Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review of "Sunflower Splendor" ed. by Liu Wuqi & Yucheng Lo

There are innumerable collections of Chinese poetry.  Some are collected by poet, e.g. Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Shi, Tao Yuanming, and the other greats.  There are some by dynasty, the Tang and the Song generally considered the best, though the Yuan and Ming also make a good showing.  And there are collections by theme, hermitry, friendship, transcendence, Daoism, etc.  Sunflower Splendor has a lot of all, making the anthology amongst the best yet published, and will be of particular interest to people who have read a fair amount of Chinese poetry already and are looking for atypical material from the Middle Kingdom.

Sunflower Splendor undoubtedly the work of many years, editors Liu Wuqi and Irving Yucheng Lo and the book’s roughly fifty contributors have collected among the best of what Chinese poetry has to offer.  From the early dynasties to the latter, the themes of water to parting, to a huge variety of poets, well-known to obscure, every facet of Chinese poetry seems packed in this collection.  But at 681 pages, it should come as no surprise.

Sunflower Splendor opens with an introduction in which Liu explains some of the choices regarding transliteration and the decision to elide some of the most famous poems as they are available in several if not many other collections.  The book is thereafter broken into chronological sections, from unrecorded ages to the present day.  Liu claims to have made a thorough survey of Chinese poetry, but considering the Tang dynasty alone produced nearly 50,000 poems, it would seem a monumental task, and more likely that the individual knowledge and specialties of the contributors were depended upon to produce such a variety.  As a result, the collection contains many, perhaps hundreds of poems which are not available in any existing collections, not to mention in English.  In this regard, the editors and contributors have done a superb service to the English speaking world by making what was obscure, accessible.  

A review of Sunflower Splendor would not be complete without a brief mention of the translation.  While I am far from fluent in Mandarin, I am aware of existing concerns regarding the translation methods of people such as Arthur Waley—a person whose works are included in the collection.  Speaking not a whit of Chinese himself, Waley worked with rough drafts created by a Chinese colleague, polishing the syntax and embellishing the text as he saw fit.  The result is poetry that has a far more Western feel, i.e. baroque and flowing, than Chinese, i.e. simplistic yet impacting.  While a substantial number of poems in this collection do not have this feel, many do.  Given the highly equivocal nature of Chinese poetry to begin with, strong variation in translation is to be expected.  I guess I simply prefer that which adheres closer to the efficiency of Chinese verse.  Other readers may not mind, or perhaps even prefer such a Westernized approach.

In the end, Sunflower Splendor is one of the greatest collections of Chinese poetry assembled for the English speaking world.  Translation quibbles aside (these will always exist with Chinese poetry, none satisfied save those who understand the native language), the selected verse runs the gamut of pre-recorded times to the present day, rendering the book representative of the history of Chinese poetry.  All of the well-known poets have a place, as do hundreds of poets which the West has never before read.  As mentioned, the book is not fully representative.  Many of the most famous poems are not included due to their wide availability in other collections.  

As such, Sunflower Splendor would be most suitable for readers who already have some knowledge of Chinese poetry and are looking for verse not included in the more standard collections.  As someone who has read anthologies related to Li Bai, Du Fu, Tao Yuanming, Ruan Ji, and others, not to mention several Tang, Song, and Yuan Dynasty collections, I found this book a breath of fresh air for all of the lesser known verse it contained.  A labor of love and gift to the English speaking world, the book is a must for anyone interested in Chinese poetry.

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