Tang Prize Winner Stephen Owen Gives Us A Different Du Fu

  • Stephen Owen, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sinology
  • Stephen Owen, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sinology
  • Stephen Owen, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sinology
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“It's as if Du Fu was brought back to life and then given a brand new identity,” Prof. Siao-Chen Hu thus concluded Prof. Stephen Owen’s talk delivered on October 14 at Academia Sinica, the first of the three lectures he will be giving on this Taiwan tour, made possible because of the invitation of Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology and National Taiwan University. Studying under Prof. Owen when she was at Harvard, Prof. Hu, currently director of the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy in Academic Sinica, felt freshly inspired after listening to her teacher interpreting Du Fu’s works once again.


Newly retired James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Prof. Owen is one of the most eminent translators of classical Chinese poetry today. Almost none of his contemporaries can match him for his original and in-depth analysis of Tang Dynasty poems. In 2018, he was awarded the Tang Prize in Sinology for revolutionizing the way we read Chinese literature and for making a significant breakthrough in the development and application of the theory of comparative literature.


The Chinese title of his talk, “The Sage Poet and Black Chickens,” was intended to accentuate the contrast between the highbrow and the lowbrow, the grandiose and the trivial. Elaborating on Du Fu’s poem, “Urging Zongwen to Make Haste Setting up a Chicken Coop,” Prof. Owen cited the lines “Their sorts are ordinary birds, but as for their temper, their minds are not stone” to describe how the chickens running amok in the poet’s house can be likened to the rebellious subjects the emperor was unable to control. He pointed out that the expression, “minds are not stone,” is derived from “My heart is not a stone that can be turned over easily” in Shijing or the Book of Songs, one of the most important Chinese classics. Noticing how Du Fu’s poems usually start with humor but get increasingly darker, Prof. Owen explained that while the parallel between the elegance of the language in Shijing and the unsavoriness of the chicken riots Du Fu had to deal with is where the humor comes from, it also allows us to see the poet’s ingenuity in using something ordinary and commonplace to implicate something more serious and consequential. In his poems, what is small is usually a small version of what is large. Du Fu’s ability to make classical literary allusions as a way to talk about life’s petty annoyances injects into his poetic works a deft touch of humor, and the veiled references to social and political phenomena he made through the narrations of some minor, daily incidents demonstrate the extraordinary complexities his poems can convey. Fascinated by Du Fu’s unique sense of black humor, Prof. Owen spent 8 years translating all the 1400 existing poems by Du Fu into English, successfully bringing this Chinese poet into the arena of world literature.


In the Q&A section, one of the audience asked why Du Fu’s humor seemed to be lost among his readers in the Song Dynasty. Prof. Owen reminded us that when language changed with the change of time, what was obvious to the Tang readers could simply escape the attention and appreciation of the Song critics. However, he remarked that as modern readers, we can always go back in history to investigate how words were produced and transformed as time went by, and are therefore able to detect the nuance of Du Fu’s poetic language and the many layers of connotations it can carry. Bringing the event to a close, Prof. Hu commented that “as Prof. Owen just illustrated, through the lens of modern scholarship, we can find many different ways to understand Du Fu.”  


Prof. Owen’s second talk, “The Last Classical Poet (?): For Wu Wenying,” took place on October 16 at National Taiwan University, while on the 20th, he is going to participate in the Yang Mu Literature Lecture Series and give his third talk, “Over the Borders Within,” in the National Dong Hwa University’s College of Indigenous Studies.  


Prior to these academic activities, Prof. Owen also visited the Tang Prize Foundation on October 10 to catch up with Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern, CEO of the Foundation. Informing Prof. Owen of his meeting with Prof. Prasenjit Duara, incumbent president of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), the world’s largest organization for Asian Studies, Dr. Chern mentioned that in July he and Prof. Duara had a discussion in the foundation about the possibility of signing an MOA to facilitate closer collaboration between AAS and the Tang Prize, and he expressed his hope of having Prof. Owen give a talk as a Tang Prize laureate in AAS’ 2020 annual conference, to be held from March 19 to 22 in Boston, so as to further interactions between international sinologists.  


To promote Prof. Owen’s lecture tour, the Tang Prize Foundation will not only make the video of his first talk available online, but will also run a raffle on its Facebook page, starting October 25. Every entrant is expected to click the “Like” button and leave a message in order to be selected as one of the three winners to get a copy of the Chinese book, The Persevering Spirits: the 2018 Tang Prize Laureates, signed by Prof. Owen, or as one of the two winners to get a Tang Prize Easy Card, designed by the world-renown company, Proad Identity. For anyone interested in taking part, please stay tuned to the Tang Prize website and our Facebook page.


For more information about the 2020 AAS conference, please go to https://www.asianstudies.org/conference/