Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006). His most recent book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017.

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Preface to Discovering Bian Zhilin (發現卞之琳)

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 7)

[This is an English version of the new preface written for my 發現卞之琳, published in Beijing by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press in 2010, which is a Chinese translation of Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry, published by Foris Publications in 1983.]

On the occasion of this Chinese translation of my book which has long been sold out in its English edition dating from 1983, the publisher has agreed to let me write a new preface explaining the perspective in which I see this virtually unchanged Chinese edition after the passage of more than a quarter century. As far as I have ever been able to determine, mine was the first published book-length study in any language focusing exclusively on Bian’s life and work. That fact in itself may make it meaningful to preserve it in more or less identical form in this Chinese edition: aside from whatever intrinsic merits this book may have as an introduction to Bian Zhilin’s poetry, it may be interesting to present-day Chinese readers to see how this outstanding 20th century Chinese poet appeared to a young Western reader in the 1970s and 80s, what constraints were imposed by the specific scholarly and political conditions of those days, and what influences from my own background shaped this study.

When I was a student at Harvard College in the summer of 1967, two things happened which combined to change the course of my life. I met a beautiful Chinese girl, and I discovered Buddhism. The girl came from Hong Kong and was a native speaker of Cantonese. Our meeting was ephemeral, but it kindled in me an interest in her language. I immediately checked out Y. R. Chao’s 趙元任 Cantonese Primer (粵語入門) from the Harvard-Yenching Library. It was a book after my own heart. The Introduction was one of the most immediately fascinating discussions of the Chinese language that I have ever seen; its treatment of the language was set against a vibrantly imaginative background of allusions to everyday life in the Chinese world, curiosa of older European scholarship in this field, and surprising comparisons between Chinese and other languages. In short, it was an introduction not just to the ‘field’ but also to what I can only call the ‘romance’ of Chinese studies. Another romantic feature was that it was written in a phenomenally complex and unusual transcription system, appearing on the page almost like a secret code waiting to be deciphered, which the author had invented ad hoc, and which to my knowledge was never again used elsewhere.
        Again that summer, I stumbled upon a copy of Alan Watts’ book The Way of Zen. It had some features which I would soon learn to pretend to disdain as ‘amateuristic,’ starting with its cover design which was dominated by a big Chinese character meaning 'Zen' . But sometimes it is the enthusiastic amateur rather than the routine-stiffened professional who can teach us most. What we need to know may be not only the officially or bureaucratically recognized body of fact and theory, but the more elusive factor of why the whole subject is worth studying at all.
Watts’ book introduced me once and for all to the idea – to me at the time a real revelation – that a very significant portion of the human race do not idealize the same ‘ego’ concept, the same notion of what the word ‘I’ should mean, as ourselves. This fact is often glossed over or underestimated by Western students of Chinese, but nothing in traditional Chinese life can be understood without it.
        So that fateful summer, the girl from Hong Kong enlarged my concept of Beauty, and Alan Watts, of Truth. I soon began following Harvard’s intensive course in Chinese as an auditor. My teacher was Y. R. Chao’s daughter, Rulan Chao Pian 卞趙如蘭. The textbook we used was written in her father’s transcription of Mandarin, only slightly less complicated than the Cantonese one; in my personal note-taking I have continued to this day using this quaintly elegant system which projects upon the language a beautiful formal symmetry beyond even what most native speakers perceive in it. The study of the Chinese language seemed to me to involve a pursuit of beauty and truth, and in those days, especially at a private university like Harvard, perhaps there really was still some room within the academic world for such romantic ideals.
