rsz cathay1

rsz cathay2 


Cathay. The Centennial Edition.

Foreword by Mary de Rachewiltz.

Edited, introduction and transcripts of Fenollosa's notes

by Zhaoming Qian.

New York: New Directions, 2015. 

Ira Nadel. Cathay. Ezra Pound's Orient.

London Penguin, 2015. 





Cathay. Centenary Edition. Ed. Zhaoming Qian. New York: New Directions, 2015.

Cathay. Ed. Ira Nadel. London: Penguin, 2015.

review by Harry Gilonis





“Cathay” has some pedigree.  Starting out as the Mongolian word “Khyatad” it moves West, passing through Uighur “Xitay,” Tatar “Qitay,” Russian Kitay, Polish Kitaj, Italian “Citai,” Latin “Cataya,” Spanish “Catay,” into French, German and English as “Cathay.” And Cathay, too, has a jumbled lineage.  It isn’t just that – as is relatively common knowledge – Ezra Pound, a man with (then) no ability to read Chinese worked from the half-legible notes of Ernest Fenollosa, another man with little knowledge of that language; there is another transmission-series to be taken into account. Poetry written down in China between 600 BC and 760 AD - a span that in this country would stretch from the Germanic invasions to now – is read by a Japanese professor over a century ago; this professor, Kainan Mori, is a follower of a particular exegetical school harking back to the Chinese poet-scholar-statesman Wang An-shih (1021-1086 AD), a man with a bee in his bonnet about the importance of the pictorial content of Chinese characters,1 a notion which gets transmitted, unavowedly, via Professor Mori to Professor Fenollosa and thence to Pound.  If the key text here - not Cathay, but the essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” – is, as the Sinologist George Kennedy memorably called it, “a small mass of confusion” (444), it isn’t necessarily clear that the confusion is all Fenollosa’s, or all Pound’s, or that it is of necessity unproductive.2 If George Kennedy’s Chinese was better than Fenollosa’s or Pound’s (Pound’s improved over time), well, contrariwise George Kennedy declared himself “poet neither by inclination nor training.” It is very evident that Kennedy’s model of translation - that implicit in much academic scrutiny – was, as it were, the one you’d want for a contract, or an insurance policy: based on an unspoken model of transparency. One could push it even further than Walter Benjamin, and declare that the perfect translator (in this vein) would be Pierre Menard, “rewriting” Don Quixote in the same words. For poets, on the other hand, a certain amount of resistance, or of opacity, even, can be productive.  A literary translation that is literature is also not the original poem; it is not even a restatement of it – it is a shaped piece of language sharing concerns with another similar one. If it were an exact match, translations would not age – as they all too evidently do. And it is for this reason that the surroundings, the literary mode of production, as it were, are crucial. T. S. Eliot, in a phrase so feline one half suspects malice, hinted at this when he described the Pound of Cathay as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” (Note not merely the temporal conditional, but also the ambiguous term “inventor”).3 Eliot goes on to say that Pound’s translations “seem to be – and that is the test of excellence – translucencies” (523). Here, of course, is my counter-model; the text that looks transparent, but isn’t. That might even look opaque

My contention would be that Pound was completely aware of this; and that this is signaled, fairly clearly, by the title-page of Cathay: “Translations by / Ezra Pound // For the most part from the Chinese / of Rihaku, from the notes of the / late Ernest Fenollosa, and / the decipherings of the / Professors Mori /and Ariga.”4 This is very clever. The “most part” covers, severally not all being from the Chinese of “Rihaku” (the Japanese name for Li Po), as two poems are declaredly ascribed to other authors; not all being from the Chinese language, being mediated via Japanese; not all being from the Chinese in any sense, as the 1915 first edition of Cathay included Pound’s rendering of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer”; and, finally, not all being from Fenollosa’s notes, as there were occasions where Pound wrote, very evidently, willfully independently of his source texts - one might here say “invented.”  That’s a nice range of ambiguities, even before one adds in the distance between The Book of Odes, or Li Po, and Professor Mori; or Professor Mori’s Wang-An-shih-inspired (or other) analytical biases, known and unknown; or Ernest Fenollosa’s abilities to transcribe what was said to him; or Pound’s ability to decipher these transcriptions.5 At this stage, one can add in to the mix some divided currents that must also have pulled at Pound, as they do at us - received models of Orient v. Occident (both social and poetic); “then” versus “now” - a distinction hinted at by the (contested) status of the so-called “khaki” edition of Cathay, opening and closing as it does with poems of warfare.

There is a further important bifurcation, and readers will probably be glad to hear that it brings into focus the two editions under scrutiny here. In blunt terms, we have an edition of Cathay produced by an Occidental, Ira Nadel, as against one produced by a Chinese scholar, Professor Zhaoming Qian. It obviously isn’t as simple as that - Professor Nadel teaches in British Columbia and his book is published by the Penguin Group Australia, both countries on the Pacific Rim; Professor Qian taught in New Orleans and his book is published in New York, both Atlantic cities with historic links to Europe. These banalities serve, I hope, to dissipate any notion of a simple dichotomy; but it would, I think, be fair to say that, for obvious enough reasons, Nadel is more at home with what Pound did, and Qian more with what he did it from. These are of course both topics of considerable interest; and I hope I’ve managed in my opening remarks to suggest that the field is a muddy one, and there’s little to be gained by rehearsing stale tropes about accuracy or appropriation.6 (If nothing else, we could consider Hugh Kenner’s point that, unlike many precursor volumes, Cathay was actually based on detailed notes on the Chinese texts (198); comparable literary translations, by e.g. Judith Gautier or Hans Bethge, often praised, could make no such claims.) The issue, surely, is the poetry, set into as useful a context as can be managed.




