Lester Lee – Chinese/English translator and freelance writer

This blog will host articles and other works authored by me in various fields – poetry, philosophy, science, history, politics, current affairs, music – and anything else which seizes my attention and imagination!

Preface to Old Crumply’s Travels

Preface to Old Crumply’s Travels









Preface to Old Crumply’s Travels1

       Babies cry as soon as they are born.  When they grow old and lie on their death beds surrounded by their folks, they howl yet again.  Thus tears are indispensable for the beginning and the end of human life.  Between these extremities, the calibre of one’s character may be gauged by how much one cries.  For tears are the soul manifest, a measure of its abundance, ounce for ounce so to speak; they have nothing to do with good or bad fortunes.

       Beasts of burden toil all year round under yoke and lashes, and for that they are only fed fodder.  They have a hard life, but shed no tears, for want of soul.   Apes are different.  They live a fun life swinging among the trees and gorging themselves on fruit and nuts; yet they cry hard, and wailing is their tears.   Of all animals, they are considered by naturalists to be the closest to humans in nature, no doubt because of their soulfulness. 

        Down the Three Gorges we make the passage long;         巴東三峽巫峽長

       The gibbons are wailing hard, our hearts are torn.          猿啼三聲斷人腸

     Such is the sentience of apes!

       Feelings spring from the soul, and tears flow from feelings.  Tears are of two kinds: tears of strength and tears of weakness.  Naive children cry over the loss of a piece of fruit or a hairpin; theirs are weak tears.  Fan Qiliang’s wife2 cried so bitterly for her husband that part of the Great Wall collapsed, and the tears of Emperor Shun’s two wives3 stained the bamboos which still bear the indelible marks down to this day; theirs were mighty tears.   Nor are mighty tears all the same: they are relatively mild when they are merely a vehicle for venting sorrow; but are truly potent and far-reaching in their impact when the feeling runs deeper, even without actual crying. 

       Li Sao (The sorrows of Separation) is the tears of Qu Yuan4; Zhuangzi is the tears of Zhuang Zhou5; The Annals of History is the tears of Sima Qian6; and The Cottage Anthology is the tears of Tu Fu7.  Likewise, Emperor Li of the Southern Tang Dynasty8 cried with his tuned lyrics; Ba Da Mountain Sire9 cried with his paintings; Wang Shifu10 cried with his West Chamber Tale; and Cao Xueqin11 cried with his Dream of the Vermilion Mansions.  Wang put it this way:

       Hard it is to fathom and vent                                   別恨離愁滿肺腑 

       The parting sorrows pent up here,                         難淘洩

       Save with paper and brush to lament                    除紙筆  代喉舌

       My myriad yearnings for my darling dear.            我千種相思向誰說

 And Cao wrote:

       Mark these words that seem absurd,                  滿紙荒唐言

       And tears from a heart unkindly rent.                   一把辛酸淚

       Mad was the author, so we’ve heard,                    都云作者癡

       But who’d know what he really meant.                   誰解其中意

      Cao named one kind of tea “Niche of a myriad flowers”, and called a wine as the “Toast of ten thousand beauties”.  These are puns, sounding the same as “A myriad flowers a-weeping” and “Ten thousand beauties a-grieving”.

       The times we find ourselves in are such that we have distinct feelings for life, country, society, and religion.  The deeper our feelings, the sadder our tears.  And it is for this reason that this “Veteran of Hongdu12” writes Old Crumply’s Travels.

       Now that the chess game is near its end, and we are getting old, is it possible to hold back our tears?   I only know that of the myriad flowers and the ten thousand beauties under the sun there must be some that would grieve and cry with me.

Translator’s Notes:


  1. Old Crumply – nickname of Liu E, native of Dantu of Jiangsu, born in the late Qing Dynasty and died whilst in exile in Xinjiang.  This preface was written in 1906.
  2. Meng Jiangnu, of the Qin Dynasty (3rd century BC).
  3. E Huang and Nuying, of the legendary Yu Dynasty, predating the 21st century BC.
  4. Qu Yuan (340-278BC), master poet who committed suicide by drowning
  5. Zhuang Zhou (?369-c290BC), Taoist philosopher
  6. Sima Qian (145-?90BC), the greatest Chinese historian in antiquity
  7. Tu Fu (712-770), master poet of the Tang Dynasty
  8. Li  Yu (937-978), emperor and tuned lyric poet
  9. Alias of Zhu Da (朱耷c.1626-c.1705), nobleman turned monk, master painter
  10. Wang Shifu (fl. 1295-1307), master dramatist
  11. Cao Xueqin (c.1719-?1763), master novelist
  12. Hongdu is another name of Nanchang of Jiangxi.  Why Liu E called himself by this title is unclear to this translator

September 1, 2009 - Posted by | Translation (C-E) 中譯英

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