“I think Du Fu Is the Most Interesting and Humorous Tang Poet.”—An Interview with Sinologist Stephen Owen

  • Stephen Owen, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sinology
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Chinese original by Yu-Fang Liang

Interviewer: Yu-Fang Liang

Editor: Sean Pan

Senior Editor: Sid Weng

Published on The News Lens on August 26, 2019


Prof. Owen believes the wisdom of our ancestors still resonates with us today


Q: You became curious about classical Chinese poetry after reading the poem by the Tang poet Li He about the famous courtesan Su Xiaoxiao. You were only 14 at that time and you had no idea who Xu Xiaoxiao was. Why do you think you were touched by the poem?


A: Indeed, I didn’t know who Xu Xiaoxiao was. Sometimes people marvel at my ability to understand Tang poems, and actually I am quite good at it.


I think if a good poem can be widely appreciated, it must contain a lot of background and professional information.   


When you try to explain what a poem really means, people will feel something special, something different from what they learned as kids. “The Tomb of Su Xiaoxiao” is a great example. It tells you something different from what you would have expected. It touches you on so many different levels. Things that are ordinary but concrete can touch you. The more you understand them, the more you will feel the richness of their spirituality, and the more you will want to explore. In the process of exploration, there is a state of equilibrium, where you can soar freely with ease.    


Q: You were just a boy at that time. How could you have such profound understanding of Li He’s poem about Su Xiaoxiao?


A: As we undergo more experiences, we will gain different perspectives on life. Let me give you an example of how Chinese students learn. They are told to memorize these poems and lyrics because it sounds wonderful when you recite them. But if you ask these students what the poems mean, they won’t be able to answer. They won’t see the meaning until they grow up. And when they grow older, they will be able to feel more deeply the emotions running through these poems. It tells you that there are different dimensions to your understanding of something. Besides, your feeling and comprehension change when you are at different ages. When I was 14 or 15, there were some poems that really captivated me but now I probably won’t even cast a glance at them. Some poems didn’t impress me at first, but then I reread them and my opinions started to change. Some poems will evade your comprehension until you reach certain age. This is why classical Chinese language and poems are so fascinating. Whether you are a child, a young graduate about to enter the workforce, a mature middle-aged man, or an elder about to go into retirement, there are poems for you in each stage of your life.       


The poetic image, the picture “The Tomb of Su Xiaoxiao” creates is simply gorgeous. Of course you don’t have to know all of these at first. But then you will learn about its meaning and implication, you will start to appreciate every beautifully composed stanza, and your emotions will just run deeper and stronger.   


If we are talking about the poems that aren’t too difficult to translate, reading either the Chinese original or the English rendition will give you real pleasure, especially this one. The image it builds up is so powerful that you can easily conjure up a picture in your head. But if you want to translate Du Fu’s poems, it will be a tough task.


Q: A lot of your effort has gone into studying Tang poems. Why this particular genre?


A: I study almost all kinds of genres, but my main focus is on Tang poetry. It is a kind of social media because people share poems with each other. Tang poetry set out rules for those who came later to follow. Layer upon layer of writing skills were evolved based on the existing ones. These skills were not completely developed in the Tang Dynasty yet. However, at that time, the poets knew how to use different writing styles and the contents of the poems to voice their personalities.  


There were also “social networks” through which people can circulate their poems. Poets would form communities and wrote poems, reading each other’s works and replying to each other’s comments. This is a highly socializing medium through which people can share their poems. Tang poetry also laid the foundations of future literary creation.


Q: In the past, poets composed poems under different circumstances as a way to express their emotions or chronicle important events. Is this also something you do?



A: Yes, I do write poems, but nowadays poems no longer function as a social medium as they did in the Tang Dynasty, because the feelings about poetry are different. In the past, poets gathered together and wrote each other poems with ease and pleasure. Now it doesn’t seem so interesting to write poems to others. Instead, it’s more like someone is trying to show off his extraordinary intelligence and knowledge. 


You don’t write poems to prove how smart or learned you are. Otherwise you will lose the real motive and no longer have the spirit of a true poet. Many things look similar on the surface while their implications are completely different. If writing poems can be an enjoyable experience as it used to be, without so much pressure and so many rules, then I would consider trying my hand at it.


Q: Do you write rhymes?


A: I did, but not very often. If, like me, you had been studying classical poems for 50 years, you wouldn’t be surprised that I can write Chinese poems. Sometimes young Chinese students would come to talk to me after attending my classes. They looked at me with amazement and asked: “You are not Chinese. How come you can understand and appreciate Tang poems?” And I would reply: “Because I started studying Tang poems before your parents were born!”


Q: You talked about how hard it is to translate Du Fu. Can you share with us some happy or painful memories?  