I must at this point introduce the elephant in the room, which is the small size of both books. Nadel (to start with his book) has ten or so small-format pages to discuss the context of “Cathay” both as a term and as a book within Modernism; thirty-odd pages for “Pound and the Invention of China” (the longest and best section); twenty or so pages on the poems themselves - their origins, selection, presentation - and five-and-a-half pages on their “impact and importance.” This has meant that a lot of the time matters of some sophistication and complexity are not just boiled down, but boiled down to the point of spoiling.  Anyone who knows Nadel’s work as a distinguished Poundian - particularly the editing of the invaluable Cambridge Companion - will be dismayed to find themselves repeatedly saying “yes, but... .”  On page 2, he tells us “Cathay presents a series of classical and Chinese texts in accessible and contemporary language”; as we know, the 1915 stand-alone version of Cathay was only “for the most part” Chinese; the opening two poems are arguably too early to be thought “classical”; and the language Pound deploys is a rich and complex array; even setting aside the willed antiquarianism of “The Seafarer,” we encounter such non-current terms as “foeman” or “chargers,” “accoutrements,” or “courtezans” [sic], and studding of the diction with slightly slantendicular phrases or syntax - “our wine / Is rich for a thousand cups,” or “Here we must make separation.”7 (Intriguingly, Zhaoming Qian, in the other edition under consideration, makes a similar assertion of the “colloquial” nature of Pound’s “contemporary Anglo-American speech.”) More trivially, we’re told that before Cathay “Pound’s efforts as translator focused on languages with which he had some formal knowledge” (50); but by 1915 he’d already published versions of Heine, Kabir, Japanese Noh, and, as it happens, several poems derived from the Chinese. Cathay is less of a leap in this regard than it looks.  Nadel spends almost no time on the Chinese notion of the poem (3 lines on page 64), but what he does say is unsurprisingly imprecise, to the point of being inaccurate. Despite this concision, information is often repeated at a distance (Eliot’s inventive phrase crops up on pages 1 and 53, the multiple authorship question on pages 6 and 49), and the structure of what’s being said is thus less evident.  To be fair, this has something of the flavor of unsympathetic editing, and by no wise sinks the book. I was bowled over by the line “Pound saw China before he read it” – referring to Pound’s frequent visits (often with his painter-wife Dorothy) to the holdings of the British Museum, then under the tutelage of the poet and translator Laurence Binyon.  Further, the story of Pound’s Orient-suffused milieu in his childhood in Philadelphia was new to me at least; and even the well-known London context is described with luminous and suggestive details, drawn on evidently considerable recent reading and research. Alas, this too falls under “yes, but...”; information is often presented in the briefest fashion, with the real nuggets buried, and only hinted-at, in the endnotes.  This book will be mined for those, and prove a rich seam; it is a great pity the book’s format and girth could not to allow Professor Nadel the space to display his wares to better effect.

As to the texts provided, it is a benefit to have Pound’s idiosyncratic and telling endnote, not gathered into the Lustra reprint (this is also in Qian’s edition); but it is a lost opportunity not to add in the extra Chinese versions in that reprint.  Nadel mentions them en passant (curiously getting the number of them wrong, giving it as 5, not 4).  There is a lone misprint in “The Seafarer” (“Sea-fowl’s” for “Sea-fowls”), and the page-setting has gone askew therein, leading to some unfortunate false stanza-breaks at the tops of pages 106, 107 and 108; other than that, the text seems clean and accurate. There are also a few glitches in the front matter; the (fictitious) “Mei Sheng” is dated as AD rather than, as per Pound, BC, on p. 62, and Ripostes is made singular on p. 37.




After Mary de Rachewiltz’s bracingly Vorticist “Foreword,” (it is a pity that that mode of writing seems to have died with Kenner and Davenport), Zhaoming Qian’s “Introduction” sets out clearly the relation of Cathay to Vorticism and Imagism – though here, too, there are some “yes, buts.”  (I don’t see, for example, that the inclusion of “The Seafarer” proves, as Qian asserts, that it is appropriate to read Cathay as original poetry; it simply shows that the book is only “for the most part” Chinese-related.)  There are some quirks; Pound is accused of “turning Chinese allusions into passages in conformity with the culture of the English-speaking world,” yet, discussing the example he chooses - the close of “Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” Qian (to my mind more accurately) asserts nearby that Pound “preserves foreign proper names ... to hint at concealed cross-cultural information” (18).  Fenollosa’s notes give some minimal information on who “Han-rei” was - a Chinese philosopher - but having neither the Chinese characters of his name nor their transliteration (Fan Li) it is hard to see how Pound could have fleshed out the scant information he did have.  The hinted-at allusion is, indeed, the method employed by “Rihaku”; and even if Li Po’s contemporary readers all knew who Fan Li was, I suspect nowadays he gets looked up even in China. Wikipedia was not an option for Pound. 

Qian generally over-estimates the extent of Pound’s mastery of the material, perhaps because, being Chinese, it is hard to envisage the situation of a monoglot reader.  But this is unfair, as the problem is also that of Pound’s era; it is now literally the work of seconds to call up many of the Chinese texts behind Cathay, presented with immediate links to dictionary glosses. Pound, however, was working with a dead man’s scribbled notes. It is in the circumstances paradoxical that Qian shouldn’t have more of a grasp of this, given that he, too, has worked through the Fenollosa notebooks; and it is worth saying that if his book had no other merits, it has the inestimable one of making some of their content available to the general reader (albeit in tiny type). Qian has added-in the Chinese characters in the instances where Fenollosa did not have them, as well as their transliterations (making dictionary work a lot easier!).  Qian mentions, and I should stress (as I think it is not generally realized) that Fenollosa’s notes by no means invariably presented the Chinese characters; they were provided for the first two poems in the original Cathay only (plus the first two of the poems added in the Lustra reprint).  Hence when Qian says Pound “filled Cathay with Japanese-sounding Chinese proper names” (18), “obviously” (as he put it) to “strike a balance between the familiar and the strange,” it is more significant, surely, that in most instances Pound neither knew the Chinese originals nor had any ready way of pursuing them.