The following year (1968), when I went to the University of Leiden, The Netherlands to pursue further studies in Chinese, I discovered a still more fabulously highbrow style of sinology. Instruction in the modern spoken language was just getting started in earnest, and in any case was treated as a mere practical tool, an almost demeaning concession to modern vulgarity which deflected our time and attention from the main business of sinology, which was philology, historical studies, and Classics. (Even if we had wanted to, in those days we could not go to Peking to learn to speak Chinese because in China the Cultural Revolution was on and there were severe restrictions on foreigners entering the country. Perhaps that ‘faraway’ or ‘inaccessible’ quality actually added, in my mind, to the sense of Chinese studies as a ‘romantic’ pursuit involving values beyond the everyday.) Our introductory textbook of Classical Chinese was written in German by a scholar who was also a renowned expert on Manchu and Mongol. There was a course in Tibetan taught once a week by a teacher who specially drove up from Paris in a sports car for the purpose.
Modern languages in general were considered trivia. In The Netherlands in those days, secondary-school students coming to the university were routinely expected to be competent in English, French, and German in addition to their native tongue. (This was aside from the Latin and Greek which they had also been required to study.)
        In this exquisitely genteel atmosphere of Old-Worldly tradition, one fine day in 1970 I sat down with a copy of Kai-yu Hsu’s 許芥昱English-language anthology Twentieth Century Chinese Poetry and discovered Bian Zhilin. For me, in those poems and that book, the elements of Beauty and Truth suddenly came together. In retrospect, I think that impact was largely owing to Hsu’s great gifts as a translator. (I was not the only one to think him gifted. The great Czech sinologist Jaroslav Prusek, in an otherwise rather stodgy review of Hsu’s book, commented on the unusual ‘esthetic pleasure’ which it had given him to read it.) He himself once described the translator of poetry as a person ‘speaking others’ dreams in your own voice, or...your own dreams in other’s voices.’[1] Perhaps he also felt a special affinity with Bian Zhilin’s poetry because he had been a student of Bian’s while both were at National Southwest Associated University in Kunming during World War II.
        I was intrigued not only by Bian’s poems but by Hsu’s hint that although Bian had ‘been writing very little since the end of the war,’ he was ‘one of the most promising modern Chinese poets.’ The practical mechanics of ‘doing a Ph.D.’ are such that in the beginning one must search for a subject on which some literature does exist, but which has not yet exhaustively been described by anyone else. In the 1970s, Bian Zhilin’s poetry fit this bill perfectly. Neither in Mao’s China nor in Taiwan would scholars have been encouraged to publish on the details of his poetry and life. In the Western world, aside from Kai-yu Hsu’s book and two other anthologies dating from the thirties and forties, there were few useful sources on contemporary Chinese poetry. Here, it seemed to me, was a world of potential Beauty and Truth waiting to be filled in and made accessible. I began to study Bian Zhilin in earnest.
Reading Bian Zhilin’s poetry in the Leiden of the 1970s, I was very much hearing my own dreams in Bian’s voice. Even the circumstances of my everyday life were full of elements which could readily be associated with his texts. Dutch houses, like many houses in the old Peking, typically had no front lawn between the front entrance and the street; the lawn or garden was in back of the house and often surrounded by a fence or wall. I was living in an 18th-century house with a walled-in courtyard-like garden where, whenever the weather allowed, I sat with my books. In Chinese, it would have been conceivable to refer to that garden as the Han Yuan 漢園 or ‘Haft’s Garden’; the poems by Bian Zhilin which Kai-yu Hsu translated were taken from a Chinese anthology titled Han Yuan Ji or The Han Garden 漢園集 . Where Bian wrote in a poem

How many patches of blue sky over how many courtyards...


