ExEAS Teaching Unit

Literary Con/Texts
Paola Zamperini
Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations
Amherst College

Additional Documents
Student Handout PDF icon download as PDF doc

This exercise is a very simple, clear, effective tool to begin an undergraduate Chinese/Asian literature course in translation. It introduces students to the main issues of the course, from literary history to gender and cultural and social history, by focusing on a specific genre, namely poetry. Students are asked to read and discuss a selection of poems and guess the gender and nationality of their authors, as well as the period in which the poems were written. The exercise forces students to face stereotypes and assumptions they might hold about gender and/or Asian literature and culture and encourages them to think about translation and its dangers. Furthermore, it serves as an excellent introduction to the format of in-class discussion about primary sources from the very beginning. It also helps students to get to know each other, facilitating the creation of an open and stimulating atmosphere in the classroom.
Include poems that are little known — they destabilize any notions of culture, gender, and historical change that students bring to the classroom. It is always fun at the end of the class to reveal to the students the “right” answers, and discuss with them how their ideas resonate — or fail to do so — with the true identity of the authors in question. (The answers are included below, but you are welcome to ignore them and try the exercise on your own).
Ask the students to keep in mind throughout the course that we are operating with texts mediated by the filter of translation. (See the follow-up reading below for a suggested student reading.) One way this idea can also be supplemented is by having the students read different translations of the same poem. This works particularly well with classical Chinese poems, where the range of translations goes from Ezra Pound’s imaginative recreations to Stephen Owen’s impeccable renditions.
This exercise can also be successfully copied with many other genres of writing, from fiction to drama to philosophy, and possibly even film.
In-Class Activity
Directions for the students: Read closely the following poems on your own, and, based on the text, decide the gender and nationality of their authors, as well as the period in which they lived. Then, in small groups of four, discuss your choices and the rationale that informed them. You have twenty minutes to come up with a list you all agree on (more or less), with the goal of presenting your reasons to the rest of the class. We will all discuss as a class the various lists and will analyze together the literary, cultural, social and linguistic expectations and ideas that shaped your decisions and readings.
Click here to download the poems in student handout format.

1. Amidst the flowers a jug of wine,

I pour alone lacking companionship.

So raising the cup I invite the Moon,

Then turn to my shadow which makes three of us.

Because the Moon does not know how to drink,

My shadow merely follows the movement of my body.

The moon has brought the shadow to keep me company a while,

The practice of mirth should keep pace with spring.

I start a song and the moon begins to reel,

I rise and dance and the shadow moves grotesquely.

While I'm still conscious let's rejoice with one another,

After I'm drunk let each one go his way.

Let us bind ourselves forever for passionless journeying.

Let us swear to meet again far in the Milky Way.


2. When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs,

I am compelled to admit

That man is the superior animal.

When I consider the curious habits of man,

I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.


3. Love's intoxication, my disintegration:

My heart's beyond the need for food or sleep.

My body floats at sea; my feet and head

Are nowhere to be found; my soul has fled.


4. How quickly the season of apricots is over—

a single night's wind is enough.

I kneel on the ground, lifting one, then the next.

Eating those I can, before the bruises appear.


5. I live in sin, dying to myself I live;

Life is no longer mine, but belongs to sin;

My good is from heaven, my evil I give to myself,

From my own unbound will, which has been stolen from me.

My freedom is a slave, my divinity has made itself


Oh, unhappy state!

To what misery, to what life I've been born!


6. I always remember the sunset

Over the pavilion by the river.

So tipsy, we could not find our way home.

Our interest exhausted, the evening late,

We tried to turn the boat homeward.

By mistake, we entered deep within the lotus bed.

Row! Row the boat!

A flock of herons, frightened,

Suddenly flew skyward.

Answers for the instructor:

1. Li Bai (701- 762)
2. Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
3. Rumi (1207-1273)
4. Jane Hirshfield (1953- )
5. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
6. Li Qingzhao (c.1083-aft.1149)

Follow-Up Reading
The above exercise is also very useful for getting students to think about reading literature in translation. It can be followed up with the following student reading:
Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator.” In Illuminations, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books: 1968.

Benjamin originally wrote this essay in 1921 as an introduction to his translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens.