Friday, 27 March 2009

Not Three Thousand Leagues

“To the south-east — three thousand leagues —
The Yüan and Hsiang form into a mighty lake.
Above the lake are deep mountain valleys,
And men dwelling whose hearts are without guile.
Gay like children, they swarm to the tops of the trees;
And run to the water to catch bream and trout.
Their pleasures are the same as those of beasts and birds;
They put no restraint either on body or mind.
Far I have wandered throughout the Nine Lands;
Wherever I went such manners had disappeared.
I find myself standing and wondering, perplexed,
Whether Saints and Sages have really done us good.” [1]

I assume that the lake in question is Lake Dongting in the north-east of Hunan Province into which the Yüan and Hsiang (Xiang) flow. I further assume that “league” in this translation does not signify a traditional English league, since three thousand leagues north-west of Hunan Province would be somewhere in the Arctic Sea. Regarding the more important matter of the sentiment let loose in this poem, I know it is one that has often been found lurking not three thousand leagues away from the minds of the civilised.

[1] Yüan Chieh, “Civilisation”, in A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, tr. A. Waley (New York: Alfred. A. Knopf, 1919), p.149.


dearieme said...

"it is one that has often been found lurking not three thousand leagues away from the minds of the civilised": and indeed the uncivilised. I cite Rousseau and Margaret Mead. Though perhaps Ms Mead was merely stupid rather than uncivilised.

Deogolwulf said...

I cannot quite recall, but didn't Mead make up much of her "data"? Perhaps I am spreading foul untruths. Then again, I cannot quite recall what she claimed about the noble unwashed. I should probably make the effort to find out.

dearieme said...

It would seem that she didn't bother to learn the language in Samoa, gormlessly accepted the yarns she was spun by adolescent girls, and generally behaved in a naively uncritical manner. But she did get the sort of "results" that her research supervisor wanted. Derek Freeman blew the whistle; a useful bit of iconoclasm, eh?

berenike said...

Is this a habit among social scientists? Didn't Levi-Strauss publish work based on stays of a couple of weeks among people whose language he couldn't speak well?

Deogolwulf said...

"Is this a habit among social scientists?"

More of a hobby, I'd say.

Thursday said...

The myth of the noble savage is indeed a beautiful myth. But we should not confuse beauty with truth, or virtue.