01 May 2015

王梵志 Wang Fanzhi: 無題/他人騎大馬) Untitled/Other men ride high on horses

Thanks to Ray Heaton, who has been arduously contributing his perceptive and helpful comments on my previous posts, my interest in 王梵志 Wang Fanzhi's poetry (mostly vernacular and rough but, at times, simple yet elegant) has been aroused by his reference to (in one of his comments on my "Song on Ascending the Youzhou Tower" last month) Wang's line 世事悠悠 which I have rendered as "Worldly matters, we worry, weary" but on which I will not further elaborate, at least not for the time being.

Today, I am posting Wang's poem on the horsemen, the donkey rider and the man peddling on foot.  It looks like a fable from Aesop's.  I have not checked, but doesn't it.?  The moral is: Be content.  You are not the most unfortunate.

Now, just sit back, read it and enjoy it.   

Wang Fanzhi (592? – 670?): Untitled/Other men ride high on horses

1    Other men ride high on horses,
2    A donkey I straddle, poor, poor me.
3    I turn and I see a firewood pedlar,
4    My heart, a wee bit less unhappy.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
22nd April 2015 (revised 26.4.15; 27.4.15; 28.4.15)
Translated from the original - 王梵志: 無題他人騎大馬

1    他人騎大馬
2    我獨跨驢子
3    回顧擔柴漢
4    心下較些子


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a 5-character quatrain 五言絕句 rhyming XAXA.  This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 beats or feet) with the same XAXA rhyme scheme.  Instead of following the 4-beat line length, I have been able to simplify and shorten the poem to the English “ballad form” (4 beats for lines 1 and 3 and 3 beats for lines 2 and 4) and rhyming it XAXA.  Although I consider my ballad rendition superior, I have decided to stick to the tetrametric quatrain as I may not be able to turn Wang Fanzhi’s other 5-character quatrains into ballads.  The ballad form alternative rendition is given at the end of the notes.

*Lines 1 and 2:  In line 1, I have used “ride high on horses” to translate 騎大馬 the inner meaning of which cannot be fully conveyed in the literal “ride big horses”.  In line 2, I have used “poor, poor me” instead of the literal “alone” to translate for the same reason.

*Lines 1 and 3:  I had considered adding “While” and “Then” to begin lines 1 and 3 respectively, but have decided against it in the interest of brevity.

*Line 3:  For 回顧, I had considered “I turn to/and find” and “I turn to/and see”, and have decided for “I turn and I see” with an extra “I” added before “see”.  This is done because, although “turn” precedes “see” and requires an “I”, “see” is more important to the meaning of the poem and I hope this extra “I” can adequately bring out its significance.  For I had considered “faggots” but have decided for “firewood”.  The word is a verb meaning to carry on a shoulder pole a load of goods usually in 2 bundles, baskets, buckets, packs, etc., and such a person travels on foot.  I have chosen to identify this man who carries on a shoulder pole a load of firewood as a “firewood pedlar” who (at least, in the old days) travels on foot (which meaning is all important in the context of this poem), carrying and selling his load of goods.  This added meaning of a salesman is amply justified as it is implied in the original.  擔柴漢 (like its current Cantonese equivalent 擔柴佬) usually refers to a pedlar of firewood peddling on foot.  This is best illustrated in a Cantonese children’s folk rhyme which goes: 落雨大(rhyme, or大雨 which I prefer though unrhymed)/ 水浸街(rhyme)/ 阿哥擔柴上街賣(rhyme)/ ….. “It’s raining very hard/ Water floods the streets/ My older brother shoulder-poles firewood out to the streets to sell …..” (My rough translation.)
*Line 4:  means “comparative/relative” and 些子 “a little bit”.  Although not spelt out in words in the original, it can only mean “a little more comfy” or “a little less unhappy” and I have decided for the latter, phrased as “a wee bit less unhappy”, which better echoes the sentiments of “poor, poor me” in line 2.
*Alternative Rendition in Ballad Form: 
1    Other men ride high on horses,
2    A donkey I straddle, poor me.
3    I turn and see a firewood pedlar,
4    My heart, a litt’l less unhappy.


Ray Heaton said...

