Kinda kills me how little information is available on the modern Chinese writers, you know? A few of the most famous works have been translated, but most have only cursory mentions. Even the Wikipedia pages don’t have nearly the amount of content that the Chinese encyclopedias offer. Dai Wangshu, for example, is relatively unknown in the west. So who is this guy?
Dai Wangshu (戴望舒) was a famously-depressed modern Chinese symbolist poet, born in 1905, died from an accidental overdose of asthma medication in 1950 – asthma which he contracted when he was thrown in jail by the Japanese for advocating revolution. Seriously, this guy spent his entire life having the sadz. He threatened to kill himself a couple of times, once to force his girlfriend to marry him (she agreed, but then ran off with a refrigerator salesman, cuz I guess refrigerators were a big deal at the time), and once when his first wife fell in love with another man and asked for a divorce.
《雨巷》, Dai Wangshu’s representative work was written in 1927 when he was 22. He’d just broken it off with his girlfriend and was spending much of his time in seclusion at a friend’s house. This was also written soon after the April 12 Incident, during which the KMT (Guomindang) slaughtered a bunch of Communists in Shanghai, where Dai Wangshu was living, so we’re talking a period of political uncertainty and upheaval. Because of this, there’s been speculation that the poem has political overtones, but I don’t think so.
Like most of Dai Wangshu’s work, 《雨巷》 is wistful, lovely and sad, and also a bit misty and dreamlike. It describes a single scene in which a woman, dressed in purple and holding an oil paper umbrella, passes the author on a silent rainy road. You’ll see the word 丁香 appear frequently – that’s a “lilac”. Lilacs come up a lot here. The language is difficult at first, but then gets repetitive, as he uses the same words again and again in different configurations, until in the last stanza, there’s no new vocabulary.
I don’t love the translation that’s available for this, so I made own translation below – it’s not perfect. Like most Chinese poetry, if you translate with exact faithfulness, it sounds crappy in English, so small liberties have been taken. You may like the other version better, go check it out. Regardless of the translation, I think this piece loses its beauty in the English version. If you read the poem out loud in Chinese, you’ll notice it’s got a lovely cadence, with some off-tempo rhymes that get lost in any other language, so try reciting it, if you can.
彷徨 is interesting in that it has two meanings. One is to pace back and forth – a Chinese synonym for this might be 徘徊. But it also means “to hesitate”. I personally used both definitions, one in the first stanza, a different one a little later on, so don’t let that trip you up. In fact, I do something similar in a couple of places, use different definitions of the same word to make it sound a bit better in English.
Little side note, these Chinese punctuation marks 《》 indicate the name of a book, movie, poem, or other written work – we use quotes or italics for this in English.
Click to Listen
彷徨 – pánghuáng – To pace (or to hestitate)
寂寥 – jì liáo – Solitude / solitary
丁香 – dīng xiāng – Lilac
愁怨 – chóu yuàn – Worried and resentful (two separate words)
芬芳 – fēn fāng – Fragrance
哀怨 – āi yuàn – Sad
彳亍 – chì chù – Walk slowly
凄清 – qī qīng – Gloomy
太息 – tài xī – Sigh
凄婉 – qī wǎn – Bittersweet, sad but beautiful
颓圮 – tuí pǐ – Crumbling, toppled
哀曲 – āi qū – Sad song