Sunday, February 22, 2015

Plum Pictures, Plum Poems, Plum Universe

Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom by Sung Po-jen

                                      I have nothing to give but a branch of spring.
When my wife gave me a copy of this book for my birthday last year, the first thing that struck me was the beauty of the book itself, a handsome blue paperback published by Copper Canyon Press. Their logo, 

 the Chinese character for poetry, is comprised of two parts: “word” and “temple”—such is their reverence for words at Copper Canyon Press, in this case for the words of the thirteenth century Chinese poet, Sung Po-jen, whose illustrated book of poems, Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, will make you wonder if you have ever seen Nature at all. 

Sung Po-jen’s, Mei-hua hsi-shen-p’u, or Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom is the world’s earliest-known printed book of art, written during a time of great cultural unrest when many Neo-Confucianist writers and artists were turning away from ‘the traditional approach to the derivation of knowledge through discursive thought’, believing as they did that secrets of nature could only be discovered through the patient, deliberate, nearly microscopic examination of things. While Chinese poetry had long been known for its subtlety and allusiveness, the work of poet-artists like Sung Po-jen was distinguished by its often startling likeness to natural forms. Yet realism itself was not their aim: they were after nothing less than the essence of things. “The goal was to express meaning beyond words and feeling beyond representations.” 

So comprehensive, so subtle, so painstakingly thorough is Sung Po-jen’s treatment of the simple plum blossom that his poems and drawings are divided into eight discrete sections with a variety of ‘branches’ in each: Covered Buds, Small Buds, Large Buds, Opening, Fully Opened, Radiant, Fading, and Forming Fruit. While the short poems are often subtle and in fact highly elusive, each one is clearly, briefly contextualized and annotated to make them accessible to even a novice of Neo-Classical Chinese aesthetics and culture. Reading these deftly annotated poems is a fabulous way in.  The project’s conception alone makes it well worth your while. Writes scholar Lo Ch’ing:

Sung’s book is…significant because it attempts to fathom the essence of a material object through detailed, empirical examination and uses the results of that examination to form the basis for that object’s deconstruction and reconstruction on a different plane. Once readers have the flower’s 100 stages memorized, they have the key to the plum flower and the key to Nature as well. With this key they can create their own plum flower universe without having to observe Nature at all.

How nice to simply close one’s eyes and see.


Red Pine (pen-name for Bill Porter) is the translator of this collection. Born in Los Angeles, Bill Porter earned a degree in Anthropology from U.C Santa Barbara before briefly attending graduate school at Columbia University, Uninspired by the prospect of an academic career, he moved to a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. After four years there, he worked for a number of English-language radio stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where he produced over a thousand programs about his travels in China. His recent publication include Zen Baggage, an account of a pilgrimage to sites associated with the beginning of Zen in China, and In Such Hard Times, a translation of the poetry of Wei Ying-wu, one of China’s greatest poets. 

Peter Adam Nash

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