Rural living of an old man who does as he pleases

by Donald Richie

Late Poems Of Lu You, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: New Translations by Burton Watson. Burlington, Ontario: Ahadada Books, 2007, 74 pp., $12, ¥2,000 (paper)

Lu You (Yu) (1125-1210), often referred to by his literary name of Lu Fangweng (“The Old Man Who Does as He Pleases”), is one of China’s most famous poets.

He was also one of the most prolific and is said to have penned over 10,000 poems. Thematically these can be grouped into those concerned with active politics and those reflecting the passive acceptance of exile.

Politically he wanted the return of his homeland. Manchurians had taken it over and forced the Chinese court of the Song capital to move south. His earlier poems express a patriotic ardor, his dreaming of the day when Chinese forces march back and conquer. The later poems are about the rural life in the area near Shaoxing where he lived out the rest of his life.

The poems in this collection of new translations all belong to the latter category and celebrate the privations and pleasures of the rural life. Here is an example, a 1204 poem:

Done drinking my New Year’s wine,
truly now an eighty-year-old man,
Used to worry outspokenness would be my death,
now content just to be poor and write poems.
Rice cheap — that means no thieves this year;
cloudy skies foretell another good harvest.
Something in the food bowl — what other cares?
Smiling, happy, I tag along with the young boys.

Also included in this selection are excerpts from the 1170 travel journals known as “The Diary of a Trip to Shu.” It is filled with observations and anecdotes, such as that about the venerable stone upon which a notable ancient is supposed to have sat. The actual stone had long before disappeared and the attendant monks had more than once replaced it.

When visitors pat the stone and give great meaningful sighs, the monks and novices are often to be seen laughing behind their hands.

The translations are by the pre-eminent Burton Watson, who also gave us Lu You translations in “The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry,” and in the 1994 collection “The Old Man Who Does as He Pleases.” The present translation, however, are indeed all new and do not duplicate any in the prior collections. A longer selection of excerpts from the diary is, however, included in the 1994 collection.

The English translation and the original Chinese text are given on facing pages in this well-designed small volume so that those who know both languages can enjoy the felicities of Watson’s work.

As he says in his preface: “In my translations of poems in regulated verse form, I have taken pains to preserve the verbal parallelisms, since the skill with which Lu You fashioned these is one of the aspects most highly admired in his poetry.”

This book is available at Small Press Distribution. See Web site: http:www.spdbooks.org or imcbook.net