How to make Robert Burns as big as Shakespeare in China

Mandarin icing next year? tycobass, CC BY-SA

As long as the history of English literature is taught in universities, the charm of the immortal poem “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns will endure in China. I first came across the poem by the national bard of Scotland about 30 years ago as an undergraduate studying English literature, and my love for it has never decreased since.

I have been teaching Burns’s poems to students of my university, Hebei Normal University in northern China, since 1992. I cannot remember the names of all the graduates who took my course of English and American poetry, but I always recognise them immediately when they say: “I learned ‘A Red, Red Rose’ from you.”

Sweet on William

Now I have come to Scotland as a visiting scholar devoted to translating about a hundred of Burns’s poems into modern Chinese with a view to making Burns as famous as Shakespeare in my homeland. Burns is known in China, both for “A Red, Red Rose” and “Scots Wha Hae,” which is appreciated for its patriotism. But very few of his other works will have been read by other people in China.

Shakespeare: big in China. Ron and Joe

Among Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are probably the two plays that are best known, along with Sonnet 18, with its famous opening line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Shakespeare enjoys more fame in China for a number of reasons. There are many Chinese versions of his complete works, as well as some of the individual plays, his sonnets and the two long poems. This means that any educated person can read his work. Better still, Chinese publishers have produced translations that include Chinese and English, so readers can enjoy the original at the same time.

There are also many research organisations dedicated to the study of Shakespeare, both at national and provincial level. Some universities have established dedicated “Shakespeare Studies” courses for postgraduates and even sometimes undergraduates; while some have compiled a textbook to improve listening and speaking based on the animated tales of Shakespeare. Finally, many troupes perform Shakespeare’s plays in Chinese.

Can China learn to love another British bard? MriCon, CC BY-SA

Burns’s position would be much enhanced if his poetry were given similar treatment. In Hebei Normal’s school of foreign languages, we have been leading the way by setting up a centre for Scotland studies in 2013, which we hope will set an example for other universities to follow (besides Burns, Sir Walter Scott is another writer on the curriculum). And the more Burns translations into Chinese, the more his work is likely to flourish. Personally I am sure there will be more studies on Burns in China and many research organisations will be set up.

Burns and eternal devotion

Works every time! Pukach

Which takes me back to “A Red, Red Rose”. It is immortal in its way of expressing love. One of the reasons for its popularity in China is that we see similar expressions in our own poetry, especially in using a vow or an oath, such as Burns’ “I will luve thee still, my Dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry… And the rocks melt wi’ the sun.”

In the Yuefu poetry of the Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD), there is a love poem by an anonymous writer that uses a similar vow. The poem is entitled “上邪” ("Oh,by Heaven") which goes as follows:

上邪,/ 我欲与君相知,/ 长命无绝衰。山无陵,/ 江水为竭。冬雷震震,/ 夏雨雪。/ 天地合,/ 乃敢与君绝。

Here is one English version:

By heaven, / I shall love you / To the end of time! / Till mountains crumble, / Streams run dry, / Thunder rumbles in winter, / Snow falls in summer, / And the earth / mingles with the sky — / Not till then will I cease to love you!
(tr. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Margaret Tayler)

There were a few Chinese Burns during the Han Dynasty. Wally Gobetz, CC BY-SA

There is another Chinese poem, also anonymous, that makes the same vow. The poem is entitled “菩萨蛮” (“Pusaman”) and goes like this:

枕前发尽千般愿,/ 要休且待青山烂。/ 水面上秤錘浮,/ 直待黄河彻底枯。/ 白日参辰现, / 北斗回南面, / 休即能休,/ 且待三更见日头。

Here is one English version of its first four lines:

On the pillow we make a thousand vows and say, / Our love lasts unless green mountains rot away. / On the water can float a lump of lead, / The Yellow River dries up to the very bed.
(tr. Xu Yuanchong)

So we can see that this idea of eternal love is a sentiment shared by people of UK and people of China. Literature is thus compared and studied. Culture is thus exchanged.