I See a Flower
Shortly before his assassination in 1223, the scholar-emperor Hua R’ei announced what was to become the most famous literary competition of his reign. Standing before his assembled court, the diminutive monarch took an orchid from among the folds of his ceremonial robes and said, “Translate this flower for me!”
In the hushed silence that ensued, eyebrows were raised, looks exchanged, and shoulders shrugged. Nervous smiles flitted across the faces of his courtiers like dragonflies across a goldfish pond. One man – anonymous, but legendary by virtue of this one unthinkable act – actually cleared his throat. And then a sudden burst of applause broke out, seeping through the room like cherry blossom in an April storm, and the Court Poet Chen Liang, with hand on heart and head bowed, exclaimed, “The Emperor’s wisdom is as the snow on a lofty mountain-peak; eternally renewed, it is always its timeless self!”
Literary competitions were highly popular at the court of Hua R’ei, and hotly contested.
There were competitions for poetry of various kinds, and for stories; there were competitions for histories and biographies; there were competitions for song-cycles and plays; but there had never as yet been a competition for a translation. And what a competition! Hua R’ei’s courtiers were asked to translate not from one language to another, or from one dialect to another, or even from one form to another, but simply to translate. To translate a flower. The news rushed through the palace like mice through a stubble-field, and soon even the cooks and gardeners were falling out over it.
In those days, the court of Hua R’ei was divided into two camps – that of the Scholars, and that of the Aesthetes.
The Scholars, led by the Court Poet Chen Liang, held that works of literary merit could only be produced by men of learning, and they cultivated a style that reflected their prodigious reading – intricate, allusive, many-layered. In this they were supported by the Emperor, a man of wide scholarship and subtle judgement. The Aesthetes, on the other hand, believed that only the truly beautiful was of any value, and so they developed a mode of writing which, whether rich or simple, was always marked by accuracy of observation and authenticity of emotion. In this they were supported by the Emperor, a man of exquisite taste and fine feeling. And so Hua R’ei, without for a second being false to himself, was able to keep both camps in nice balance, encouraging now the one and now the other; and in the process, one of the finest flowerings of Oriental culture was carefully nurtured into breathtaking bloom.
This delicate equilibrium was, however, regularly upset by the need to appoint a new Court Poet. In the decades preceding Hua R’ei’s reign, the post had been for life; but as no Court Poet had ever reached an advanced age (some of them poisoning themselves, others leaping from high buildings , others again throwing themselves from their horses), the need had been felt to limit the period of tenure in some way. After one or two disastrous attempts at an elective system (very bloody), Hua R’ei had developed his own way of handling the matter, which involved awarding the position to a Scholar and an Aesthete in alternation, but making the award at least nominally dependent upon the winning of a literary competition. To make the balance a dynamic rather than a rigid one, however, Hua R’ei would occasionally give this most coveted position to an outsider – a gardener’s boy, perhaps, or a seamstress, or a kitchen-hand. This introduced, as it were, a healthy peasant note into what might otherwise have been too refined a concoction, and meant that Hua R’ei always had the advantage of surprise on his side.
At the time of the events we are describing, the scholars, headed by Chen Liang, had been in the ascendancy for over a year, and so everyone was expecting a change to the Aesthetes, or perhaps the charming selection of an obscure nursemaid (the Emperor had a penchant for obscure nursemaids). The post bringing with it, however, immense wealth, prestige and power, the current incumbent, Chen Liang, was adamant in his desire to win the competition once again; and it was generally agreed that he, if anyone, had the talent, the energy and the sheer ruthlessness to perform this unprecedented feat.
Chen Liang had a problem, however: he couldn’t even begin to imagine what the Emperor meant by his instruction to translate a flower.
A brilliant analyst of lyrical technique, an unrivalled expert on the early Classical poets, and the author of several remarkably finely crafted erotic writings (which merit discussion in their own right), Chen Liang was nevertheless devoid of all imagination. He was, at best, an extremely gifted parodist, and he was aware of the fact. And so, rather than calling for ink and brush, rather than retreating to this study, rather than reciting his nascent composition to himself in course of dawn walks in the Palace gardens, Chen Liang adopted a different strategy. Someone in the Palace must know the answer to the Emperor’s riddle; and Chen Liang would find out who that person was.
Of course brains, if not tongues, were already buzzing with possible solutions, for the Emperor’s literary competitions were open to everyone, and almost everyone longed in their heart of hearts to hold the post of Court Poet just once in their lives. Some people had taken the instructions to refer to the name of the flower, and were already hard at work on comparative catalogues of nomenclatures, from the botanical to the folkloric, in many different languages. Others saw the act of translation not as a linguistic one at all, but rather as a process of transference from one medium to another. Thus they depicted the orchid in ink drawings and silk paintings, in dyed fabrics and embroidered cloths; one head gardener even went so far as to lay out a flowerbed which represented, on a massive scale, the very species of orchid which the Emperor had drawn out from among his robes. Yet others saw the act of translation stipulated by the Emperor as a process of relocation, and so they took orchids, real and artificial, and put them in the most unexpected places – between the ears of horses, at the tops of trees, at the bottom of carp-ponds. One Aesthete even ate, drank and slept with an orchid permanently clutched between thumb and forefinger, arguing that the Emperor’s aesthetic values had translated themselves to him. There were orchid hats and orchid shoes, orchid soups and orchid desserts – the cooks has a wonderful time of it – and even the poorest of the poor, the road sweepers and tanners, the jailers and refuse-collectors, the mineworkers and the common infantry soldiers, made their own attempts at orchid riddles and orchid drinking-songs and orchid lullabies.
