Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom

by Sung Po-jen (translation by Red Pine)
Copper Canyon Press 2012
Reviewed by Diana Arterian


“read the poem of old Tung-p’o”

In his original 1995 preface to Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, Red Pine (aka Bill Porter) describes his personal history with the text. Red Pine found a 1928 edition of Sung Po-jen’s book in a used bookstore in Hangchou, China in 1989; he writes, “I had never heard of Sung Po-jen or his book, but I was captivated by the pictures.” The history of the text itself, extrapolated in Lo Ch’ing’s introduction, involves several centuries of disappearance after its original publication in 1261, with moments of resurfacing every few centuries or so before copies were made from an original edition in the 1800’s. The preface by Sung Po-jen included in the original Guide is quoted at length in Ch’ing’s introduction. Po-jen writes, “…I painted the flower from the unfolding of its buds to the falling of its petals. I painted more than 200 portraits, and after eliminating those that were too staid or too frail, I was left with 100 distinct views. And to each I added an old-style poem…[the Guide] is about capturing the spirit of the plum blossom.” Guide is, as far as historians know, the first printed book to integrate poetry with images.

As for the book as provided to us by Red Pine and Copper Canyon (this is his sixth book of translation with the publisher), it is a unique bilingual edition as well as facsimile, as it includes the illustrated text. With the facsimile, a large portion of the page is devoted to the image of the blossom, which is below the title of the poem. The poem itself is in two columns to the left of the image. Though Po-jen originally painted the blossoms and poetry, thirteenth century printing in China involved reproducing images onto woodblocks. The images included in Copper Canyon’s edition very much bear the woodblock appearance, with some portions and lines that are meant to be solid black with chips of white in them.

The poems themselves are very short – four lines with five or six words each, the originals each bearing five characters per line. The poems’ titles describe the shape Po-jen sees in that particular blossom – like “Rabbit Lips,” “Frightened Gull Flaps Its Wings,” or one of several items used in China at that time, such as “Pien” or “Yu.” The poems are not about the plum blossom at all, but rather about the shape at different points in its blooming, and that shape’s relation to Chinese history and thirteenth century Chinese culture.

Beneath the translated poems are notes by Red Pine explaining the surprisingly copious references in each brief poem (cultural, historical, literary) as well as what is otherwise lost in translation – puns and the like. This instantly reminded me of some versions of Aesop’s fables that include notes explaining the meaning of each, though Red Pine’s notes were often a paragraph or so. Initially this can seem a bit tedious, or at least require a particular mood. My process often went something like this: looking at the image, reading the poem but not understanding it, reading the notes, looking at the image again, returning the poem and understanding it a bit better (or some variant thereof).

Often these poems do not hold their own with those who are not extremely knowledgeable about Chinese history and culture, so Red Pine’s notes are a necessary presence. The tedium lightens, appropriately, as the blossoms slowly begin to open (the book moves from bud to spent bloom over its eight sections). When the blooms are fully open, Po-jen apparently had a difficult time attributing the shapes to anything other than birds and insects, so there are fewer references to retain when returning to the poem to comprehend it fully. But the best way to explain is by example. My favorite poem of the collection happened to be a mingling of the blossom relating to nature as well as the historical. The entirety of “Horse Ears” states,

what’s Ch’i-chi without Po Le
thin pointed useless knives
on North Terrace half-buried in snow
read the poem of old Tung-p’o

Looking at the image you can see the blossom does indeed look like it has horse ears, but the poem itself is likely lost on us. Red Pine explains that Po Le was a famous judge of horses who was particularly interested in ears as tellers of a horse’s quality. One horse Po Le deemed of good breeding was Ch’i-chi, “whose name is still synonymous with speed.” As for “old Tung-p’o,” Su Tung-p’o wrote a poem on a friend’s North Terrace wall after it snowed “that the only things visible above the snow were the twin beaks of nearby Horse Ear Mountain.” Now the poem again.

what’s Ch’i-chi without Po Le
thin pointed useless knives
on North Terrace half-buried in snow
read the poem of old Tung-p’o

If this doesn’t test your patience, then I recommend Guide. Even if it does, the fact the text becomes easier to interact with as you make your way through the one hundred portraits makes your experience feel (befittingly) like progress and growth. One poem describing an open bloom that only needed two sentences of explanation was particularly nice. I include it in full – it reads:

New Lily Pads in Pouring Rain

a small pond newly green
pads of floating jadelike coins
in the rain ten thousand pearls
only a clever wife could string

“Clever wife” is another name for the tailorbird, which builds its nest with great skill out of next to nothing. Here, Sun Po-jen calls on it to fashion a necklace from raindrops.