Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Edward C. Chang)

Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Wu Li)

Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Richard Edwards)

Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Red Pine)

Reviewed by Anne Lu

[Review Guidelines]

American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger begins his 1987 study, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by defining poetry as "that which is worth translating." The irony is that some of the greatest poetry seems determined to not be translatable, yet perhaps it is because of this enigmatic contrariness that it is perpetually "insinuating itself in the minds of readers, demanding understanding...provoking thought." Certainly, Wang Wei's four-line poem "Lu Zhai," the subject of Weinberger's close reading, has stayed alive and inspired never-ending attempts at translation. Yet the vast majority of great Chinese poetry has not enjoyed international immortality. One such poem is "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," by the great Song dynasty poet Lin Bu. Describing plum blossoms in a mountain garden, the poem is known in Chinese poetry for making the flower the archetypal symbol of beauty and the recluse. Curiously, however, there seem to be only four published English translations of this famous Chinese poem—but as 19 Ways has shown us, more attempts do not always translate to better understanding. Let us try to understand this ancient poem and the difficulties facing the brave few who have tried to transform it—first, however, let us approach the poem in its original form:






     "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei" is only 56 characters long, broken into four lines of two phrases each. The phrases are distinct, but related thoughts, which together form a complete idea in each line. Like most classical Chinese poems, the original text is deceptively concise and self-contained. A word-by-word translation, however, immediately provides a sense of its true complexity:

Mountain      Land with Plants     



Plum (Tree)
1 Many fragrant

to shake

to rock

to fall

to drop







to possess     

to occupy 

to the greatest extent     

to the extreme



                        amorous feelings












across slanting water










to float



                        to float and drift      










                 snow crane(s)     





first steal glance,




butterfly(ies) if to know should




               joy or sorrow



4 Fortunate to have





can with

to appreciate.        

to enjoy

to be intimate with

to get close to

4.5 (Negative) need sandalwood clappers together      gold goblet.

     Each character takes up so much space in even this most straightforward English translation that it is impossible to keep the original lineation, thus the translated lines are numbered so that line 1.5 refers to the second half of the first line in the original. Alternate meanings of a word are given directly underneath the primary translation. Sometimes, the combination of two characters produces a meaning that is more than, yet associated with, the definitions of each individual character. The primary individual definitions are given first to preserve the sense of seven characters per half-line, but the combined connotation that a Chinese reader would understand is placed underneath and in between the translations of the two characters in question. Thus, in line 1.5, the characters for wind and direction can be taken together to mean the general bearing of the garden or the pleasant feelings within it. Similarly, in line 3, "frost bird(s)" could possibly be a metaphor for any white-feathered bird, but due to Lin Bu's reputation as a mountain recluse, this poem became the basis for a literary trope and proverb, literally "(one with) plum blossoms for a wife and cranes for children." "Frost birds" is thus understood to mean snow cranes in the general Chinese literature (Di 1). Now that we are somewhat acquainted with the poem, let us examine the three and a half translations available to us, beginning with the earliest:

How Plum Flowers Embarrass a Garden

When everything has faded they alone shine forth 
encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens 
their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water 
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk 
snowbirds look again before they land 
butterflies would faint if they but knew 
thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse 
I don't need a sounding board or winecup

