translating, a powerful poem about his mother's ghost. I was not disappointed. It sounded hoarse, primeval and sad, and I can still hear it like the sound of water that has dried up.

 Entrance to my bedroom was over a little bridge over the water channel

 George Szirtes, Clarissa Upchurch and I, outside the breakfast room of 'The Big House'

 The slippery sideless bridge!

 A shrine to a village elder in the Taoist temple

 My favourite dragon

 650 year old gingko tree in Buddhist temple courtyard

cloud motif around dragon enclosure, gingko leaves inside

 Yang Lian and George in the 'dragon' boat steered by a woman

 Clarissa in the bridal sedan chair

 Hidden meanings in Chinese children's clothing and accessories etc

 3D embossed monster on Buddha cloak in museum

Miao mother and daughter weavers locked in museum hall

 The two large wood filigree windows on ground floor were where I slept, the jacuzzi bathroom at the end on the left.

 View of waterways from Jinze Craft Museum