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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two Bagfuls

October 21, 2011

In the beginning, when man was set forth into the world, God gave him two bags. One large one containing all his faults and the smaller one containing the faults of his neighbours. Man then set forth into the world with the larger bag swung behind his bag while the smaller one in front of him. Thus, Man is quick to spot the faults of others but none of his own. 

As my Pan Pacific flight is over twelve hours, I had way too much time to kill. Instead of twiddling my fingers in utter boredom, I decided to watch the complimentary on demand movies that Cathay Pacific Airlines provide. I was pleasantly surprised that there were many movies that I had not seen before. For example, “The Green Lantern”. When I flipped the channel to the Asian Channels, there were two versions of “A Chinese Ghost Story”. One made in 2011 and another one in 1987 by Tsui Hark. This story came from a Ch’ing Dynasty book on horror and fantasy – “Stories From A Chinese Studio” (聊齋). This is the standard translation given by Herbert Giles, the eminent sinologist who co-developed the Wade-Giles system of Chinese transliteration into English. A literal translation of this book can be “Causal Mutterings In A Chinese Studio”.

The literal title of this movie is “The Ethereal Spirit of A Beauty” (倩女幽魂) but for marketing purposes, “A Chinese Ghost Story” is to lure in the non-Chinese audience. However, there’s even an older version also produced in Hong Kong by the Shaw Brothers in 1960. Here the English title is “The Enchanting Shadow”. Since I had seen it on Youtube including the animation version which I own on a DVD, I decided to watch them as well. The main plot remained the same but of course under different directors, different sort of excitement and action packed scenes can be expected. The oldest version was part musical with less action scenes. Whatever the entertainment value was vogue for the particular period, what interested me most is the commonality in all these life action versions - the same recurring theme of this painting scroll depicting two mandarin ducks nestling under some lotus leaves.

Mandarin ducks are symbols of romantic love in Chinese culture. This painting though beautifully painted by the heroine before she died, it was incomplete for there was no accompanying poem. After becoming a ghost and having met the hero, they fell in love. The painting was then completed by having an appropriate poem written by the hero, who still did not realize her true nature. This is how Classical Chinese alludes tastefully to the aftermath of some carnal action. Nowadays no one would blink their eyes in shock if the actual scene was blaring from the screen describing every moan and groan! Anyway without giving the plot of the movie too much, the poem of the 1960 movie version is,

十里平湖绿满天, Ten miles, a calm lake and greenery everywhere.
玉簪暗暗惜华年. The jade clasp secretly in love with the youth.
若得雨盖能相护, Only if under the cover of rain, they can care for each other,
只羡鸳鸯不羡仙. Envy not those from the fairy realm but for these mandarin ducks.

Some explanation, the jade clasp represents the lady and the last line alludes that in heaven, there is a law forbidding all its denizens to have carnal love. In flouting this law, they may be banished to the earth to live out a mortal’s life to self realize that how fleeting and how futile romantic love is. But as one in love, such one would think otherwise.
In the 1987 Tsui Hark’s version, it was changed to,

十里平湖霜满天,Ten miles, a calm lake and snow flurries fill the sky.
寸寸青丝愁華年。Every inch of her locks forlorn for his youth.
对月形单望相顧,In loneliness, I look caringly at the moon,
只羡鴛鴦不羡仙。Envy not those from the fairy realm but for these mandarin ducks.
Correcting and criticizing work of others are so much easier than composing on your own. So with my smaller bag that I am carrying in front of me, I shall attempt one with my feeble hand with the movie theme and the painting in mind.

十里芳亭烟雨霧, Ten miles away, the Fragrant Pavilion is enshrouded in misty rain.
三宵玉簪戲年華. For three nights the jade clasp toyed with youth.
葉下鴛鴦不知怕, Under the leaves, the mandarin ducks knew no fear,
相擁傲笑天上霞. Nestled in togetherness, laughing at Heaven’s colored clouds.

Line one: I changed the scenery from a frosty day in winter or the greenery day in spring to a non-descript misty day. In the movie, the hero and the female ghost had romantic trysts for a few days. The phrase, “rain and mist” is a euphemism for such interludes. For those who well versed in Classical Chinese erotic novels such as the “The Golden Plum Vase” will know what a fragrant pavilion is being referred to.

Line two: Following the movie plot, they were together for a few nights and the ghost was “toying” with him to ascertain whether he was of good character or not.

Line three: In accordance to the theme of the painting, it is appropriate to add “knew no fear” as the two mandarin ducks nestled together in the perceived safety under the lotus leaves. At first, I thought of using “風不怕”, “fearing not the wind” but I thought it would be too specific and the tone of the wind doesn’t seem to be quite right at the place where it appears in the poem.

Line four: It is conceivable that when those are in love, they are confident in overcoming all obstacles and at the same time smugly knowing how lucky that they are. Here I used colored clouds to allude to immortals. When they travel, auspicious looking colored clouds appear under their feet.

Even those do not know Chinese literature, may have a good guess at what is happening under the surface from the way the English translation is hinting at. After much research, I found that even these versions are derived from an even earlier source,

白衣卿相《别思》Officials In White (On Parting)

十里長亭霜满天,Ten miles, a calm lake and snow flurries fill the sky.
青絲白髮度何年?Black is my hair, will they be white when you return?
今生無悔今生錯,Regret not of this life for all its wrong,
來世有缘来世遷。Continue on in the next life if we have the chance.
笑靨如花堪繢綣,Once our laugh lines are like flowers of the colored banners.
容颜似水怎緾綿?How can our faces now be flowing waters with no endearment?
情濃渺恰相思淡,Deep affections vague and our thoughts indifferent,
自在蓬山舞復躚。But let us return to the Immortals for a leisure walk or dance.

White clothed means clothing of commoners. Officials in white is a euphemism for high officials coming from humble backgrounds. In the Sung period, it also meant that those who are talented but did not attain official status. Just because their poetry became the rage of their time, they are invited to parties of officials as honoured guests, something akin to today’s invitation of Lady Gaga to your party!

Now I don’t feel too guilty in stealing someone’s poetry. I am in good company! As they say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.

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