Qian is taken (as is Nadel) by the importance of Pound’s familiarity with Chinese visual art, and cites “While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead” – as against an earlier translator’s woeful “My head a mass of curls” – as evidence that Pound had relied “not on Fenollosa’s scholarship but on his common sense enlightened by classical Chinese painting (19; Nadel goes into more background detail on Pound and Chinese art, 11-13 and 17-22).  This is a fascinating notion, but the matter isn’t quite that simple.  As Noel Stock points out, Pound originally intended to deploy the Americanism “bangs” here; Dorothy Pound urged the more English “fringe” on him (210).  It may have been no more than an urge to avoid marital discord that sent Pound back to Fenollosa’s notes, where he would have read, as Qian records (75): “My hair was at first covering my brows.”  Further, Qian is acute in noting Pound’s echoing of the Chinese device of repeating a character for emphasis (as in the opening of “The Beautiful Toilet”), seeing that the heftier incremental repetition in the wordier English would rapidly weary a reader; more importantly, he also makes some intriguing suggestions (11) as to how the Cathay poetic (which he, a little lazily, glosses as the product of “Imagism/Vorticism”) carries forward into the world of the Cantos; not merely kindred repetitions (as “Ear, ear for the sea-surge” in cantos 2 and 7; “the air, air, shaking” and “lifting, lifting, and waffling” in canto 4) but also certain types of clotted syntax and proto-ideogrammatic juxtapositions. I can add a more direct connection, in that the ideogram on the cover of the 1915 Cathay (reproduced from Fenollosa’s lecture materials and cited in “The Chinese Written Character”) is also repeated exactly in the preliminary matter of Cantos LII-LXXI.8 There is continuity between Fenollosa’s papers, Fenollosa’s poetic, Cathay and the Cantos.

Qian’s edition does gather up the four extra Chinese versions in the Lustra reprint, demarcating the fact structurally by placing them after the 1915 end-note. This is editorially unimpeachable – Pound’s remarks therein cannot logically cover these then-unpublished poems - but it makes for a curious, stop-start, read. However, one would not wish the poems omitted (as they are by Nadel) indeed, I wish that Qian had also collected the two other poems after the Fenollosa papers Pound which published in his lifetime.9

In “The Exile’s Letter” Qian has introduced a hyphen into “willow flakes” which isn’t in any other edition I’ve seen; and in “The River Song” he follows the Lustra reprint and later texts (“now but barren hill” for the 1915 “now but a barren hill”), which arguably a fresh edition of the “original” Cathay ought not to do; other than that, this text too seems clean and accurate, although there are also a few indentation quibbles scattered throughout, if the text is compared closely with the 1915 setting.

In sum, I suspect the general reader should head without delay for Qian’s book; professional Poundians will find things of interest in a careful scrutiny of Nadel, but will probably be holding their breath and saving their pocket-money for the rumoured Fordham University Press “critical edition” of Cathay, reportedly imminent. If it is anything like as good as their edition of The Chinese Written Character, it will be a game-changer. While we wait, neither book replaces Wai-Lim Yip’s Ezra Pound’s Cathay, mentioned briefly by both editors; though that is now helpfully supplemented by the additional material provided by Qian’s transcripts. His collection of correspondence between Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends (New York, 2008) helpfully fleshes out a passing reference to a Mr. Sung in Nadel (15), a man who was keen to get Pound’s father, and indeed Pound himself, employment in China in the 1910s. One can imagine, in some parallel universe, another, very different, Ezra Pound, living in Peking and fluently writing another, very different, Cathay . . .




 1. The well-known and well-regarded translator David Hinton, in his Introduction to The Late Poems of Wang An-shih, doesn’t mention this enthusiasm of Wang’s; but he does devote a couple of pages of close reading of a quatrain which takes it as a given.

 2. See the chapter “Fenollosa Compounded: A Discrimination,” by the Sinologist Haun Saussy, in his co-edited critical edition of the Fenollosa essay.

3. Eliot, who knew his Latin, would surely have intended the elegant quibble: “invention” (after invenire, “to come upon, find, meet with, light upon”) is equally the creation of the new and the (re-)discovery of the old.

4. I’ve transcribed this from an online facsimile of the 1915 first edition of Cathay [at https://archive.org/details/cathayezrapound00pounrich], but it is represented accurately in both editions under review.

 5. I suspect close reading of the Fenollosa notebooks against Cathay would uncover plenty of varying examples.  To cite only one which is particularly intriguing (see Qian 17), it is impossible to tell whether Pound’s repeated decision, in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu” [Book of Odes poem 167], to write that the soldiers’ horses are “tired” – where Fenollosa’s character-by-character gloss plainly reads “tied” (Qian 64) – is a willed or an inadvertent “error.” Nor is it clear whether knowing one way or the other would in fact enable one to assert that was, in poetical terms, erroneous.

 6. The question of accuracy is probably still best addressed via Wai-Lim Yip’s Ezra Pound’s Cathay; appropriation is obviously the concern of Ming Xie’s Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry.

7. These topics come under consideration in essays by Barry Ahearn and Christine Froula in Qian’s book Ezra Pound and China; Ahearn in particular (40-41) discusses the two examples I mention in some detail (which is why I chose them).

8. The Cathay cover artwork came from photographs Pound had taken of large-scale calligraphy prepared for Fenollosa’s lantern-slides, to accompany his lectures (see the Saussy et al. edition of The Chinese Written Character, n.7, 189).  The same brush-drawing recurs in the Cantos on e.g. p. 254 of the 1987 Faber edition. The character being outside the body of a Canto, it escapes glossing by Carroll Terrell, though it is indexed (耀 “Yao,” [M.]7306; see Terrell, Companion 790). Pound glosses it in his “Appendix” to The Chinese Written Character as meaning “rays”; Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary, much-used by Pound for- and in - the Cantos, has “glory; brightness; splendour; honour” (M.7306, p. 1093). It would be interesting to have either editor speculate on the rationale for Pound choosing this ideogram for Cathay - and thereafter; the yao is repeated on the cover of both their editions.

