Meng Jiao (Meng Chiao) & the One Inch of Grass
Meng Jiao (Meng Chiao) 孟郊 Mèng Jiaō (751-814) belonged to a circle surrounding the major essayist, poet, and critic Han Yu (Han Yü) (768-824). His poetry is noted for its cold and somewhat jarring imagery and contrived expression. Meng Jiao had a singularly unsuccessful public career, not passing the official examinations until he was about 50 and failing to attain a significant post in the bureaucracy.
His 'Wanderer's Song' uses the 'inch of grass' image later referred to by Li Shangyin, which Roger Waters used in modified form in 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'. In Chinese literature, the 'Wanderer's Song' is a well-known and popular poem that nicely expresses the obligation to return parental love, a conventional virtue in Chinese morality. The poem is relatively simple and easy to understand even for speakers of modern Chinese. Graham's translation runs:
The thread in the hand of a kind mother
Is the coat on the wanderer's back.
Before he left she stitched it close
In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?
yoú zǐ yín
|The thread in the hand of a kind mother||慈母手中線
cí mǔ shǒu zhōng xiàn
loving mother hand-inside (=in the hand) thread
|Is the coat on the wanderer's back.||遊子身上衣
yoú zǐ shēn shàng yī
wander child (=person) body-on (=on the body) clothing
|Before he left she stitched it close||臨行密密縫
lín xíng mì mì féng
on-the-point-of go dense dense sew
|In secret fear that he would be slow to return.||意恐遲遲歸
yì kǒng chí chí guī
think/mind fear late late return
|Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart||誰言寸草心
shuí yán cùn cǎo xīn
who say inch grass heart
|Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?||報得三春暉
bào dé sān chūn huī
repay-kindness three spring sunshine
According to Graham, thoughts are traditionally thought to occupy a hollow space in the heart one inch square, which accounts for the image in line 5.
The grammatical construction of the first two lines is strangely echoed in the song 'Free Four' (from the album 'Obscured by Clouds'):
'The mem'ries of a man in his old age
Are the deeds of a man in his prime'
An alternative version of the 'Wanderer's Song', which does not subscribe to the conceit that 'thoughts are in a hollow space in the heart one inch square', is found in the 1962 'Penguin Anthology of Chinese Verse'.
The thread from a fond mother's hand
Is now in the jacket of her absent son.
As his departure came near, closer and closer was the stitching,
Her mind fearing that his return would be delayed and delayed.
Who says that the heart of an inch-long plant
Can requite the radiance of full Spring?
This version faithfully reproduces the reduplication of the word mì (close) in line 3 and chí (delay) in line 4.
And just to show how many ways a Chinese poem can be translated, here is a translation of the same poem by S. L. Lee, posted to the China the Beautiful Readers' Discussions, Comments & Inquiries in 1999:
Yarns after yarns,
Mother's busy weaving,
It is a coat for my son who will be leaving.
Stitches upon stitches,
Mother toiled all night,
Please return home soon if you might.
Your graceful love was sunshine in the spring
for me, this unworthy seedling,
Oh, who can tell me how to express my gratitude,
my aching heart is bleeding.