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).



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 most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). 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.



Saturday, February 28, 2015

Spirit Writing in Old Matsu, Anno Now

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 27)

During our recent stay in Matsu, we were lodged in a bed-and-breakfast owned by one of Katie’s former bosses, who is from Matsu. We all call him Brother Tiger because the two characters of his name literally mean Lucky Tiger. Brother Tiger was and is an administrator and advisor of various cultural agencies including one of Taiwan’s most famous traditional-style opera troupes. Like others from this particular part of Matsu, from childhood up he has been a participant in the cult of a local god called ‘The Marshal in Armor’ (in the military sense of a ‘field marshal’).
       The Marshal is a frog spirit. He is called Marshal in Armor because in the local dialect, the word for ‘frog’ sounds like the Mandarin word for ‘armor,’ and being a god, like a field marshal he has power and authority.
       There are several images of the Marshal. The main one is located in a subsidiary altar of the local temple of the ‘Empress of Heaven,’ i.e. the goddess Matsu. The Empress of Heaven, like our Holy Virgin Mary who is also called Queen of Heaven, is said to have been a flesh-and-blood girl during her life on earth. Later she achieved the status of a goddess capable of helping earthlings with many things including saving fishermen in peril, helping women to become pregnant...in short, she is a divine refuge figure who is worshipped by millions and I would say is probably, maybe next to the Buddha in his or her various guises, the single most universal religious focus of the Taiwanese people. I will not now elaborate on the goddess Matsu as that is a whole story in itself...
       As I was saying, there are several images of the Marshal. The main one is worshipped at the Empress of Heaven’s temple, but an important role is also played by a compact mobile image, a wooden thing maybe a foot high, which is mounted on a wooden ‘litter’ or ‘sedan chair’ that can be carried around during processions or...as I will go into shortly...on inspection trips or even airline flights. The sedan chair is carried by four men, two in front and two behind. Besides serving as the Marshal’s vehicle when he needs to go somewhere, it is also the instrument of his ‘spirit writing’ when he chooses to communicate with humans. When this happens, the procedure is that the bearers tilt the whole sedan chair 90 degrees while continuing to hold it from below...the Marshal can’t fall out because he is mounted inside. The writing is done by placing a table under the tilted sedan chair. The table is covered with ash from burnt incense. The bearers bend over somewhat, enough so that a crossbeam of the sedan chair is in close proximity with the top of the table. When a question is asked or the Marshal wishes to make a pronouncement, the whole Ark, so to say, gets to Moverin’...bearers plus chair plus crossbeam get to vibrating, heaving up and down and sideways, till the end of the crossbeam bumps repeatedly into the ash and makes markings in it. The markings are Chinese characters or other familiar signs...although in reporting this, I am taking it on faith because when I looked at the marks, it defied my imagination how anyone could read anything out of them. This point is important, though, as it is a somewhat unusual manner of spirit communication. It is not at all unusual for the Chinese to receive guidance from gods or spirits, but oftentimes either the message is spoken through a medium who is in trance, or writing is done by other means including the ‘planchette,’ which is a mechanical device made up of connected sticks that looks something like a pantograph.
       The Marshal is a testy character and not averse to letting his displeasure be known. One of the stories about him is that when the County Chief was in town, the Marshal demanded he should come to the temple for a visit. At the Marshal’s instruction, a very large glass of the renowned local firewater (116 proof kaoliang) was prepared for the County Chief and he was told to drink up and listen. What the Marshal had to say was that certain repairs were needed on the local scene and would the government please do something about it. (The story does not go on to tell whether the repairs were all subsequently put through.)
       One of the Marshal’s quirks is that he loves opera. About two years ago, when Brother Tiger was in town and went to see the Marshal, he said he was planning to take early retirement. The Marshal said Hey, not so fast now, you’re not done yet. Since you’re a big shot in the opera world, I want you to stay on long enough to arrange a nice opera performance for me to watch. So Brother Tiger agreed! (This was not the Marshal’s first interaction with their family...years previously, when their daughter was having a difficult pregnancy, the Marshal gave a medical prescription, a certain remedy to be drunk by the girl for a certain period of time, after which the trouble disappeared. Another time, when Brother and Auntie Tiger’s son was getting married in Taiwan, the Marshal was a guest at the wedding...he had been flown over to Taiwan, sedan chair and all, in a regular passenger plane.)
       So at the Marshal’s behest, Brother Tiger shelved his early retirement and busily set to work to organize the opera – finding a suitable play, enlisting musicians etc. The Marshal himself designated which performers were to play which roles. This all took time, but by the time we got over to Matsu for a visit a few days ago, things were at an advanced stage and the opera was being rehearsed at a locale provided by a local school. We went to watch. The Marshal was present in his chair rig, watching the whole time.
       After the rehearsal, a table was set up with incense ash on it so that the Marshal could write out his reactions and suggestions. The bearers brought him over, tilted his rig into writing position, and the bumping and marking commenced. Brother Tiger, based on all his professional experience, gave the performance a ‘grade’ – 85 points out of a possible 100. Not good enough, said the Marshal; next time I want you to get it up to 95.
       Certain performers were singled out as needing improvement. This time they got by with a mere admonishment, but on other occasions the Marshal has been known to demand ‘punishment’ in the form of making the deficient performer kneel on the cold stone floor for the time it takes one stick of incense to burn to the end – about one full hour.
       The cult of the Marshal in Armor is not practiced in Taiwan proper or even in Matsu as a whole. It is specific to the locality of Qinbi where we were staying, and (I have been told) to certain spots on the Chinese Mainland.

--Lloyd Haft
February 4, 2015



Monday, February 2, 2015

On the Matsu Shore (poem)


Is this a sound
of water or of wind,

day or night that wakens me,
wants me here

waiting with the wind,
watching over water?

How many centuries,
how many me’s are gathered

in this moment yet to go,
yet to know the we, the way

from all of here to more of here,
ever more of here,

hearing with the sea,
wondering the wind...


--Lloyd Haft
at Qinbi, Beigan, Matsu
February 2, 2015

early morning