he could have been writing about the pastel blue Dutch sky framed by the high wall of my quiet garden.
        My knowledge of Chinese was pitifully inadequate, but this did not deter me from doing the best I could with Bian’s poetry. I took comfort in the words of T. S. Eliot (one of the writers whom Bian translated): ‘I was passionately fond of certain French poetry long before I could have translated two verses of it correctly.’[2] In those days it was not easy even to find the originals of Bian’s poems – Mary Fung’s 張曼儀 admirable bibliographies had not yet been published – but in Chinese literary magazines of the 1930s which our library in Leiden possessed, I did manage to find a few. Eventually Mr. H. W. Chan 陳慶雲 of our library pointed out to me a new Hong Kong reprint of Bian’s only collected edition as of then, Poems of Ten Years 十年詩草. Unbeknown to me, it contained many serious misprints. Nevertheless, for the obsessed reader, even a defective text is better than none.
        Sometime in the 1970s, I began to correspond with Kai-yu Hsu. In his characteristically encouraging way, he said he believed what I was struggling with could turn out to be ‘a publishable undertaking.’ In the unhurried academe of those days, this idea remained in suspension for a couple of years. The precipitation occurred in 1978. Just returned from a summer in Taiwan which was my first sojourn in the Far East, I discovered among the accumulated mail a letter from Hsu saying that he was just finishing up the manuscript of a thick anthology he was editing, Literature of the People’s Republic of China, and that if I could send in translations of a couple of Bian Zhilin’s poems from the 1950s, they could still be included if I sent them in before the deadline. Meanwhile I had been gone for so long that the deadline was already long past. But I was too thrilled not to make one desperate effort to leap aboard regardless.
        Within twenty-four hours, I went to the library and photocopied the pages from the 1958 Poetry Journal 詩刊 containing Bian’s Poems on the Ming Tombs Reservoir Project 十三陵水庫工地雜詩, looked up in dictionaries the words (many!) which I did not yet know, translated and typed out five poems, consulted Chinese colleagues, revised the translations, and typed the final versions.
        Hsu did include my translations in his anthology, though not without a bit of discreet editing on his part. In the poem 'Embracing the Flood' 和洪水擁抱, where I had thought to see a sexual allusion in the phrase

We'll fix up a lake-bed in the valley
and embrace the Great Water - make it our mirror...


Hsu quietly toned my text back down to academically acceptable proportions. (Even at this distance in time, I am still not quite convinced I was wrong.) So a translation of those poems, in some ways so un-typical of Bian Zhilin’s work, became my first publication in ‘the field.’
        About a year later, I had the long-awaited opportunity to go to the PRC for three months of research; my official topic was the current status of Western literature in the educational and publishing worlds of the PRC. When I got to Peking, once again I found myself associating the present-day environment with the decors and images of Bian’s poetry. Walking down West Chang'an Street 西長安街, I was reminded of Bian’s poem of the same name. Waiting in line to buy candied haw sticks 山楂糖, I had associations with Bian’s lines

The hawker cries 'Candied haws!'
swallowing a mouthful of dust...