All this the Court Poet watched, and he was still no closer to the answer.
The day of the competition approached, and as it did, Chen Liang’s attempts to find the solution grew more and more feverish. He bribed and he bullied. He spied and he spread rumours. He charmed and he thundered. But no-one – not the inspired young poet from the mountain province whom he had always so feared, not the courtesan who knew the Emperor’s most intimate physical secrets, not the doctors or the astronomers or even, even the Emperor’s one hundred and forty-four gardeners, each of whom he questioned – none of these confessed to knowing what the Emperor had really meant by those cryptic words, “Translate this flower for me.”
The day of the competition arrived, and Chen Liang was beside himself. While the rest of the Palace put the finishing touches to their orchid poems and orchid necklaces and orchid stir-fries, Chen Liang sat in the library, frenetically searching through scroll upon scroll of the ancient poets. He had come to the conclusion that the Emperor’s challenge was directed at him and at him only, that it was a deliberate attack upon his academic knowledge and his decades of study, and that it could be countered precisely by recourse to that knowledge and that study. The poets, it transpired, had said a terrific amount about flowers, and especially about orchids. They compared them to the plumage of birds and the mists on the mountain-tops. They gave them the names of winds and of dragons. They talked to them, they talked about them, and they talked about talking about them. But nothing that they said brought Chen Liang any nearer to his goal. “I am last year’s heron,” he thought to himself in despair: “already forgotten before the winds of winter have picked the feathers from my abandoned nest.” And he gave himself up to his fate.
But Chen Liang had not become Court Poet for nothing: he was made of sterner stuff than this, and he knew it.
So a few moments later, without even bothering to tidy away the scrolls he had been consulting, he left the library and strode down the corridors of the Palace to the Grand Audience Chamber, where the competition was already well under way.
The crowd parted like a paddy-field before a tiger as Chen Liang made his way towards the throne. His fellow-Scholars, disappointed in their own hopes, and even his arch-rivals, the Aesthetes, moved aside with something more than respect, with something approaching awe, at the sight of the Court Poet in his full glory, dressed in his robes of office and destined to be the last to speak in the Emperor’s competition. One by one the would-be poets were sent away, the courtiers in their splendour and the coolies with their straw hats clutched humbly at their chests. At last the turn of the Court Poet came.
“Well, Chen Liang,” said Hua R’ei from his rostrum, “can you succeed where all before you have failed? Can you” – once more the Emperor took the orchid from his robes, once more he held it up for all to see – “Can you translate this flower for me?”
“I can, Magnificence.”
A hush fell.
“Then do so,” said the Emperor. “Speak.”
“I shall not speak,” said Chen Liang.
“Then you cannot win the competition,” said the Emperor, with a little laugh.
“I shall win the competition, Magnificence,” returned Chen Liang.
“Then do so,” said Hua R’ei. “You are our Court Poet. Do so, if you can.”
“I beg you, give me the flower.”
Something in the Poet’s tone was so masterful, so majestic, so magnificent, that the Emperor acceded to this strange request.
“There you are,” he said, half-expecting Chen Liang to crush the orchid underfoot: “take it.”
“Thank you, Magnificence.”
Carefully the Court Poet took the orchid from his sovereign’s hand and held it up for all to see. In total silence he stared at it, as a perching hawk stares at the ears of a rabbit.
“Do you see what I see, Magnificence?”
“I see the flower.”
“The flower I gave you.”
“You do not, Magnificence. You do not see the flower I see.”
Chen Liang paused briefly before going on. “You do not see the flower I see,” he repeated. His voice sank to almost a whisper. “For I have translated it,” he said.
Little remains to be told. Chen Liang was, of course, reselected as Court Poet, a position which he held for some months until accidentally strangling himself with his night-gown in this sleep. From the day of the translation competition onwards, Hua R’ei’s power steadily declined, and was assassinated by his Palace Guard before the year was out. In some dialects of the region, “I see a flower” is an idiomatic rejoinder expressive of suspicion, contempt, or disbelief, although none of the fishermen and farmers who use it can explain where it comes from. Orchid soup is still eaten in some households.
First published in the Heidelberg Review Number 4, Winter 1996/97; reprinted in In Other Words, British Centre for Literary Translation, Winter 2010/No.36.
©Jonathan Steffen, all rights reserved