Monday, February 27, 2006

The Waterfall on Lu Mountain

In his poem ‘The Waterfall on Lu Mountain’, Li Po (Li Bai) likened the sight of the ceaseless flow of water to stars falling from the sky. In Arthur Cooper’s 1971 translation it reads: “At first I feared Milky Way had dropped / And sprinkled stars, falling through the clouds!’ Cooper noted that the Chinese words that he renders as ‘sprinkled’ and ‘falling’, ‘sa’ and ‘lo’, are the first syllables of a word that some have suggested as the original for the mysterious term sharawadgy, used by Sir William Temple in his Gardens of Epicurus (1685) to refer to a quality of naturalness. This is what Temple wrote of Chinese gardeners:
“But their greatest reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures, where the beauty shall be great, and strike the eye, but without any order or disposition of parts that shall be commonly or easily observed: and, though we have hardly any notion of this sort of beauty, yet they have a particular word to express it, and, where they find it hit their eye at first sight, they say the sharawadgi is fine or is admirable, or any such expression of esteem.”
According to Arthur Cooper, the sa-lo in Li Po’s poem relates to the notion of Heraclitus: ‘the ever changing yet never-changing waterfall as the symbol of nature; a reason for the special importance of waterfalls in Chinese paintings.’ Whilst these speculations may not pass academic scrutiny, I think they offer a stimulating chain of connections and associations: Li Po – Temple – Heraclitus…
Incidentally, the Poetry Library archive has an old review of the Arthur Cooper translations which is not very complimentary. But I would still recommend the book for the pleasure of the notes and introduction.

Illustration: Li Bai watching a Waterfall by Okutani Shūseki (1871-1936)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

graham king said...

Fascinated by this having taught at University of Hong Kong since 1992 and having browsed in their literature. Found "Chinese Painting" by T C Lai especially interesting with a wide historical selection of traditional paintings all with inscriptions. Stacks of waterfalls. more theoretical but apt is Francois Jullien's "In Praise of Blandness" on Chinese Thought and Aesthetics.

A mountain wind whistles over crevaces and streams;
I can hear a song fropm the stumps and branches. (Chien Chiang b1610)