Eighteenth-Century Chinese Poet
by Arthur Waley
Published by Routledge (reprint)
First published in 1956
Reprint ed. published May 14, 2011
232 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
May 15, 1994.
In my opinion, Arthur Waley (1899–1966) was one of the two translators whose work I consider masterpieces of literature in English (C. K. Scott Moncrieff is the other).
In 1956, Waley published a biography/anthology of Yuan Mei (1716–1798), a prolific Chinese poet and collector of tales of the extraordinary, and a fancier of young male as well as of female beauty.
Besides actors who played female parts, he had a peacock-like beautiful protégé, Liu Chih-Peng.
I find Yuan’s skeptical, very this-worldly hedonism (anti-puritan and unconstrained by canons of respectability for subjects of writing) appealing.
In Yuan Mei’s view it is the highest duty of the poet to preserve the truth, to show all things, himself included, as they really are… To have hushed up certain aspects of his life might have seemed to imply that he was ashamed of them; and he was not… Finally, there was undoubtedly a streak of impishness, even of impudence [trés gay!] in him (204).
Via Waley’s selection and translation, Yuan sounds almost Japanese in focusing on evanescence, especially his own, and romantic (in the European sense) in celebrating what orthodox Confucians considered “frivolity.” (Waley also translated literature from Japan.)
Like his friend Lu Wen-Chao, I feel that when I read, the book benefits from my comments. (“Most people read books for their own advantage, but, when you read, the book benefits as well.” I find this ironic but not sarcastic, as Waley claims.)
written 15 May 1994 • posted for a short time on the defunct Bubblews
©1994, 2016, Stephen O. Murray