Professor Rong Xinjiang referred to Wang Fanzhi's poetry as unquestionably the most important poems found in the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang. Dunhuang is the home of the "Echoing Sand Mountains", 鳴沙山, famously on the Silk Road and gateway to the Tang capital Chang'an.

It was at Dunhuang that, around the turn of the century, many Buddhist and Taoist manuscripts were found, included within them a great number of vernacular folk poems, lost until then. Many of these poems are in the style of Wang Fanzhi, written in a language both simple and easy to comprehend, describing social inequality and the hardships of ordinary people.

Peter Hobson's "Poems of Hanshan" refers to a type of Buddhist verse, seventh century in origin, a simple and direct vernacular folk Buddhist genre attributed to Wang Fanzhi (who Hobson calls, Wang the Devotee) and says Wang was a shadowy figure of whom we know practically nothing.

I first came across this almost incidental apparently insignificant poem Andrew translates here in the anthology "Sunflower Splendour; Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry" by Wu Chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo.
In this anthology, the poem includes a rather fanciful fourth line and is translated to

That fellow rides a big horse,
While I straddle a donkey.
Turn around: someone's toting wood-
So easy to take on airs.

Possibly rather more useful, is the short background on Wang Fanzhi included within the book which states that Wang was sufficiently famous in his time to have inspired legends about his life, influencing later poets Hanshan, Huang Tingjian and Fan Chengda, in whose poetry are echoes of some of Wang's lines (maybe it was Wang's poems echoing in the 鳴沙山!). The book goes on to describe Wang as having a ready wit, bold and idiomatic diction, a manner both endearing and totally natural.

Does this Buddhist ideology, simple language, and ready wit appear in Andrew's translation? There's certainly witticism, use of "poor poor me" and "wee bit less unhappy" brings a smile which counters the rather downtrodden nature of the poet straddling his donkey while others ride high. The translation keeps to the simple language, indeed it could hardly be any simpler; I agree with Andrew's word choice, I feel to have chosen otherwise risks losing the poems simplicity. As for Buddhist influences, I suppose the feeling of accepting your situation and being happy about it is about as far as it goes here, although sitting on high may refer one of the eight precepts, to avoid luxury (and hence Andrew's translation has found an inner meaning perhaps missed by other translations), though I think feeling happy at someone more lowly than you adds a little reality in how people would have truly felt.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I thank Ray Heaton most heartily for the information on Wang Fanzhi and his poems and for his fair critique of my rendition. The rendition he refers us to (in the Wu-Chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo (ed.) anthology "Sunflower Splendor") is in fact the work of Eugene Eoyang (a famed translator of Chinese like the 2 editors). As for Prof. Eoyang's rather fanciful 4th line, I simply don't get it.

Marvin Salvador Calero Molina said...

Good evening, my name is Marvin Salvador Calero Molina,
I want first of all to congratulate you for your beautiful blog
And for showing Chinese poetry to the world.

I wanted to ask you a couple of questions:

1. Wang Fan-chih (c. 618) is the same poet Wang Fanzhi?
2. Do you have the biography of the poet and if you can facilitate it, please?


I know a poem of him that speaks of the fear of dying,

I witness the death of a man.

My bowels burn, not out of pity

For the dead. I'm scared! How

I'll know if I'm not next?

Wang Fan-chih (c. 618)

You can tell me what a tragedy happened in your life, if you had a love,
I thank you beforehand.

Greetings from Nicaragua, in Central America.Buenas noches, mi nombre es Marvin Salvador Calero Molina,
quiero primero que todo felicitarle por su hermoso blog
y por mostrar la poesía china al mundo.


Queria hacerle un par de preguntas:

1. Wang Fan-chih (c. 618) es el mismo poeta Wang Fanzhi?
2. Tiene usted la biografia del poeta y si me la puede facilitar, por favor?


Conozco un poema de él que habla del temor a morir,

Presencio la muerte de un hombre.

Mis entrañas arden, no por piedad

por el muerto. ¡Tengo miedo! ¿Cómo

voy a saber si yo no soy el siguiente?

Wang Fan-chih (c. 618)

Me puede decir que tragedia ocurrio en su vida, si tuvo un amor,
le agradezco de ante mano.

saludos desde Nicaragua, en centro américa.