The ‘patches of blue sky’ and the ‘courtyards,’ as I now could actually see them from the window of my room in the Minzu Hotel, were very much as I had always imagined the ones Bian wrote of in the 1930s.
This was 1979, not long after Mao Zedong’s death, during the Chairmanship of Hua Guofeng, when Deng Xiaoping’s policies were already decisive. Though the country was beginning to open up to foreign visitors, in many ways foreigners, and their languages and culture, were still politically suspect, so much so that in Peking I occasionally had the experience of people on the streets preferring not to answer me when I asked for directions, presumably because they did not wish to be seen talking to me.
        Under these circumstances, I thought Bian Zhilin might feel uncomfortable if I told him straight-out that I was planning to write a book about him. Instead, I said I wished to talk to him about his famous modern Chinese verse translations of Shakespeare’s tragedies. When I finally did manage to see him, I asked him question after question about his own poetry, furiously taking notes. He subsequently arranged another meeting and gave me an advance copy of the then-forthcoming revised edition of his collected poems, the first since 1942. That thin little book contained a long preface in which Bian detailed and evaluated his development and career as a poet; together with my notes on our conversations, it gave me enough substance to start writing my dissertation when I returned to Leiden.
        The writing process, done mainly under a pastel-blue Dutch sky in the summer of 1980, I remember as one of the happiest periods of my life. It was an opportunity to fit together intuitions and inspirations dating as far back as my Harvard days with a whole new body of facts and written materials coming from different epochs and, so it seemed at times, different worlds. My dissertation advisor, Professor W. L. Idema 伊維德, taught me much about how to maintain focus and coherence during this challenging and at times rather emotional process of evaluation and synthesis. I also received much valuable aid from John T. Ma 馬大任, then director of Leiden University’s Chinese library. James C. P. Liang 梁兆兵 helped me through numerous problems in translation and interpretation.
        The dissertation was finished and I received my Ph.D. in late 1981. At that time, the Dutch businessman Mr. Nico van Rees 萬理士, who had been an early pioneer in importing products from the PRC, provided financial and other assistance enabling Bian Zhilin to travel personally to Holland to attend my dissertation defense. Kai-yu Hsu also flew over from California to be present as External Examiner. Bian stayed in Leiden for several days, which we mainly spent discussing my dissertation in detail. He corrected some minor errors or misinterpretations and supplied much additional information. The result was that in 1983 I was able to publish a revised commercial edition, which I have always felt more or less carried Bian’s imprimatur.
        A quarter of a century went by.
        Then one morning early in 2009, sitting at my computer in Taiwan, I was astounded to see an incoming email from John T. Ma, who now lived in America and whom I had not seen for many years. The gist was that he was now nearing ninety, had recently been in Peking, and had already discussed with the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press the possibility of bringing out a Chinese-language edition of my book about Bian Zhilin.
        After that, things moved very quickly. Lan Xiaoluan and the other staff at the FLTRP have been wonderfully helpful in facilitating the practicalities of publication. One aspect of this was putting me in touch with the translator Li Yongyi 李永毅. From an early stage, Li Yongyi’s knowledge of English, background in literature, and affinity with my own style of reading have made it a delight to work with him.
        Obviously one of the first decisions to be taken was whether I should try to revise or expand my text in the light of more recent scholarship on Bian Zhilin. With the agreement of the publisher, I decided not to attempt this. For one thing, although in recent decades several new books on Bian have appeared, at the time my book appeared his poetic oeuvre was already virtually complete.[3] In that sense, I was walking on solid ground in basing my interpretative framework on his works as they were available to me at the time. I see no reason why that framework now should be considered any less valid than it was.
        In a very few cases, passages which contained explanations of problems involved in the English translations of Bian’s poems which I quoted, or of similar specifics of English concepts and vocabulary, have been deleted or slightly revised here.
        It is true that my book was entirely uninfluenced by forms of critical theory, of ‘literature about literature about literature,’ which in certain circles later came to assume what I have always felt to be a rather dubious position of intellectual dominance if not actual dictatorship. From the first, I deplored the tendency to treat literary works as footnotes upon critical writings rather than the reverse, and I could not with any sincerity or effectiveness suddenly try to imitate that style of thinking and writing. As for the trend toward subsuming discussions of literature within a generalized discourse about social, historical, or even demographic trends, I can only reiterate that I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to ape such an approach.
        But there is something else. In the days when I was writing this book, it was perhaps more generally accepted than now to view poetry as a distinct type of language use which far from merely echoing the rest of the surrounding social discourse, might very importantly contradict or question or supplement that discourse. In short, poetry was not merely one more affirmation of what was already being affirmed by other sectors of society; poetry might be a vital factor encouraging continuous re-evaluation of those sectors and of the individual’s stance relative to them. I have already used the word ‘romantic’ in relation to my own approach, and I do not think any great shame need attach to avowing that position, in the sense of an attitude stressing the importance of subjective experience and the value of factors in living beyond the merely utilitarian. In this sense, the viewpoint from which I have approached Bian’s poetry is an integral part of what I think I have to say about it, and it is this, rather than any specific factual detail which might have been added, which I hope my book can still offer now that it is coming into an unexpected rebirth in another part of the world.
        I wish to thank John T. Ma very specially for his continuing confidence in the value of my work, and for translating that confidence into an initiative which has led to the publication of this book in Chinese.
        Bian Zhilin passed away in 2000. It is lamentable that he could not have been present to see this book, to which he contributed so much, published in his own country: all the more reason to thank the FLTRP for getting the book out in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth this year.
Lloyd Haft
January 2010

[1] See the ‘Dedicatory Poem’ in his Literature of the People’s Republic of China.
[2] From his Selected Essays, London 1961, p. 199.
[3] In the collected edition of Bian’s poems published by the Anhui Jiaoyu Chubanshe in 2002, there are only nine poems dating from after my study, as compared with more than ninety from before.