9. “Dawn on the Mountain (Omakitsu) [Wang Wei]” and “Wine (Rihaku) [Li Po],” published in The Little Review in 1918 (Gallup, C146). These are conveniently gathered in Eliot Weinberger’s New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (New York, 2003), which also identifies 15 lines from the 1917 “Ur-Canto II” as deriving, via the Fenollosa papers, from the Tang poet Po Chü-I. For these lines see e.g. Massimo Bacigalupo’s 2015 edition of Pound’s Posthumous Cantos, the upper portion of p. 10, between “‘Yin-yo...’ and ‘weeping.’”




Eliot, T. S. “Introduction to Ezra Pound. Selected Poems (Faber, 1928).” The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. The Critical Edition: Literature, Politics and Belief, 1927-1929. Baltimore, JHUP, 2015. 517-533.

Fenollosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. A Critical Edition. Eds. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

Kennedy, George A. “Fenollosa, Pound, and the Chinese Character.” 1958. Selected Works. Ed. Tien-yi Li. New Haven: Yale University Far Eastern Publications, 1964. 443-62.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. 1972. London: Faber, 1975.

Mathews, R. H. Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary. 1931. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard UP, 1943.

Ming Xie. Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Pound, Ezra. Cathay. Centennial Edition. Ed. Zhaoming Qian. Foreword Mary de Rachewiltz. New York: New Directions, 2015.

Pound, Ezra. Cathay. Ed. Ira Nadel. London: Penguin, 2015.

Pound, Ezra. Posthumous Cantos. Ed. Massimo Bacigalupo. Manchester: Carcanet, 2015.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1998.

Qian, Zhaoming, ed. Ezra Pound and China. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 2003.

Qian, Zhaoming, ed. Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1974.

Terrell, Carroll F. 1980, 1984. A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Wai-Lim Yip. Ezra Pound’s Cathay. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1967.

Wang An-Shih. The Late Poems of Wang An-shih. Ed, transl. with an introduction by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 2015.

Weinberger, Eliot. New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. New York: New Directions, 2003.





Fenollosa's Vanishing Hand  

by Timothy Billings



            Roxana Preda asked me to provide a sneak peek of the forthcoming Fordham University Press critical edition of Cathay (which you'll find in this issue) and to say a few things about it. She also gave me an advance copy of Harry Gilonis's sharp and lively review (also in this edition) of two other recent editions of Cathay edited by Ira Nadel and Zhaoming Qian, and asked me if I might like to add anything. Gilonis is a keen reviewer, but the one thing he cannot assess is the accuracy of the transcripts of the Fenollosa notebooks in Qian's edition. I'm actually one of a very few people in a position to do that, but it puts me an awkward position. I should explain. Over a year ago, Declan Spring, the senior editor at New Directions Publishing, asked me to delay publication of the Fordham Cathay so that Qian's "Centennial Edition" with its unique foreword by Mary de Rachewiltz could have full play of the market for its appointed time. I readily consented. I (we) owe many debts of gratitude to New Directions, to Mary de Rachewiltz, and to Qian Zhaoming whose scholarly contributions to our understanding of Pound and China in the past two decades have been considerable, as I hardly need to tell readers of Make It New. Spring and I agreed that there was no direct competition between our two very different editions since the New Directions release was meant to be "gifty," as he put it—something to be annotated lightedly, collected eagerly, read lovingly, gifted freely. But it still made sense for the editions to appear in turn instead of simultaneously. I was happy to stand aside for a year, and I was secretly pleased to have the extra time to double-check my work. Qian, however, was forced to work in haste.

            The most trenchant criticism that Gilonis makes in his review is that "Qian generally over-estimates the extent of Pound’s mastery of the material, perhaps because, being Chinese, it is hard to envisage the situation of a monoglot reader." Of course, it's not that Qian is Chinese but rather that he is a reader of Chinese, but the point sticks. (I know a classicist who is utterly convinced that Shakespeare had a mastery of Latin vastly greater than anyone else has ever believed, not least Ben Jonson, but it's not because he's a Republican Roman.) Gilonis's comment is truer than he could know because the same bias seems to inform Qian's handling of the Fenollosa manuscripts—selective omissions, symptomatic mistranscriptions, mismatched Chinese texts—as if he were optimistically clearing the space between Pound and the Chinese originals Pound never saw. Qian is hardly alone: the same could be said of a great deal of commentary on Cathay over the last century. With the exception of the most recent work, it has tended not only to ignore the nuances of and differences among Fenollosa's notebooks (when not ignoring the notebooks altogether), but also rather stubbornly to insist on Pound's intuitive, even clairvoyant "faithfulness" to the meaning of those Chinese originals he never saw; and it has done so even when stressing the contrary point that Cathay must be evaluated as poetry in its own right, as Gilonis eloquently reminds us. Gilonis is careful to muzzy up the East-West binary between Nadel and Qian, but then concludes "Nadel is more at home with what Pound did, and Qian more with what he did it from." And so Gilonis steps on the same rake since "what Pound did it from" is not Chinese, but rather a set of cribs written almost entirely in English, as Gilonis knows better than most. Fenollosa's hand keeps vanishing between Pound and China. To put it bluntly, Qian is not at home there either. Not because he is "Chinese," mind you, but for the same reasons that nobody has felt at home in Fenollosa's cribs, as I will explain. I'm wondering now whether the Fordham edition may be criticized for putting Fenollosa's hand at its center instead of Pound's, but I certainly hope not (and I don't think it does) since a proper rendering of "what Pound did it from" is what we need to appreciate the full magnitude of his accomplishment in Cathay. And it is what we still lack.