A: Du Fu’s works are extremely hard to translate. He is a great poet. I love him and have translated many of his works. It’s difficult to translate his works because his expressions are different from other poets’, and many sinologists don’t understand why. They are not familiar with his language usage so they don’t really know what he was trying to say.


If you are familiar with his word choice, his characteristic expressions, you will find that he has a sense of humor when it comes to language. The earliest review of Du Fu’s works came from a collection of his works published 10 years after he died. This anthology tells us that reading Du Fu’s poems makes you see him as a very interesting poet. Du Fu had some elegant works. He published poems, and sometimes he published something more serious too. But most people got the impression that he was very witty and funny. I think “witty” is the most appropriate description, just like saying Shakespeare is a very witty writer.       


His humor and elegance always lie side by side. Du Fu’s works cover a very board range of topics. This is the charm of his poems and also the reason why it’s so difficult to come up with a good rendition of them.


I like challenges, and I like trying to understand what’s in a poet’s mind. People don’t believe that Du Fu had a good sense of humor, but I think he is the most interesting Tang poet. I can guarantee it.


Q: We all have the impression that his poems are very patriotic.


A: Many of his poems are full of patriotism. Many of his poems express his worries about his country and its people. But he also wrote a lot of poem about food. Why did I decide to translate all the existing poems by Du Fu? Because I wanted people to see Du Fu not just as a rigid Confucian, not just as a serious poet. For example, one of his poems is about setting up a chicken coop. He raised chickens so he can eat them. He needed black chickens. I can assure you no one else in the history of Chinese literature had ever written about black chickens.


(Note: this is a reference to the poem, “Urging Zongwen to Make Haste Setting up a Chicken Coop,” in which Du Fu writes, “To cure rheums they say black chickens/Autumn eggs should be plentifully eaten.” English translation by Prof. Owen. Black chickens here mean dark meat chickens.)


This is the Tang poetry we are talking about, poems written when the Tang Dynasty was at its peak. Du Fu was sick and needed some chicken meat for nourishment. So he let the eggs hatch and there were more than a hundred chickens running around…I think Du Fu was also the first poet to mention “chicken droppings.” He said he couldn’t stand the droppings scattered all over the house so he needed a chicken coop.  


After studying this poem, you will know this is a political satire on the Tang empire. I think it’s about the commissioning of jiedushi (regional military governors) during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign. When the war spread to the capital and Xuanzong was forced to flee, none of the jiedushi came to his rescue. Du Fu compared his relationship with the chickens to that between Xuanzong and those uncontrollable jiedushi. So he set up a coop to keep them away. There are no explicit political messages in this poem, but the content is political. It differs from the general impression people have about Du Fu. So how should we interpret a poem like this?  


Most critics before the Qing Dynasty quite liked this poem, but critics in the Qing Dynasty thought it was awful. How could Du Fu write something like this? This was people’s opinion about Du Fu in the Qing Dynasty. In the Qing Dynasty, everyone was trying to play it safe and write something safe.


Q: In Taiwan’s textbooks, there are selections of Li Bai and Du Fu’s poems. Usually teachers would say Li Bai is more talented than Du Fu. Li Bai is the “fairy poet” while Du Fu is the “sage poet.” One is immortal; the other isn’t. Your take on it?  


A: I know about this comparison. In China, people tend to read Tang poems with certain stereotypes in mind. If you think you already know the meaning and implication of a poem before even reading it, you can’t really understand the poem. We shouldn’t just read a poem and conclude that “this is what Du Fu was like and this is what Li Bai was like.”


You can make a cursory remark suggesting that Du Fu was a devout Buddhist and quote from some of his anthologies to prove your point. For example, a lot of Du Fu’s poems are about Buddhism. So people would say Du Fu was a great Buddhist poet in the Tang Dynasty, and then drew many examples from his poems to endorse this argument. This approach is quite problematic.    


They chose certain poems to illustrate Du Fu’s writing style and even jumped to the conclusion that this is what Du Fu was like. But Du Fu wrote other kinds of poems too, such as poems about sashimi. Du Fu loved sashimi. He also wrote poems about eels. One day he told his wife to prepare some eels. So he wrote that they had three eels that evening and they were going to make a dish with them. He even used the word zhen (I, the emperor) to tell his wife that they would have eels for dinner.


In the past, only an emperor could use zhen to talk about himself. Normally we don’t see this word in Tang poems. But Du Fu chose to use it when talking with his family. This shows that he really had a great sense of humor. If you can see this side of Du Fu, you will like him more.


We are also looking at some wider topics here, including why classical Chinese poems can survive until today, the features of Chinese poems and the expectations people in different dynasties had about their societies. For instance, people living in the Tang Dynasty were very different from those living in the Qing Dynasty and their likes and dislikes were different too.


