Timothy Billings (ed.). Cathay: A Critical Edition. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019. $34.95. ISBN 9780832381060.


review by Andrew Houwen


‘Many hands were involved’ in the production of Cathay, as Haun Saussy’s foreword to this indispensable critical edition rightly observes. Its thorough and detailed examination not only of Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks, out of which Pound created one of the most distinguished poetry collections of the twentieth century, but also of their Chinese and Japanese contexts, reveals like no edition has before the extent to which Cathay is, as Saussy aptly puts it, a co-creation spanning vast distances of space and time.

Two important examples of this new focus on the Fenollosa notebooks’ and Cathay’s Chinese and Japanese contexts can be seen in the attention paid to those ‘Professors Mori and Ariga’ in the 1915 collection’s frontispiece. Christopher Bush’s introduction provides a discussion of Mori Kainan (1863-1911) as an important and active co-creator of Cathay: as Bush notes, he was himself a highly reputable kanshi poet (a Japanese writer of classical Chinese poetry), ‘the major figure in kanshi from around 1890 until his death in 1911, having edited a major annotated edition on Tang poetry, Tōshisen hyōshaku 唐詩選評釈, based on the Tangshi xuan 唐詩選 of Li Panlong (1514-1570)’. As Bush tells us, he rose to high political positions and was traveling with Itō Hirobumi, previously the prime minister and at that time the resident-general of Korea, ‘when the latter was assassinated by a Korean nationalist’ in 1909; indeed, he even composed a kanshi on the subject. In the editor’s introduction, Billings also remarks how he was ‘celebrated in Japan for his own compositions of poetry in classical Chinese’, unlike early translators such as Herbert Giles and Arthur Waley, ‘who could barely write poetry in English’, never mind classical Chinese.

Billings is similarly right to point out how, ‘instead of referring loosely to Mori when quoting the cribs – as scholars have typically done when they are not ignoring Mori altogether – we should acknowledge Ariga’s collaborative role as well’. Ariga Nagao (1860-1921), as Bush’s introduction informs us, studied international law abroad and became ‘such a prominent legal scholar that he was invited to Beijing by Yuan Shikai to help draft a new constitution for China’. Billings carefully traces the extent of Ariga’s influence on the English of Fenollosa’s notebooks: 

It has never been observed before, but there is substantial evidence that Fenollosa was often taking down dictation so quickly that he apparently wrote exactly what Ariga said to him while translating for Mori, sometimes without fully understanding what he was writing at the moment, which partly explains why Fenollosa’s notes are sometimes slightly unidiomatic.

Like Saussy, Billings justly concludes that ‘Pound’s poems from Li Bo [...] are textual collaborations not only with the original author [...] but also with Fenollosa, Mori, and even Ariga’. In demonstrating the role of the latter two in particular, Billings’s edition marks a moment of significant progress in calling attention to the ‘right names’, as Pound might have put it, behind Cathay.

In the spirit of calling things by their ‘right names’, though, it is perhaps worth pointing out some of the edition’s shortcomings in this regard, such as ‘Mori’s’ own name to begin with. ‘Mori’ is indeed his family name; but Kainan is his gō , a traditional literary or artistic pseudonym often used in Japan until around the Second World War. A cursory examination of Japanese-language literary scholarship shows that, after first mention, he is always referred to as ‘Kainan’, just as we say ‘Bashō’, not ‘Matsuo’, and ‘Shiki’, not ‘Masaoka’. It is perhaps defensible to maintain the use of ‘Mori’ because Fenollosa always refers to him as such, but at the very least a note acknowledging this issue would be helpful in explaining such basic information regarding the Japanese context of Cathay’s development. Perhaps less defensible, though, is the repeated Japanese transcription of Qu Yuan, to whom authorship of Cathay’s ‘Song of the Bowmen of Shu’ is attributed, as ‘Katsugen’ instead of Fenollosa’s and Pound’s (correct) ‘Kutsugen’. Even more puzzling are the references to the influential translator of Chinese poetry, Herbert Giles, as ‘Giles Herbert’ and, later, ‘Herbert’.

