Mount General, Nanjing, China
A Trip to Mount General in Late Winter
—To Yang Yishu and Xia Yeqing
Maybe the mountains and plains make arrangements. Or
maybe the wrong road has something to do with you, a hare
runs away rubbing the bark, a monk’s grave stops you, bids
you to think how all day the mountain stones, all in your
path is beautiful.
The more the trees are tall and straight, the more you feel
yourself useless. You were once so docile and knowing
and yet you find yourself unstable before the mountain.
If you can turn around, it will prove that you are still calm.
Winter is over. In the soil are the buried greetings poised
to germinate. In the bamboo grove where you can almost
forget who you are – if you are steadfast as the plum blossoms
that hold on to early spring, then you can forget yourself –
persist ingenious, just as water flows beneath ice.
by Huang Fan, translated by Lei Yanni and Eileen Pun
Here, nature is immersed in human actions and human thoughts, as with most of Huang Fan’s poems. Whilst Huang Fan does not deliberately write poems of environmental advocacy, he does relate human motivations and activity to the larger force of nature. Climate and Climate Change is an inseparable part of nature. In this poem there are a number of details such as time and place, landscape and season which combine organically with other classic images of mountains, woods, roads or animals such as the hare. In this way, nature is presented in a panorama, just like in a traditional Chinese painting.
The speaker of the poem is in the second person “you”, to combine human thought and human action. This speaker is thinking about his synchronic relationship with nature and his diachronic relationship with human history. When immersed in vast and mysterious space and time, a person can “forget” his or her self. In other words, the poetic aspiration of unity between man and nature is expressed in the recognition of oneself or human ambitions as “useless”. Such themes follow a traditional and popular philosophy that can be traced through centuries of Chinese art. In the last stanza, the bamboo and plum are two of the four typical plant images in classic Chinese poetry and paintings. (The other two images are the orchid and chrysanthemum.) They all symbolise a lofty, proud and perseverant spirit. In this sense, Huang Fan’s poems are very representative of quintessential Chinese ideas and images.
At the same time, Fan includes the modern consciousness of contemporary China in his poetry through his imagery and style. China has undergone many dramatic changes over the last decades. Such violent changes are embodied and reflected in Fan’s works in a new and modern form. For example, the poem is written in free verse, which is quite different from traditional forms with strict rhyme and rhythm. Also, the “you” in the poem reads as a stream of consciousness monologue to the self, reflecting upon the speaker’s relationship with the climate or the environment.
The explicit reference to the season, winter at the point of change, appears both in the title and the first line of the last stanza: “Winter is over. In the soil are the buried greetings poised/ to germinate”. This reminds the reader of T. S. Eliot’s beginning of ‘The Waste Land’:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
And it also reminds the reader of William Carlos Williams’s similar lines in ‘Spring and All’: “…rooted, they/ grip down and begin to awaken”. Thus the poem has a certain connection with modernist English poetry. Fan’s recognition of spring also connects with the universal quality of poetry that registers meaning when changes take place.
All these various aspects of the poem bridge the components of Chinese nature writing, from a profound respect of nature to a subtle reflection on problems created by humans. In the first stanza, “Maybe the mountains and plains make arrangements” suggests the bigger actors, such as the field and mountain, have the greatest influence. Man is only part of nature and a tiny element in the whole universe. The line which follows, “Or/ maybe the wrong road has something to do with you” asks an important question about human culpability. This simple internal query can be applied to the many areas of questionable human activity, whether it is war against each other, or war against the earth.
If the reader knows something about the history of Mount General in Nanjing, then the reference carries more weight and can be felt in the poem. (Huang Fan in his audio recording elaborates further, see the translation below of his introduction.) History is hidden in nature. In the unity of man and nature, man rediscovers history and is reconciled. This again reminds the reader of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ in Four Quartets:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
In A Trip to Mount General in Late Winter, the “you” of this poem is walking on the mountain, and also walking in the river of time and long history. The water beneath the ice, just like time, flows persistently and permanently.
