The Poetry of Chen Gongbo, and the Perils of Translation

Some readers may recall that several months ago I posted a piece on Chen Gongbo, who was the Mayor of Occupied Shanghai during the early 1940s.  In that post, I included a poem by Chen Gongbo that I found while researching my book Shanghai's Dancing World.  The poem describes a scene at a dance hall.  The other day I received this message from Chen Gongbo's son, Chen Gan (Kan Chen).  He has provided an interesting correction to my translation of the poem.  Martin Winter, translator par excellence who provided a corrective on the post (using the name "Nitram") also didn't get it quite right, according to Kan Chen.  I guess this shows that when translating Chinese poetry one always has to be wary of the literary allusions that are hidden in the language of the poem, and never take any image for granted.

Kan writes:

Dear Andrew:

My youngest son Sloane found your blog and called it to my attention. It was my first time seeing your blog, with a great deal of interesting information. As you can understand, I concentrated on your description of my father's past history. I was particularly interested in the reader Nitram's comment, pointing out the error in your translation of my father's poem. You thought "Hai-tang" meant ocean. Nitram said it is a plant like crab apple. It turns out that Nitram is also erroneous, since Hai-tang is the Chinese name for geranium, with mostly red or pink blossoms.

I was puzzled why my father was contrasting pear flowers with geranium and decided to do some research through Baidu, the Chinese browser. What I found was quite interesting. The contrast between pear flowers (always white blossoms) and geranium (mostly red and pink blossoms) came from a poem composed by the Sung Dynasty poet SU Dong-po 蘇東坡 making fun of his 80-year old friend taking an 18-year old girl for his concubine. SU Dong-po's poem and explanation in Chinese follows: 


 梨花指的是白发的丈夫,海棠指的是红颜少妇,一个“压”  道尽无数未说之语!

Thus. "pear blossoms" refer to the white hair of the old husband, and "geranium" refers to the beautiful face of the young concubine. The last half of SU's poem used pear blossoms and geranium to speculate on how the old husband "bears upon" the concubine on the wedding night.

In fact, the last verse 一树梨花压海棠 (A tree of pear blossoms bearing upon the geranium)  has become an idiom among the classical Chinese scholars, and I understand that there is a Chinese movie with that title. Obviously, the newspaper reporter who wrote the brief article was also familiar with this poem by SU Dong-po, and praised my father's having replaced the word 压 (bearing) by the word 映 (shimmering), turning obscenity into romance.

 Based on this history, the last sentence of my father's poem could probably be translated as

"Sad was I watching the older men's white hair shimmering among the pretty faces of the young dancing girls." 

I am sure you can improve on my translation. In any event, my findings might provide you some interesting materials for updating your blog.

Best regards,


Kan's message makes me even more eager to delve into the poetry and the life of his enigmatic father Chen Gongbo.