—Red Pine (Bill Porter), 2003

     Although this is a pretty poem, as a translation, some moments are fanciful or simply inaccurate. The title is baffling; the original connotes the fresh solitude of a mountain garden, in which a little plum tree simply exists in its subtle beauty. To imply that the plum flowers embarrass the garden is to annihilate the simple being of its beauty and to awkwardly anthropomorphize the intensely contained, almost stoical, scene. The central solitude of the mountain is completely absent; Red Pine's plum tree could very well be in a perfectly cultivated imperial garden, regularly trimmed for the enjoyment of equally domesticated concubines. It is important to note that "yuan" does not necessarily connote the domesticated and cultivated "garden." In the original title, the context of the mountain that the "yuan" is more removed and serene than the typical household or palace garden.
     Contrary to the over-specificity of the title, the first line over-generalizes the imagery of the original, in which only the warm beauty of the plum blossoms shines forth amongst the many falling fragrances. Red Pine's line seems flat and ordinary in comparison. Crucially, Red Pine implies that everything has already faded, whereas the ambiguity of Chinese tense could suggest that the gentle rocking of a breeze through trees perpetually breaks the delicate connection between blossom and branch, causing many blossoms to have fallen, fall, and continue to fall. The misplaced personification and imagined agency continue as the plum "encroaches on," rather than simply "possesses" or "occupies." While "smaller gardens" is technically possible, in context, it is much more likely that Lin Bu is describing only one garden, and why would there be multiple small gardens on an empty mountain?
     The following two lines mostly capture the feel of the original, except that syntactically, "light" in the original refers to the water, not the "scattered shadows." It does not make sense for shadows to fall lightly on anything since they cannot exactly fall heavily. Red Pine seems to have read the character "qing," mean light-colored or clear, twice, while omitting the character "qian," meaning shallow. Thus, he includes both "light" and "clear," both of which originally referred to the water. The contrast between the clear, shallow water and the hazy dusk is weakened, if not lost, in this translation. It is not evident why he decides to translate "stealing a glance" as "look again," and there is nothing in the original about snowbirds landing. Probably this was an attempt to explain or embellish the original, but if we take "frost birds" to mean cranes, it becomes quite evident why Lin Bu chose not to write about cranes landing, or indeed flying, anywhere near the delicate plum blossoms.
     In the next line, the description of beauty so enrapturing it should—implying obligation and probability, not the flat inevitability of would—rend the soul of butterflies becomes a vaguely melodramatic fainting episode. Soon, Red Pine runs into the subject-pronoun problem that haunts translators of Chinese: Chinese often does not require an explicit subject, while most Western languages do not make sense without the individual consciousness. Red Pine's creation of an "I" in the concluding lines is thus an understandable impulse, but it destroys the universality and objectivity of the original. He has chosen to interpret "tiny/slight" to mean tiny volume, whereas other translators have understood the "tiny/slight" to refer to the poem itself. More important is the diction of "flirt" rather than the more general and literary "appreciate" or "get close to." The Chinese syntax implies either that the speaker, or universal beholder, can appreciate or become intimate with the poetry, or that the poetry helps them appreciate or become intimate with the blossoms. The former would mean that, like the butterflies, the speaker—for lack of a more general term—is unable to fully appreciate or know the blossoms' ethereal beauty, and thus must resort to more humble poetry. But because of the beauty of their surroundings, or perhaps of the poetry, they do not need music or wine to enhance the experience. Red Pine's translation unfortunately eliminates this first possibility, as the "verse" becomes simply an instrument, not an object. The latter interpretation, on the other hand, would suggest that only through poetry, and not through wine or music, can the speaker fully appreciate the blossoms. As suggested by the alternate translation of "close," the Chinese character for "intimate" is unlikely to mean the romantic intimacy implied by Red Pine's "flirt." Rather, it more likely suggests a drawing together of the speaker and the blossoms to allow the speaker to appreciate beauty. Red Pine's interpretation instead conjures the image of a poet flirtatiously whispering love songs to a tree.
     Fortunately, other verses later appeared to help us better appreciate the poem:

The Small Plum Tree in My Garden on the Hill

The plum tree is the only one in blossom after all other flowers have fallen.
So lovely, it is now the center of attention and affection in this small garden.
Its sparse shadows, in irregular pattern, float on the water so shallow and clear.
The faint fragrance at dusk can be felt as the bright moon begins to appear.
A bird, in the chill, peeps at the blossoms before it flies down to the twig.
If butterflies were around, they would definitely be fascinated by it.
I am fortunate enough to stand nearby chanting a few poetic lines.
I need neither clappers nor a wine jar to harmonize my rhymes.

