poetry and personal statement by Shangyi Yao
edited by Emma Corso
Once upon a time in the orient land,
There was an ancient kingdom by Wars split.
Turmoil and Plagues ravaged with no end,
Hundreds of years passed with no Peace lit.
A poor fisherman dwelled on that land,
Barely surviving through fishing bit by bit.
Heavy taxes with hard Labor sustained,
But in people’s hearts no more Hopes retained.
Years were toil’d out with dimm’d aspirations,
Exhausted was he in a life barren.
One day on the vast waters his directions
Were lost, baffl’d by a grove of peach blossoms.
Falling petals flutter in sweet profusions,
Verdant leaves dance as in celestial gardens.
Dazzled by this wondrous discovery,
He carved to measure the grove’s boundary.
The petals lead to a limpid spring that flows
Out from an obscure cavern in a hill.
Thus the fisherman abandoned his boat
And traced the spring with steadfast will.
At the narrow entrance a faint light glows,
Inviting the adventurer to set heel.
Silent wind listens to the racing heartbeats
Of him who explores with trembling feet.
Then the path expands into oceans of light,
And fills him with the sap of vitality.
A plain valley greets his eyes in delight;
A boundless field brims with fertility,
Surrounded by houses that stand upright.
Bamboos and berries grow in tranquility,
While Fountains and ponds like sapphires sparkle.
Without enmity, cocks and dogs squabble.
Paths and streets crisscross in all directions,
Where lives prosper in joyful harmony:
Men plough in the field with satisfaction;
Children frolic with the elders’ company.
With a curious and dreamy complexion,
The fisherman gazes at these souls carefree,
Whereas the sight of him astounds the rest,
Who inquire the stranger with wonders highest.
“Where do you come from?” they for answers plead,
And he responds and recounts with honesty.
The news of his arrival spread with speed,
Every one greets him with cordiality.
Then the guest is treated with wine and meat,
Welcomed to all homes in hospitality.
Amazed by this harmonious society,
The fisherman asks about their ancestry.
“Five hundred years ago our ancestors fled
From Wars and Hunger rampant in the world around
With the wives, children, and villagers they had.
Never have we left this valley we own’d;
Isolated, nothing about the outside we heard.
Are others free from Turmoil, safe and sound?”
The fisherman answers and explains all,
People sigh to him and the world withal.
Then scarlet wine is shared to entertain
The guest from afar in every household.
For several days the fisherman remains
Till all dynasties are in stories told.
Blessed with peace, yet he cannot restrain
The greed to exchange their secret with gold.
Thus, he takes his leave and bids them farewell,
But they seem to know his design too well.
So they warn the fisherman: “Tis worthless
to tell others about us and this place.”
He agrees, yet keeping an empty promise:
He left signs so that wind cannot erase
His trace. He reported to the office
Of a local governor about that space
Where desperate hearts can attain solace
In peaceful life amid a world hopeless.
The governor dispatch’d a crew to follow
Him, to whom he promised many rewards
If the spring where peach petals overflow
Could be found, so ships and ships sailed toward
The verdant valley where fragrant breezes blow.
However, their fates were by Despair ador’d,
For all the signs that the fishermen left
Were lost and people’s Hopes were bereft.
The words of the fisherman were told
To a virtuous sage, who devised a plan
To find the valley that he long’d to behold:
But alas! His efforts were in vain;
Death came ere he was by Success consoled;
Disease had exhausted his noble lifespan.
After that, no questions like this have been ask’d:
“Where is the spring that the peach blossoms mask’d?”
Later in that oriental language I heard
Paradise depicted in soft syllables.
Peach blossoms never wither in that word;
Wind forever to the petals babbles.
And people say it is not absurd
To hear the sound of a glimmer’s sparkle.
They say Paradise always exists
In the world beyond which is covered in mists.
Later in the oriental cities I saw
Ads boasting about new tourist resorts
Adorned by fountains and ponds azure.
Tis a paradise where men seek comfort
And flee away from the cold cites for sure.
I wonder if wind has lent them support
When they look for the fisherman’s marker.
Have they found, or lost Paradise forever?
It might sound unromantic, but this poem was a creative assignment for an English literature course on romanticism. Two years ago, while I was wondering what to submit, Byron’s Don Juan occurred to me. My professor had pointed outthe difficulty of composing Don Juan in Ottava Rima rhyme scheme (abababcc) and I thought, “Byron writes hundreds of stanzas within one month. Is composing an Ottava Rima poem really that hard? Why don’t I try it and see?” I have always been fascinated with the Classical Chinese prose “The Peach Blossom Spring” 桃花源记 by the poet Tao Yuanming 陶渊明. The principal motifs of Tao’s story—nature, utopia, war, and peace—are also shared with other English poems from the romantic period. It seemed feasible to translate Tao’s prose into an Ottava Rima, but once I began, it turned out to be more difficult than I had initially thought. Ever after my endeavors, I admire Byron wholeheartedly. I was compelled to alter the story’s plot and even imagine some new episodes from time to time, in order to match the rhyme scheme. I was also forced to change Tao’s concise yet approachable style into the ornate, intricate style typical of an Ottava Rima poem. Since the Classical Chinese language in which Tao writes his prose is ambiguous and complex in meaning, I had to simplify it in order to capture the most suitable interpretation. By the end, I found my final product to be not an exact translation but one with new meanings, which might be a pity for readers if they are looking for the former. Yet, I humbly believe that my poem can be a diversion for readers troubled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Eastern Jin Dynasty, in which Tao composed his prose, was an era of turbulence and fear. Heavy taxation, bureaucratic corruption, usurpation of the throne, compulsory labour, ceaseless wars, slavery, and famine define that era. The audience of ancient China might have shared the same despair with the English readers of the early nineteenth century and with our global community today. While the Peach Blossom Spring may have never existed, the human desire for a world better than the present transcends time and space. This hope—for a tomorrow better than today—always proves to us that we are fundamentally human, and that we will survive well into the future, in spite of the challenges we face along the way.
Shangyi Yao is a Chinese international student majoring in English Literature and minoring in East Asian Studies and Geography. She is interested in comparative studies between English Literature and East Asian Literatures. Before devoting herself to graduate school, she will take a gap year and hopefully find a job in Beijing.