            No transcription of any poem from the cribs has ever been complete or correct. As a result, they have been misunderstood and vastly underestimated. Hsieh Wen Tung called them "defective," although he admitted he had never actually set eyes on them and was guessing that the "errors" he identified in Pound came from Fenollosa. (He was wrong.) Hugh Kenner quoted Hsieh at length, no doubt because Hsieh was Chinese, and also found the cribs in at least one place "incomprehensible." (Kenner understood quite a lot about the cribs, but we tend to remember only his criticisms, some of which are faulty because they were based on mistranscriptions.) Wai-lim Yip famously called them "crippled." (That has unfortunately been a favorite epithet to repeat.) Yip never had access to them either. (He used Kenner's and also Lawrence Chisholm's which are even worse.) By general consensus the cribs are thought to be disorganized, error-ridden, and illegible. Some have even sniggered at the idea of relying on Japanese scholars to learn Chinese poetry—in the same breath that Herbert Giles and Arthur Waley are invoked as authorities for comparison. For the record, Fenollosa's manuscripts—at least the two big notebooks of poetry by Li Bo (Rihaku) comprising the bulk of the material used for Cathay (not the early notebooks)—contain an impressive breadth and depth of accurate sinological material in a consistently organized format. Some of it Pound used; some of it he ignored. Fenollosa's teacher for those two notebooks was Mori Kainan 森槐南 (1863-1911), a specialist in Chinese poetry who not only edited an important edition of Tang poetry, but who was also highly celebrated in Japan for his own compositions of poetry in Classical Chinese. (That's more than Giles or Waley could say, who could barely write poetry in English.) Mori was no slouch. By the time Pound had finished reading the notebooks, he was one of the best-informed people on Chinese poetry in Europe or North America, certainly among those who did not speak Chinese.

            It must be said that Fenollosa's swift and cramped hand is occasionally difficult to decipher, and Pound complained about it more than once, but Fenollosa can hardly be faulted for bad handwriting when he was taking dictation as fast as possible during lectures, making notes intended for nobody but himself. In fact, most of the cribs are not difficult to read provided you have taken the time to learn Fenollosa's hand. To be sure, it also helps to know which wizards are hiding behind which curtains. If no less a scholar than Ronald Bush transcribed "drum" as "dream" because he didn't know that the Chinese word being glossed was gu (drum), or no less a scholar than Hugh Kenner transcribed "red / (of beni)" as "red / (of berri)" because he didn't know that beni means "rouge" in Japanese, is the fault truly Fenollosa's for not having better handwriting? As it happens, close scrutiny of the minims in both of these words is enough to identify them without recourse to Chinese or Japanese. My point is that you have to approach the manuscripts like a paleographer, patient enough to learn the patterns of Fenollosa's hand and to break down difficult words into their constituent letter-forms instead of relying on intuition.

            What most readers don't realize is that Fenollosa's cribs include a great deal of commentary from Mori's lectures written on the verso pages of the cribs, which require some patience to transcribe. Qian silently omits all but slivers of one or two. It's true that Pound rarely drew directly from these commentaries, but they make up the sum of what he knew about each poem, and we need to know what they say before we start speculating about how Pound adapted his material. Indeed, as the Fordham edition shows for the first time, Wai-lim Yip's famous claim about Pound's "clairvoyance" in correctly intuiting missing and erroneous facts in the cribs for "South-Folk in Cold Country" turn out to be utterly irrelevant since he was looking at the wrong manuscript: Fenollosa studied the poem twice, once with Hirai Kinza during his first trip to Japan (in September 1986) and again with Mori during his second trip (in March of 1899), and everything that Yip imagined Pound to have mystically divined about the poem was right there in the crib—if only Yip had been looking at the right crib. The same is true for "Lament of the Frontier Guard." Reviewing the whole of the cribs buries the idea that Pound was some clairvoyant shaman conjuring true and original Chinese meanings from Japanese hackwork (as if "true" and "original" meanings were ever his objective) and allows us to see how Pound creatively, ingeniously, sometimes very literally adapted richly complex texts into stunning free verse. Some of us have never imagined it any other way. It's all there in Fenollosa's hand.

            The cribs also include a number of Japanese terms, alternative pronunciations, and parallels with Japanese culture, which remind of us of the mediation between Pound and his Chinese poetry. Qian silently omits almost all of them. Moxa, mokusei, moengi, oshiroi, oshidori, kasu, ippai, kan on, go on, juban, isuka, naku, mage—these are all words in the cribs you will not find in Qian's transcriptions.1 The cribs also contain many false starts, strike-throughs, insertions, and emendations, which remind us that they record the comments of a professor deciphering difficult medieval texts on the fly with an eager student by means of an interpreter. Qian silently omits all of these. The cribs are also not all in Fenollosa's hand, nor all derived from Mori's lectures, which matters as I suggest above because the sinological competence of Fenollosa's teachers varied dramatically. Hirai's classical Chinese was abominable, and he is guilty of some real howlers. Mori's was superb. Nobody is infallible. The notebook from which Pound created "Song of the Bowman of the Shu," moreover, was written entirely by Ariga Nagao, who translated for Mori. Kenner knew this. (The writing is obviously not in Fenollosa's hand.) Qian identifies it as Fenollosa's. Qian also often silently omits words, and occasionally drops phrases and whole sentences almost certainly because he wasn't at home enough in the cribs to understand them.2 Omitting something silently makes a tidier and giftier text, but a dangerous one if you want to do anything else with it.

