1000 BCE:Book of Poetry #12: The Magpie’s Nest

How times have changed! When I started studying Chinese, in the last days of the Mao Dynasty (Mao’s son Mao Anying was killed during the Korean War supposedly when, against advice, he left shelter to go out and cook egg fried rice for breakfast: some Chinese even thank egg fried rice 蛋炒飯 dàn chǎofàn for China never achieving a full-fledged communist dynastic succession as North Korea has. So it was a short-lived dynasty) scholars used concordances, index books of Chinese classics, to look up how words were used in context. One of my English language students at Tunghai University in the early 80s got a summer job compiling one of those concordances in Taipei — perhaps it was with the Southern Materials Center which published a number of concordances.

Today’s computer database technology and the Internet have made possible amazing websites like the Chinese Text Project. The Internet itself is a great concordance of the Chinese and other languages that are widely ‘spoken’ online. When in doing a translation I found a puzzling use of a word that seems to go beyond what my dictionaries might advise, I do a search online to see how that word is used by Chinese people today. Fortunately, when my dictionaries are at their (and my) wit’s end about a certain word, so too are many Chinese people. So between their useages I can find online answers to qustions by puzzled Chinese about that same word on some Chinese websites such as Baidu Knows 百度知道 . Sometimes the Internet will tell me that word is a local useage say from some corner of Hunan Province.

Many fine tools not available in those ancient times now just several decades past. I wonder how Confucius got by without the Internet? Everybody just memorized a much smaller corpus of books I guess… so I get the sense that when Confucius asked his students about the Book of Poetry and asked them if they have read this or that, I think what he means is not have you read it (that is to be assumed), but have you mastered it so that you understand it fully and make it part of your life. If intrigued, you might want to look at my blog article Tools for Building Specialized and Technical Vocabulary for Chinese Language Learners.

Some thoughts on another poem from the Shijing/Odes/Book of Songs. Here is the first poem, #12 in the Shijing from the chapter South of Shao entitled “The Magpie’s Nest” 鵲巢.

First is James Legge’s translation from the vast Chinese text collections of the Chinese Text Project.

鵲巢 – Que ChaoEnglish translation: James Legge [?]Books referencing 《鵲巢》 Library Resources
Que Chao:The nest is the magpie’s;
The dove dwells in it.
This young lady is going to her future home;
A hundred carriages are meeting her.
Que Chao:The nest is the magpie’s;
The dove possesses it.
This young lady is going to her future home;
A hundred carriages are escorting her.
Que Chao:The nest is the magpie’s;
The dove fills it.
This young lady is going to her future home;
These hundreds of carriages complete her array.

Now Arthur Waley’s translation:

Magpie’s Nest

Now the magpie has a nest,
But the cuckoo lived in it.
Here comes the girl to be married;
With a hundred coaches we’ll meet her.

Now the magpie had a nest,
But the cuckoo made a home in it.
Here comes the girl to be married;
With a hundred carriages we’ll escort her.

Now the magpie had a nest,
But the cuckoo filled it.
Here comes a girl to be married;
With a hundred coaches we’ll gird her.

James Legge’s discussion of the poem and various commentaries

From The Chinese Classics Volume IV The She King edited by James Legge reprinted by SMC Pubishing Taipei from the last Oxford University Press edition. Avaiable online.

I’d suggest this translation which although it goes against three millenia of increasingly complicated commentaries, has the advantage of simplicity and having the poem make sense. The poor magpie being cuckolded from the get go might be a bit too much to be a hit parade poem for supposedly straight-laced ancient China, especially after King Wen staightened out society circa 1000 BCE. Many poems in the Book of Poetry and other ancient classics need to be excavated from under the weight of millenia of commentaries that often disagreed with each other.

Dictionaries sometimes aren’t a great help either since it seems that a famous commentary seems to take hold with dictionary compliers as if the fix is in.

Sometimes I wonder with all the back-and-forth of authoritative (at least for a time) commentaries over the centuries whether the Chinese cultural zone had the same problem as the Western one as far as the pitfalls of expertise goes. Sometimes experts prefer complicated explanations over simpler ones so that they can show off their expertise. Makes me think back to Louis Menand’s 2005 New Yorker article Everybody’S an Expert: Putting predictions to the test.

That being said, I am probably wrong. Maybe I am just a mere troublesome pest a 幺蛾子 yāo é zi foolishly questioning the wisdom of the commentators.

Magpie’s Nest (my stab at a translation)

Now the affianced magpie has a nest,
And his fiancée
dove dwells there.
Here comes the girl to be married;
With a hundred coaches we’ll meet her.

The affianced magpie had a nest,
And now the fiancée
dove has made it a home.
Here comes the girl to be married;
With a hundred carriages we’ll escort her home.

Now the affianced magpie has a nest,
And the fiancée
dove fills it.
Here comes a girl to be married;
With a hundred coaches we’ll escort her home.

Legge in his discussion says that the character 維 wéi is meaningless here and was only inserted for the sake of euphony. When I looked up that character in my dictionaries (Pleco makes it easy to call up an entry in many dictionaries simultaneously) I wondered it meaninglessness might be an exaggeration. I would rather understand 維 wéi as referring to the marital bond between the two lovebirds. The Book of Poetry is written in an extremely concise style that one need interpolate meaning into (that has kept millenia of commentators fed) yet given the core meaning of linking and ties that show up in other classical texts my translation seems plausible. There are so many meanings — clouds of meaning — for the words in the very concise texts of the classics that there are many rabbit holes one can go down trying to figure things out with reference to approximately contemporary texts. Or what we might imagine to be contemporary…

Herer is what Pleco gave me for 維 wéi

Pleco look up of 維 wéi in Grand Ricci GR, 現代漢語規範詞典【Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian】GF ,

Continued, entry in the Hanyu Da Cidian 漢語大辭典 HDC

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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