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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

18-and-under, 2nd Prize

Read the judges’ comments
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Clara Yick Kay Fung

Phoenix Hairpin
by Lu You

Rosy tender hands, rich fine wine,
The whole city blossomed with signs of spring.
By the palace wall the willow swayed
To and fro, to and fro.

But the malicious East Wind tore
At the mother’s heart and made her
Cruel; she dismissed her son’s much loved wife and
Brought little joy.

Years went by after the separation
And melancholy still gripped his heart –
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Yet spring comes again, scenery
Unmoved by the sudden encounter.
Peach blossoms still slide and fall from trees,
The pavilion floats idly on the lake.

But hollow and frail
Has the lady become.
Her silks suck at her red-stained tears,
And blood streaks her cheeks.

The vow of love is still there,
But exchanges of love cannot be passed on –
No! No! No!

Translated from the Classical Chinese by Clara Yick Kay Fung

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).

釵頭鳳 (Phoenix Hairpin)


陸遊 (Lu You)

Translation commentary

In Classical Chinese poems it is considered a formidable skill to fit as much meaning as possible into minimal words and in ‘Phoenix Hairpin’ nearly all the verbs are missed out. Hence it was a challenge to choose suitable words in the translation that not only were close to the original meaning but also conveyed the sense of melancholy prominent in the original poem.

This poem portrays a major issue in traditional Chinese culture with which non-Chinese people might not be familiar. It talks of filial piety, a virtue dominant in Chinese society about 850 years ago.

The poem is a true story. It is said that right after the poet’s encounter with his ex-wife at the lake, brimming with stark emotions he impulsively carved the very characters of the poem onto the wall where they had unexpectedly met. Lu You’s marriage to his cousin was an arranged one and contrary to expectation they had a loving relationship which was much resented by Lu’s mother. She was bitter about how close the couple were and thought that the relationship would only hinder Lu’s career. So she ordered his wife to be sent back to her own home and Lu, after making an extremely difficult decision, chose to obey his mother because for him it was a choice between love and filial piety, which at the time was of the utmost importance. Lu chose to obey his mother out of respect for her, showing the power Chinese parents had over their children.

Another reason why I chose this poem is the depth of emotions expressed in it. The poem is extremely sad and full of pained love and frustration, fully expressed at the end with the repetition ‘No! No! No!’ when Lu says he cannot even send his lover words of love, even though they still love each other, as they both have families and sending her letters would only create a scandal and ruin her reputation.

Clara Yick Kay Fung