A Poem of Meng Haoran in the Hoiping (Kaiping) Dialect
We with roots from the early Chinese in Canada prefer to call ourselves “People of the Tang” (唐人) rather than the more ubiquitous moniker “People of the Middle Kingdom” (中國人). In other words, in the Hoiping dialect, we prefer to call ourselves Hong Ngen (唐人, in mandarin Tang Ren) instead of the more common term Zung Gog Ngen (中國人, Zhongguo Ren).
During my search to find out why the early Chinese in Canada refer to themselves as descendants from the Tang Dynasty (唐朝), I discover to my amazement that the traditional Chinese mind tends to be more literary rather than scientific. It’s a surprise to me because growing up in Canada, the Chinese are often pigeon holed as hard working but not necessarily creative, and as good with numbers but not with words. Throughout all my life, I encounter the stereotype of the Chinese as science nerd more often than as artist or poet. The Chinese themselves may be to blame as much as the Western media for putting the Chinese into these stereotypes. My father and his generation often steer us in the direction of a career in a practical field such as the hard sciences or finances.
It is during the Tang Dynasty (618 BC – 907 BC) that poetry flourished and infused every walk of life in China. Many Chinese readers who read poetry today would consider the Tang poets to be at the height of Chinese poetry. People from all walks of life during the Tang period composed poetry for all sorts of occasions and themes, including love, nature, sorrow and friendship. Perhaps what is even more astonishing to me is the thread of a hermit theme that runs through some of the Tang poetry, exhibiting a desire to escape from the hustle and bustle of urban society and live a quiet and anonymous life of solitude in the countryside, with only the occasional jaunt outside to renew old friendships.
A fine example of one of these hermit poets was Mang Ho Ngin (孟浩然 in mandarin, Meng Haoran). You might say he began life anew as a forty year old slacker. Early on, he had worked in hack jobs in the civil service. At around age 39, Meng was summoned to the capital of Chang’an (長安) by a retired minister to take the exam for the highest degree in the imperial civil service. This exam was the gateway to a high-level official position in the government and a stepping stone to the usual accruements of advancement: higher pay, prestige and property. Most Chinese would avail themselves of such an opportunity, even those who considered themselves poets would jump at the chance of a rise in their social and career status. Instead of making the best of the opportunity, Meng promptly failed the exam and simultaneously peeved off the reigning emperor. Not retreating with his tail between his legs, instead, he jumped at the opportunity to return to his ancestral home and embrace the hermit life. Possessing a keen sense of history, he built a hermitage on the same plot of land where another recluse had lived four centuries earlier.
Below is one of Meng Haoran’s poems in Chinese entitled “Spring Dawn,” followed next by its transliteration in Hoiping (Kaiping) phonetics, and finally my draft translation in English.
Cun min vud gog hiu,
Cui cui mun hai niu.
Yie loi fung yi sen,
Fa log ji u seu?
(I leave out the accent markers in the above transliteration.)
Spring sleep unconscious of dawn,
Hear birds chirp everywhere.
Sound of wind rain in the night,
How many flowers dropped?
(See Poems of the Master by Red Pine for another translation of the above poem.)