Although Kainan is rightly given more prominence than in previous English-language discussions of Cathay, he is also the victim of unjustified criticism regarding his interpretations of the Chinese poems. Billings claims, for instance, that it is the ‘Japanese linguistic prejudice’ of ‘Mori &/or Ariga’ that causes the translation of (qing in modern Mandarin, ao or sei in Japanese), which describes the ‘grass’ in ‘The Beautiful Toilet’, to be rendered as ‘blue’ because this character is ‘almost always “blue” in Japanese’. In fact,  frequently refers in Japanese to what English speakers would consider to be ‘green’ or ‘fresh’, such as 青信号(ao shingō, a green traffic light), 青年 (seinen, a standard term for ‘young person’), 青梅 (aoume or ōme, green ume fruit widely sold in Japan), the common female name 青葉 (Aoba, lit. ‘green leaf’, several of whom I teach, all in no doubt it means ‘green’), or indeed 青青 (aoao, ‘lush green’, as in 青青とした草原aoao to shita kusahara, a ‘lush green field of grass’), the very term used in ‘The Beautiful Toilet’. Countless other examples could be added. 

To any Japanese speaker, let alone a renowned scholar and practitioner of classical Chinese poetry such as Kainan, it would therefore be an absurd mistake to think that the青青 in ‘The Beautiful Toilet’ means what Fenollosa’s notebooks interpret as ‘blue blue’. The error must therefore have occurred in the translation into English (and thus to be attributed to Ariga or another Japanese translating for Fenollosa) rather than between the Chinese and Japanese. Billings is right, though, in ‘wondering’ whether the misreading of 竹馬 (takeuma, or zhuma in modern Mandarin) as ‘bamboo stilts’ in ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ is ‘Ariga’s “English” error alone’: Kainan’s Rishi kōgi (‘Lectures on Li Bai’s Poetry’), published two years after his death, analyses this poem at length, including the depiction of the ‘bamboo horse’. 

Billings’s edition does not mention Kainan’s Rishi kōgi, however, despite the clearly important role that published lectures by Kainan on Li Bai’s poetry ought to play in an understanding of Cathay, given that eleven of the first edition’s fourteen poems are attributed to Li Bai. Bush, Billings, and the bibliography draw attention to Kainan’s Tōshisen hyōshaku, though the book does not directly cite it, or any other Japanese-language source for that matter. The Tōshisen hyōshaku would not be a particularly helpful source for a critical edition of Cathay: out of more than four hundred poems, only three appear in Cathay. Kainan’s Rishi kōgi, by contrast, which are freely available in digital form via the National Diet Library’s online catalogue, examine in much greater detail what Pound would translate as ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’, ‘The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance’, ‘The River Song’, and ‘Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin’. An examination of Kainan’s extensive commentary on these poems would provide valuable points of comparison with Fenollosa’s notebooks.

Another surprising absence in the bibliography is that of Yamaguchi Seiichi’s two-volume Fenorosa: Nihon bunka no senyō ni sasageta isshō (‘Fenollosa: A Life Dedicated to the Advocacy of Japanese Culture’), published in 1982, which remains the most authoritative biography of Fenollosa in any language, as David Ewick has observed. Unlike the English-language biographies published by Van Wyck Brooks in 1962 and Lawrence W. Chisholm the following year, Yamaguchi’s makes use of a broad range of Japanese-language sources. One of these includes the recollections of Fenollosa’s nō translator, Hirata Kiichi, who remembers that he and Okakura Kakuzō, Fenollosa’s former student and later a prominent writer on Japanese culture, also regularly attended Kainan’s lectures on Chinese poetry with Fenollosa and Ariga. Such tantalising details, known to Japanese scholars since 1924, give some indication of just how much the Japanese contribution to Cathay’s development remains unexplored in Anglophone scholarship.

Such quibbles aside, Billings’s critical edition of Cathay represents an important step in understanding the transcultural collaboration of this brilliant book of poetry, especially in its calling of attention to the Japanese context of Fenollosa’s notebooks, which has previously been all too frequently passed over in favour of direct comparisons between Pound and the Chinese poets reinvented in Cathay, despite the crucial interpretive role figures such as Kainan played in its production. So much more remains to be said about this context, though, as well as about the Chinese scholarship on which Kainan drew.