            These are the omissions. There are also almost innumerable mistranscriptions. Most are of the small kind that anyone working intuitively might make: "foaming water" is changed to "form of water"; "wind" to "wood"; "control" to "confide"; "expression" to "emotion"; "autumn" to "northern." In "To-em-mei's 'The Unmoving Cloud,'" the birds in Qian's edition come "to rest on the love tree in my yard." One needs neither clairvoyance nor Chinese to see that it is a "lone tree." In "The Exile's Letter" the gloss on guan reads: "flute {pipe} / tube of the sho"; Qian gives it as "pipe / tribe of the sho," as if it belonged to some indigenous clan, whereas Mori's point is that the sheng (pan-flute) mentioned three lines earlier is composed of multiple guan (pipes) which are used synecdochically for the instrument and its music. (Qian also effaces the correction from "flute" to "pipe.") A few lines earlier Qian turns "bent thread" into "bent towards," whereas Mori appears to be offering an etymological gloss for ying (to wind, to twist) emphasizing the component mi (a fine silk thread), which is depicted as a twisted thread in oracle bone script. In "The River Merchant's Wife," the fifteen year-old desires to be mingled with her beloved's body after death, "even as dust, and even as ashes — partially together," as Qian transcribes it (following Kodama Sanehide, in fact). But she desires nothing less than a complete mingling of the "particles" of their bodies together after death. That sounds a bit off, but the cribs contain unmistakable evidence that Fenollosa was taking down dictation so quickly that he often wrote exactly what Ariga said to him, thus reproducing some of his unidiomatic English. In half a dozen places he clearly also misheard Ariga's accent, such as the funny moment in "The Exile's Letter" where Fenollosa writes "ship / intestines" (not once but twice) as a gloss for yangchang 羊腸 "sheep intestines" before crossing out and correcting "ship" to "sheep." Qian omits the correction and along with it the evidence that Fenollosa was sometimes writing so fast he didn't fully understand what he was recording, at least in the moment. Strikingly, in the commentary to "The Beautiful Toilet," Fenollosa writes "This is my idea," then clarifies in parentheses that it is Mori's idea, suggesting that sometimes Ariga was translating exactly what Mori said during the lesson. Of course, this realization muddies the eddies of authorship in the cribs: almost everything in Fenollosa's two big Rihaku notebooks is more literally a collaboration among Mori, Ariga, and Fenollosa than most of us have ever imagined. What this means for readers of Fenollosa's hand is that we must be on guard for the "correctly incorrect." At the end of "The Exile's Letter," for example, the paraphrase reads, "So calling to one my son," which Qian intuitively corrects to "So calling upon my son." That's better English, for sure, but "upon" is simply not what Fenollosa wrote (as is clear from the letter-forms), and the silent emendation erases what appears to be a tiny biographical observation of Mori's that Li Bo was calling to one of his two sons.

            Qian avoids "dream" and "berri," but elsewhere makes similar errors which a quick cross-check of the Chinese text would have prevented. In "The Exile's Letter," Qian gives the gloss for jun (military) as "bar" instead of "war." Fenollosa's initial w often has a riser, and in this case he looped the final stroke downward resembling a b. In "South-Folk in Cold Country," the crib reads "Yesterday one has left the wild geese Fortress" (Yanmenguan 雁門關) which Qian turns into "the wild geese Tartars." Fenollosa's capital F does resemble a T, but even the non-Chinese reader could cross-check the gloss here: "wild geese / gate / fort." No Tartars. In fact, both of these mistakes had already been made—Bush (48) and Kenner (220)—suggesting that Qian may sometimes have relied on previous transcriptions rather than on his own powers of observation. In the same poem, Qian transcribes "three" as "thru" for san (three). But just the opposite also sometimes happens when Qian seems to be led astray by his knowledge of Chinese. In "The Exile's Letter," the gloss for qu reads: "corner {(or)} / melody // {two meanings}." The added comment emphasizes that there are "two meanings" for this character which are radically different, the latter of which is struck out as irrelevant in this context. In such manuscript traces, one sees the lesson unfolding: two teachers and an exceptional student working together at something they all love. (More on Mori's pedagogy below.) Qian, however, silently omits the correction and the didactic aside by turning them into a simple "corner or meanderings"—which is, in fact, another meaning of qu , but just as certainly not what Fenollosa wrote there. Likewise, when Li Bo drunkenly pillows his head on the governor's thigh, Qian glosses zhen as "pillow / (rest)," whereas Fenollosa has written "pillow / (verb)." Mori's point is that the noun functions as a verb here—just as it can very nicely do in English. (Now there's an irony for readers of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, which I'll leave to that edition to explain.)

            Qian's handling of the Chinese text in the transcripts also smacks of haste. Even in the four cases mentioned by Gilonis where the Chinese characters have been written in the notebooks either by Ariga or Fenollosa, Qian inexplicably imports an outside text instead of transcribing them from the actual page. The results are tragi-comical. For Ariga's crib of "Song of the Bowmen of the Shu," for example, this method effaces all traces of Japanese mediation from the text, once again as though Pound were closer to the "pure" original than he ever was. Wherever Ariga uses the typical Japanese noma or "ditto mark" () to represent duplicated characters, Qian silently inserts the Chinese. Where there is a slight Japanese variant for a character—𩵋 for yu (fish)—Qian silently inserts the Chinese form. Of course, these differences don't change the meaning of the text, but if the point is to show us the manuscripts that Pound used, why show us something else? Since Qian never transcribed Ariga's kanji, he also never noticed that Ariga circled the rhyme words. Pound might not have cared about the rhymes, but shouldn't we? Finally, Qian took his texts from mainland Chinese editions with "simplified characters," but failed to convert them to their traditional forms in a few places, as if Ariga had anticipated the Communist orthographic reforms of the 1950s. Once again, it doesn't change the meaning, but the mishmash is unfortunate. This happens throughout.