—Edward C. Chang, 2009

     Unfortunately, this translation becomes more pedantic than poetic. It attempts to recreate the rhythm and rhyme that are so inevitable in the Chinese, but which sacrifice the translation's flow and conciseness. It generally reads like a Chinese teacher attempting to explain the intricate poetry in prose, albeit strangely rhyming, to Anglophone students. Where Chang misinterprets an image, his attempts to explain only aggravate the problems. Like Red Pine, Chang encounters the relentless subject-pronoun problem, but instead of minimizing it, he emphasizes it by specifying that this is "my garden," and makes the image even more domesticated by turning the mountain into a hill. His bird—a specific individual—is presumably small and light like Red Pine's "snowbirds," but Chang is so considerate as to also create a twig for it to fly down to. Or perhaps the twig is simply there to almost-rhyme with the following line's weakly ambiguous "it." Does "it" mean the tree, the twig, or the bird? The original has many moments of beautiful ambiguity, but this is not quite so. Chang further simplifies the problem of "close" or "appreciate" by saying, "I...stand nearby." While the words seem to vaguely match up with possible meanings of words that also happen to be in the original, the meaning is completely distorted. Finally, who ever heard of using a wine jar to harmonize rhymes?
     Perhaps the most accurate translation is the most recent:

Small Plum in a Mountain Garden

Among withered flowers plum trees brightly bloom,
Dominating garden with beauty unsurpassed;

In clear and shallow water sparse branches loom,
Floating in moonlit air with delicate fragrance;

Eager are the winter birds who come to look,
Spring butterflies they must equally enchant;

To enjoy such beauty writing these few lines I have luck,
Want of wine and song these blooms supplant.

—Wu Li, 2017

     The title is the best we have seen, perhaps because it is the simplest. It is still odd, however, to refer only to a "small plum" when the poem is clearly about the blossoms or at least the tree. The character for "plum" could easily mean "plum blossom" or "plum tree" in ordinary use and this is even more plausible in condensed literary Chinese, where one character is often understood to represent the meaning of several. The first couplet takes some liberties with wording, but the meaning is generally conveyed in an appropriately simple and concise tone. The couplets are a good compromise between the unavoidable wordiness of the English and the original form of four distinct pairs of related thoughts. It is unclear why "sparse branches" ominously "loom" in the second couplet, but if we think about it, branches appearing in the water as shadowy forms—a definition of "loom"—imaginatively conveys the main idea. Oddly, the branches, not the fragrance, float in the "moonlit air," which, like in the previous translations, does not quite evoke the dusky haze that so beautifully contrasts with the limpid water. Despite these lapses, however, the ephemeral delicacy of this serene beauty comes through. Wu Li avoids any clumsy explanation or embellishment of the third couplet, and while the fourth couplet is syntactically awkward, his interpretation is perhaps the only one that is consistent with at least one of the original's many possibilities.
     Yet perhaps it is art historian Richard Edwards who comes closest so far to capturing the spirit of the poem:

Small Plum in a Mountain Garden

Spare shadows crossing, slanting
            waters clear and shoal
Hidden fragrance floating, drifting
            moon yellow and dim

—Richard Edwards, 2011

     Although only partial, this translation does not feel the need to assign every idea the subjects, objects, verbs, tenses, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions that English grammar demands. Instead, it is impressionistic in its broad splashes of imagery. Indeed, as can perhaps be gleaned from the word-by-word translation, Chinese poets do not feel the same constraint as do their English translators to link every word to the next with easily followable syntax. In all previous translations, then, the translator was simultaneously presenting and explaining every word and how it relates to those around it, assuming that this was necessary for it to make sense in English. What they missed was that just as Chinese prose can be logical and syntactically obvious, English poetry can demand leaps of imagination and instinctual acceptance of image. Perhaps the central problem was that translators were attempting to transform Chinese poetry into English prose, resulting in misguided precision at times, confused vagueness at others, and crippled musicality in perpetuity. Like with "Lu Zhai," we are left with just a taste of the beauty of "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," with no translation quite allowing us to fully appreciate or know it. Yet just as poetry relieves the speaker in their unattainable yearning, perhaps this tantalizing frustration will keep this poem alive for many translations and transformations to come.