woensdag 26 december 2012

Pao Chao's cryptoforest

In about the year 459 Pao Chao wrote the "Wu-ch'eng fu", "rhapsody on a ruined city". The city is Kuang-Ling, modern day Yangchow, portrayed after its sacking. First it describes the city in its full splendour, then, after its fall ("divided like a melon, shared like beans") we are described scenes of the cryptoforested town. The Fu ends with the melancholy touch the western reader expect from Chinese poetry. The bit that interest me (coming from this PDF) is the portrayal of the city after nature has taken over. I think of this as a condensed version of Jefferies first chapter of After London.
Wet moss clings to the wells,
Wild vines entangle the paths.
The halls are arrayed with vipers and venomous beetles;
By the stairways deer and flying squirrels contend.
Wood sprites and mountain demons,
40 Field rats and wall foxes,
Howl in the wind, shriek in the rain,
Appear at dusk, flee at dawn.
Hungry hawks sharpen their beaks;
Winter kites hoot at young birds.
45 Crouching leopards, lurking tigers,
Suckle blood, sup on flesh.
Fallen thickets block the road;
Dark and desolate is the ancient highway.
White poplars early shed their leaves;
Wild grasses prematurely wither.
Bitter and biting is the frosty air;
Raging and roaring is the mighty wind.
A lone tumbleweed rolls by itself;
Blown sand flies of its own accord.
Dense bushes darkly stretch without end;
Thick copses wildly join one to another.
The surrounding moat already had been levelled;
The lofty turrets too have fallen.
Looking straight ahead for a thousand leagues and beyond,
All one sees is yellow dust rising.
There is another translation by Chen and Bullock that I find more to my taste because it names species and seems more ecological precise.
Duckweed flourishes in the wells
And brambles block the road.
Skunks and snakes dwell on sacred altars
While muskdeer and squirrels quarrel on marble steps.
In rain and wind,
Wood elves, mountain ghosts,
Wild rats and foxes
   Yawp and scream from dusk to dawn
Hungry hawks clash their beaks 
As cold owls frighten the chicks in their nests.
Tigers and leopards hide and wait
   for a draught of blood
   and a feast of flesh
Fallen tree-trunks lie lifelessly across
Those once busy highways.
Aspens have long ceased to rustle 
And grass dies yellow
In this harsh frosty air
Which grows into a cruelly cold wind.
A solitary reed shakes and twists,
And grains of sand, like startled birds,
   are looking for a safe place to settle.
Bushes and creepers, confused and tangled,
   seem to know no boundaries.
They pull down walls
And fill up moats.
And beyond a thousand miles
Only brown dust flies.

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