            Those are the tragic bits. The comedy arises when Qian is forced to add footnotes to explain his Chinese text. In line 17, Ariga writes - for kuikui 騤騤 (strong and vigorous)—note the ma (horse) radical at left. Qian dispenses with the ditto mark (fair enough), but imports a text containing the rarer variant character form 睽睽—note the mu "eye" radical at left—then adds the footnote "睽睽 = 騤騤" when he could have just given 騤騤 as in the manuscript. In other words, he substitutes the wrong characters, then adds a footnote telling readers what the correct ones should be. A different kind of difficulty arises in the crib for "To-em-mei's 'The Unmoving Cloud'" which lacks Chinese characters (Fenollosa studied this poem early on with a "Mr. Shida," still unidentified). A gloss in line 18 reads "again," clearly indicating that Shida's text reads zai [sai] (again), as it appears in one authoritative recension (the Siku quanshu Tao Yuanming ji 四庫全書, 陶淵明集), but the text Qian uses contains a textual variant zai [sai] (just then; just starting), which requires him to add a footnote explaining that the character actually means, not "again," but rather "Begin (to)." In other words, Qian assumes that the discrepancy between character and gloss is an error in Fenollosa's crib instead of in the Chinese text he incorrectly matches with it. This instance is notable because Pound's line "The trees in my east-looking garden / are bursting out with new twigs" comes closer to the character that Qian substitutes, which one might call a rare and splendid instance of intuitive reading on Pound's part: the point of the buds sprouting "again" (in Shida's text) is that they are (in Qian's text) "just starting" to flourish, or "new." (Textual variants often have similar meanings, so it's not as surprising as it may sound, and it's impossible to say which one is "correct," but it is notable just the same. This is the sort of thing we want the cribs to show us.)

            It has never been observed before that the text Mori was using for their lessons on Li Bo is the Yu xuan Tang Song shi chun 御選唐宋 (Distillation of Tang and Song Poetry, Selected by the Emperor, hereafter TSSC), compiled and annotated in 1750 by the Qing Emperor Qianlong 乾隆 (1711–1799). Fenollosa notes at the start of Mori's first formal lecture on Rihaku: "This {selection in} collection To So Shi jun [Tang Song shi chun 唐宋] was made by Emperor Kianlung [Qianlong] whose taste was good—and he made a selection from the originally [sic] collections. This selection follows the original order [of the "Ritaihaku Bunshu," i.e. Li Taibo wenji 李太白文集]" (100-4235:1). Indeed, the numbering of Mori's selections corresponds to those in TSSC, whose annotations are furthermore reflected in some of Mori's commentaries. Qian, however, imports his Chinese text for the lion's share of Cathay from the Quan Tangshi 全唐詩 (Complete Tang Poetry). To be honest, the differences amount to little more than variant forms of a number of characters (plus the smattering of simplified forms), but if we are going to reconstruct the Chinese text behind Fenollosa's cribs, we might as well use the one that Mori had open in front of them, not least because it allows us to glance sideways at Qianlong's commentaries from time to time.

            Qian also mistranscribes many of the Sino-Japanese (on'yomi) romanizations, showing that he didn't cross-check those either, but I suspect that few readers will care about that, however annoying it may be to those few; and yet those pronunciations do sometimes preserve Tang rhymes that modern Mandarin does not. (Cantonese is a better dialect for that, which Pound also knew from Fenollosa's notes). Moreover, since a squiggled finger in an iPhone app will identify any character for you these days, I'm not convinced that the extra layer of modern pinyin is worth the clutter, especially when there is no interlineation of Pound's verse to facilitate doing what I think we all want to do with the cribs—but that's merely an editorial preference.

            Fenollosa's hand played a crucial role in the most important revelation to come from my work on the cribs about how the two big Li Bo notebooks are structured and how Pound used them. I'll save the finer details for the introduction to the Fordham edition, but the gist of it is that Mori apparently derived his pedagogical method from a traditional Japanese reading practice for Chinese texts called kundoku ("gloss reading") which involves a two-stage process: 1) identify the meanings of the characters, then 2) rearrange the kanji into intelligible Japanese sentences. Mori's practice was likewise to supply "glosses" for all the characters in a poem all at once without necessarily reading the lines very carefully to determine precisely which meanings were relevant; and then only after having glossed the whole poem would Mori return to the beginning for a second pass during which he supplied the "paraphrases" for each line, which Fenollosa wrote underneath the glosses. The smoking gun is a conspicuous change of Fenollosa's pencil in the middle of one of the paraphrases in "Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin" which continues through the rest of the paraphrases—but none of the glosses—indicating that all of the glosses had already been completed.

            This explanation accounts for the many otherwise puzzling contradictions—which I believe nobody has observed before—between the glosses and the paraphrases: they were generated through different processes for different purposes. The purpose of the glosses was simply to lay down a rough sense of the individual characters, which would be properly "deciphered" in the second stage, during which Mori examined each line more closely, proposed very literal paraphrases, and sometimes suggested revisions to the glosses, as can be seen in Fenollosa's many strike-throughs and insertions. During that second stage, Mori also provided comments on history, structure, and style. In short, the paraphrases are Mori's "decipherings," the glosses but his preparatory notes. Pound, however, had a penchant for hewing as closely to the language of the original as possible for what we would now call a "foreignizing" translation effect (in Lawrence Venuti's popular term), as we see very clearly in the "literal" homophonic renderings of "The Seafarer." He therefore repeatedly preferred trying to parse the provisional glosses on his own rather than relying on the ready-made explanations in the paraphrases. This revelation explains many of the "errors" (real and imaginary) that do stem from the cribs. They stem not from ignorance on Mori's part, but from Pound's failure to understand how Mori's kundoku-inspired pedagogy structured Fenollosa's manuscripts.

            Ever since Kenner, a popular technique for scholars has been to extract several lines from the paraphrases in the cribs without the glosses (the vanishing hand) and to reassemble them into a stanza as if they were "Fenollosa's translations" to be compared with Pound's translations. Of course, there's no comparison, but they're also not really "Fenollosa's translations" since they're Mori & Ariga's decipherings as more or less taken down in dictation by Fenollosa to be translated properly at some later date. (Thank the gods they fell to Pound because Fenollosa was a dreadful poet, as a couple of his unfinished drafts demonstrate.) These paraphrases are also simply not what Pound was primarily using for his poesis, and so they give an imperfect and misleading picture of Pound's craft. As scholars and admirers of Pound, we need to stop doing this once and for all.