Don’t be confined to these anthologies and you will discover a different Du Fu. Your interpretation of his poems will be different too. When you learn to read these poems from different perspectives, you can see a humanistic, witty and humorous Du Fu, and sometimes you will also see an angry Du Fu.  


Q: So we can see different sides of Du Fu.


A: A Du Fu with many different sides is amazing! There was so much he would talk about. Oh, God! He hated amaranthus. I quite like it though. He described amaranthus as a terrible vegetable. Cannot stop saying how hideous it was. When you read this poem, you will burst into laughter. 


(Note: this is a reference to Du Fu’s poem, “Planting Lettuce” :


       You, wild amaranthus, I don’t know where you came from,

       your teeming growth is truly right here.

       This type of plant must also know autumn,

       it too bears the accumulation of cold dew.

       Swift-changing it speedily comes from the ground,

       lushly spreading, my whole yard is ruined.


       Yes, the amaranthus is useful for nothing,

       brazen-faced, it enters the baskets.


English translation by Prof. Owen.)


This kind of style also reveals another advantage Du Fu had. We all love Shakespeare. We may think some of his plays are really serious. But there are witty, humorous or hilarious ones too. 


Q: Recently people in Taiwan are debating about whether we should change the proportion of classical Chinese to modern written Chinese in the education curriculum. What do you think about this?


A: I am aware of the debate. If there are good teachers and textbooks, and the classes are lively and interesting, then we can teach classical Chinese well. But if they are dull and boring, then we had better teach only modern Chinese. Students shouldn’t be forced to learn. If we can’t find a way to make learning classical Chinese enjoyable, then we shouldn’t teach it. This is a huge challenge. It’s not just about whether we can teach classical Chinese or not. We also have to find the right pedagogy.


Written Chinese is actually very beautiful. If you know how to demonstrate the beauty to students, they will like it.


Frist of all, we need some good teachers. They know how to appreciate these texts and how to teach them to students. Especially when you try to appreciate the language they were written in, you will realize it is a form of traditional art. It’s a shame that now it is almost extinct.  


We face the same situation in the West. Looking back at the Elizabethan era, we are all dazzled by works created during that period. They resonate with you. They are so intimate with you. No one is able to write like this anymore.


Languages are used in a different way now. Ancient languages are like our ancestors or grandparents, so familiar and so endearing, but they represent a world that is beyond our reach. I think we should perceive “tradition” as something you can understand. You can see its profundity and beauty. But you don’t have to sit at your desk, pretending to write a classic poem to prove it.


What’s really important is to be able to understand the connotations of the emotions these poems want to convey. If we teach them well, these works will be preserved. If we don’t, myself included, they will disappear.   


In Taiwan or Mainland China, teachers don’t have to care too much about this. Whether students like it or not, they have to teach everything in the textbooks. But in America, if none of the students is interested in what I teach, I will have no students sign up for my classes, and Harvard will not be able to offer any courses in sinology. Of course this will be because Prof. Tian and I are not doing a good job. Ha Ha!


Q: But some people think classical Chinese literature isn’t very useful in modern society.


A: Not very useful? Even the so-called useless subjects are still very important. That’s why traditions can survive.


History doesn’t always appear vivid to us. However, when you read these poems and prose, you can feel their presence. They are preserved in history. They are alive. You can feel strongly what these words are meant to convey, though you may not have a perfect command of them. 


Not everything has the so-called practical value. Some texts will become useful to you when you are 40. Others will appeal to you when you are 80. I always tell my students: maybe you don’t like these works now. But one day when you get a job at Wall Street and make a bunch of money, but have a very boring life, you may start regretting not studying hard to gain more knowledge. Why do you spend all your time making money and making yourself unhappy? What should you do? This is why you need to learn. Through learning, you can find things you are interested in and will still love 20 years later.


Q: Throughout your research career, what keeps you focusing on Tang poetry?


A: I don’t just study Tang poetry. I also study Song lyrics. In fact, I do more than just research. I teach, and I do some administration. So when I have time to sit down and write, or think, or study something, I am always very happy. Doing research is more like going on a holiday for me, and that’s what motivates me to keep going.


Q: Looking back, what would you say is the happiest moment in your life?


A: I don’t know. This is an impossible question. So many things have happened in my life, good and bad things, and my life is still going on…


When I retired, they threw a farewell party for me and most of my students came. I never realized how many students I had until then. Many are now some of the best scholars in American sinology. You know, as time went by, some of the students have also aged a bit. Looking at them, I felt a great sense of achievement. I am proud of them. Not all of them study classical poems or lyrics. They work in different research fields.   


Q: What’s your advice to young scholars?


A: I will say you have to do something you really like. It is not wise to just do any kind of research, because if you are not really interested in the subject, you are going to suffer. As I said before, you have to make these wisdoms yours.