Several years ago Huang Fan wrote in a letter to me about his poetry: “I pursue clarity and accuracy of images. I want to express human experiences and philosophical meaning through the images. In general, my poetry is full of containment. In recovering classic Chinese poetic images, through elegy, I also try to express the modernity and the modern consciousness of contemporary China. The reality of China torn by various problems is subtly refracted in the melancholy, reflection, sorrow, nihilism, sighing and reminiscence in the individual life space.” This poem can fully echo Huang Fan’s own comments on his poetry.
A recording of Huang Fan reading “A Trip to Mount General in Late Winter” as well as the English translation read by co-translator Eileen Pun can be found in our earlier blog about International Poets in Magma 72 at StAnza 2019. An introduction and commentary about the poem is recorded by Huang Fan in Chinese along with a written translation in English, below.
Huang Fan’s reading of the poem:
Eileen Pun reads the poem in English, in a translation by Dr Lei Yanni and Eileen herself:
Huang Fan introduces his poem “A Trip to Mount General in Late Winter”
Mount General is considered to be an equivalent to “Jiuzhai Gou Valley” (a famous scenic spot in Sichuan province in China) in Nanjing. It is very beautiful. I presented this poem to two of my friends: the documentary film director Yang Yishu, and the writer Xia Yeqing. We Chinese, in late winter or early spring, have a habit of making an outing in the country. Mount General is very special. It is the place where the famous general Yue Fei between the North and South Song dynasty (more than 900 years ago) defeated the enemy Jin nationality Dynasty or Nation from the north (which was then an independent country, the translator adds). Thus it is called “Mount General”. So you can imagine, buried under the mountain is the whole history of the South Song Dynasty resisting the northern invader Jin. History in this place creates a tension. It implies resistance, conflicts and rebellion. However, on the day we went to Mount General, what we feel is peace, quietness, comfort and leisure. Suddenly, the tension and conflicts in history are deconstructed or dispelled by the greatness of nature. In the face of nature, man is not worthy of mention and has little influence.
Suddenly, at this moment, I feel the tension in history (which includes the environment) is caused by our own culture. It depends on the extent of the tolerance of the culture. For example, the notion of nation and country will disappear some day in the future. Nation or country is only a temporal phenomenon. We should have this vision and understand it. From the Song Dynasty until now, the territory of China has changed a lot. Just as the former Jin territory is now included in China, I am sure China, Britain and other countries will belong to the community of the earth.
On our outing that day, we felt the harmonious atmosphere and beauty of nature and from this perspective, these qualities are exactly what is lacking in our history and culture. In the poem, I specifically write about “a monk’s grave”, I did not write about the corpses of generals and soldiers. The monk implies Buddhism which also implies strong tolerance. We have a saying: drop down your cleaver and you can become a Buddha. Nature gives us a push toward peace and it drives us to forget ourselves. Nature makes us realise that we are only part of nature. We should give nature more respect. We should be peaceful and harmonious like nature. This is what nature teaches us.
The outing to Mount General also reminded me of a return to ancient China’s hermit culture (which underlies the Taoist pursuit). On the mountain where a hermit may indulge himself, all of the world has become again harmonious, natural and no longer contains conflicts. However to return to secular society is a return to history, and the tensions can be felt once more. So I think our human beings should remove tension and conflicts and take nature as a teacher. We should develop in this direction. The poem was composed with these thoughts and attitudes.
About Huang Fan: Born in 1963 Gansu, China, is associate professor at Nanjing University of Science where he teaches literary and art courses. “A Trip to Mount General in Late Winter—To Yang Yishu and Xia Yeqing” was first published in the collection Elegy on Nanjing by Niang Press in Taibei, Taiwan in 2013. Huang Fan is a widely known poet and novelist. Some of his works have been translated into English, German, Italian, Greek, Korean and French. A selection of his poetry is currently being translated into English by Lei Yanni and Eileen Pun.
About Dr. Lei Yanni: Born 1972 in Hubei, China, is associate professor at Sun Yat-sen University and editing board member of EPSIANS, the international academic journal on English poetry. She writes and translates poetry in Chinese and English. Her research interests include English poetry and poetics, studies on feminism and post-colonialism and studies on English novels. She has been recognised as a visiting scholar at the University of Edinburgh (UK), the University of Cambridge (UK) and most recently the University of Pennsylvania (US).