            Among my editorial goals for the Fordham edition in transcribing, annotating, and interlineating the cribs with Pound's verse has always been the desire to illuminate Pound's poetic alchemy. It came as a surprise to learn that the cribs he transmuted into gold were not leaden, as earlier transcriptions had led me to believe, but already a kind of unrefined silver. I have also wanted never to flinch from the blood on the sausage-making floor. Cathay too often seems to range the Ezraphiles on one side of a great chasm and the osseous headed philologists (as Pound put it) on the other. My position has always been to walk the planks of the rope bridge swaying above the abyss, knowing full well I will annoy both sides at one point or another. That's as it should be.

            But above all perhaps it has been my aim to keep ringing the reminder that the poems from which Pound indirectly made Cathay are themselves magnificent works. They are worth learning to love on their own terms (as well as we can understand those terms), instead of invoking them only as nightsticks wherewith to pummel Pound for his creative deviations from what we think they must mean. Indeed, like all great literature, these Chinese poems contain uncertainties and ambiguities even specialists must squabble over. And in the same spirit that we approach Pound's translucencies—or better yet opacities, as Gilonis perfectly puts it—without insisting that they be something other than what they are, we must also be willing to approach the Chinese poems on their own terms as masterworks in another poetic idiom whose brilliancies warrant closer scrutiny than any single translation could render. The framing spirit of the Fordham edition is unapologetically Ezracentric, but it also aims to transcend simple notions of "translation" in order to manifest each "poem" as a complex epiphenomenon of originary texts, paratextual commentaries, and translinguistic transformations—a puff of spores and a ripple of echoes floating outwards and sometimes reverberating back again. Pound's versions are but one (extraordinary) piece of an ever expanding whole, Fenollosa's cribs another. We would not have the one without the other. But the one and the other go both ways. Indeed, if it weren't for Pound, a great many admirers of Li Bo's poetry would never have heard of him even now, by that or any other name.




1. Take the last of these. In "A Ballad of the Mulberry Road" one gloss reads "hair arrangement (mage)." The point of the parenthetical note is that the Chinese character in the poem ji [kei] (topknot) is used in Japanese for the masculine topknot of a samurai, whereas mage is the modern Japanese reading (kun'yomi) of another word qu [kei] (topknot) which was traditionally used in Japan for a woman's hairstyle. Qian, however, reads it as "hair arrangement (maze)," making Fenollosa and his teachers vanish in puff of misrecognition that brings the English and Chinese closer together. That particular loosely-bound hairstyle also has nothing maze-like about it.

2. Take, for example, the line in "The Exile's Letter" which Pound renders as "And the water a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows." The paraphrase under the glosses for this line (46) in the crib reads: "Where the hundred feet deep clear waters are reflected / their green eyebrows (the girls) // (Their eyebrows are shaved, and green painted afterward / Jap court ladies' were done so too.) // {Chinese girls in long form of a bow, "like a distant mt."}" (italics added throughout for ease of comparison). Qian gives: "Where the hundred feet deep clear water are reflected their green eyebrows (the girls.) (Chinese girls in long form of a brow……their eyebrows are shady, and green penciled afterword) eyes of court ladies were done so too." Qian fails to recognize that Mori is comparing Chinese and Japanese cosmetic traditions, and so erases everything Japanese from the notes, closing the gap between Pound and China once again. The dropped phrase "like a distant mountain" (at least marked with an elipsis in this case) refers to a description of the beautiful wife of Sima Xiangru 司馬相如 (179–117 bce) in the 4th-century Xijing zaji 西京雜記 (Miscellany of the Western Capital): "The color of her brows was like that of a distant mountain seen from afar" (眉色如望遠山). Later the term yuanshanmei 遠山眉 (distant-mountain eyebrows) was used for the shape, not the color, of beautiful eyebrows in the course of ever-changing fashion trends. Mori knew what he was talking about.




Chisholm, Lawrence W. Fenollosa: The Far East and American Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

Fenollosa, Ernest and Ezra Pound. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. A Critical Edition. Eds. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

Gilonis, Harry. "The Inventor of Cathays," Make It New. Vol. 3.3 (Dec. 2016).

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1971.

Pound, Ezra. Cathay. Ed. Qian Zhaoming. New York: New Directions, 2016.

Yip, Wai-Lim. Ezra Pound’s Cathay. Princeton, N.J. Princeton UP, 1967.


Kano Tanyu

"Scholar Viewing a Lake" by Kanō Tan'yū (1602-1674), a descendent of Kanō Masanobu (1434-1530) who founded one of the most influential schools of Japanese painting. It was based on Chinese styles.

Ernest Fenollosa adopted the Japanese name Kanō Eitan Masanobu.

Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.




 Advance excerpt from Ezra Pound's  Cathay: A Critical Edition.

Edited by Timothy Billings with an introduction by Christopher Bush and a foreword by Haun Saussy.

Forthcoming from Fordham University Press, 2017.




Cathay at 100: A Conversation


Timothy BILLINGS, Christopher BUSH, Yunte HUANG,

Josephine PARK, Marjorie PERLOFF, QIAN Zhaoming,





In April 1915 a slim volume of verse was published by Elkin Mathews in London, Cathay: For the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga. Ezra Pound’s Cathay is just 100 years old, and we all know what it did to transform English- language poetry (especially American). It has also generated some fine scholarship over the years— and lots of interesting disagreement. With a century of changing perspectives now behind us, wouldn’t it be a good moment (however adventitious) to sit down and talk about the differences that Cathay made, and the differences between its earliest readers’ responses and ours today, and other related topics? Here’s what I would like to invite you to, if you like the idea: a conversation over email about Cathay, to be pursued in odd moments over the next few weeks or possibly months, following the turns of real conversation. At some point I would then edit it down and send it to each of you for final approval and revisions. What do you think? A little hundredth‑birthday party for the slim khaki‑colored volume.

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Reproduced by permission from Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 37 (2015).