Another piece of advice will be that if teaching is your job, when you teach, you have to think about and understand the works written by other people. Only by thinking about them can you truly understand them. 


Q: Maybe you have been asked this following question many times. How did it feel to be awarded the Tang Prize in Sinology?


A: Awards are not meant to make people competitive. They are meant to make people think about the importance of these research fields. The research directions are very important. Also, what have they researched? So this prize has a real positive impact on people. I think Prof. Shiba is a worthy winner because he restructured and consolidated all the research efforts in sinology.


Q: Is there anything else you want to say to our readers:


A: I hope reading Chinese literature can be a joy for everyone. It is not just a research subject and it shouldn’t be something only students have to study. Anyone who can read Chinese, especially those who have been imbued with Chinese culture, should be able to receive the wisdom of the ancients when reading these literary works, and find things they can relate to. As for young scholars, like what I have said: “If you like it, go for it!”  


“Sustainability is essential for our environment, but it is also important for a culture. To go into the future, we must remember who we have been. If we forget that, we no longer know what we are. For a culture to survive, it must change in order to link past and present. This is the duty of the future, as it is the duty of the present.”—Stephen Owen, Taipei, September 20, 2018.


You may also want to know: what is Harvard’s University Professor?


Stephen Own not only has a PhD degree in Chinese Literature from Yale University, and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but he has also been James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University since 1997. What is “University Professor”? Harvard, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, runs a system which, since created by the President and Fellows of Harvard College in 1935, has been conferring the title of “University Professor” on “individuals whose groundbreaking work crosses the boundaries of multiple disciplines, allowing them to pursue research at any of Harvard’s Schools,” as noted on its website.    


In other words, a university professorship is the most pre-eminent position offered to people who are experts in their specialist fields. With increased funding from the university, the number of university professors also increased. There were 21 university professors in 2006, and now the number has gone up to 24. What’s interesting is that the title of every university professor begins with another person’s name. For example, the name appears in Prof. Owen’s title is “James Bryant Conant.” He was former president of Harvard University, the first US Ambassador to West Germany, a chemist, a politician, and an educator. To put another name at the beginning of the title of a university professor signifies the importance of the acts of commemoration and inheritance. 


About the book:

This interview is an excerpt from The Persevering Spirits: The 2018 Tang Prize Laureates,

Author: Yu-Fang Liang

Publisher: Linking Publishing Company


“Young people should go for what their hearts decide. Though it’s not always easy to love what you choose to do, keep soldiering on, and all the efforts will eventually come to fruition.”—Samuel Yin, Founder of the Tang Prize Foundation and Chairman of Ruentex Group


Founded in 2012, the Tang Prize is awarded to people who have made significant contributions to human society in four fields, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology and Rule of Law. Regardless of their ethnicity or nationality, winners are selected for their influential research works and are honored in a formal awards ceremony held every two years.


The Tang Prize foregrounds the wisdom required to tackle issues confronting mankind in the 21st century, while encouraging the trailblazers of our era to take it upon themselves to enhance our civilization and better the world. The prize in Sustainable Development recognizes groundbreaking innovations in science and technology that further the sustainability of human societies. The prize in Biopharmaceutical Science awards original biopharmaceutical or biomedical research that improves human health and the quality of life. The prize in Sinology showcases Chinese culture and its contribution to the development of human civilization. The prize in Rule of Law is based on the belief that all men are created equal. It recognizes individuals who have helped advance legal theory and practice and improve the welfare of man and nature.


The Persevering Spirits: The 2018 Tang Prize Laureates tells you why the achievements of these 8 winners have made a huge difference to human society.


They are:


In Sustainable Development, James E. Hansen and Veerabhadran Ramanathan
Their pioneering research has given us a fundamental understanding of climate change and environmental sustainability and has lain the foundation for international actions such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.


In Biopharmaceutical Science, Tony Hunter, Brian J. Druker and John Mendelson

Dr. Hunter discovered tyrosine phosphorylation and showed that the Src oncoprotein is a tyrosine kinase, thus unlocking the mystery of the role oncoproteins play in cell signaling. Building on his findings, Dr. Druker and Dr. Mendelson committed themselves to the development of tyrosine kinase inhibitor drugs, opening up the field of target cancer therapies.  

In Sinology, Stephen Owen and Yoshinobu Shiba
Prof. Owen has an encyclopedic knowledge of classical Chinese literature and is an eminent translator of Tang poems. Prof. Shiba has illuminating insight into China’s socio-economic history, especially the studies of the Song Dynasty and is an expert in integrating the strengths of Chinese, Japanese and Western academic traditions.


In Rule of Law, Joseph Raz
Prof. Raz specializes in legal, moral and political philosophies. He is a towering figure in modern legal philosophy and an intellectual giant who has profound influence in the fields of moral and political philosophy.