Ezra Pound and the

Chinese Written Language



In her chapter in the Cambridge History of the English Language, Sylvia Adamson points to a number of developments in literary language since the end of the 18th century.  Chief among these are a movement towards conversational syntax, a reevaluation of traditional prosody, a shift from hypotaxis to parataxis, and a new set of ideas about both figurative language and the role of the “self.”  All of these trends mark a “shift from literate to oral styles,” and stem from the Romantic and Modernist desire for a “return to common speech” (590).  But Adamson also points to the ways in which “Modernism fosters élitist and difficult forms of writing which remove literature from common speech” (589, emphasis hers), and it is one aspect of this latter trend that this article will seek to elucidate by examining a different source of linguistic change, far removed from common English speech: the influence of a set of linguistic features associated with the Imagist movement, and, more specifically, those particular features introduced by Ezra Pound and resulting from his experiences translating classical Chinese poetry.  Rather than examine large scale linguistic shifts, in other words, I will discuss one aspect of the linguistic practise of one poet insofar as he participated in one subset of literary Modernism; I will, though, argue that his innovations played a fundamental role in the overall development of 20th-century literature, to the point that a surprising amount of contemporary writing exhibits traces of his linguistic tics. 


In the 1960s, well after Imagism had come and gone, Donald Davie claimed that

The quality of Chinese poetry is exactly that quality which our poetry, in the present century, has adapted itself specifically to secure.  In particular, one of the 20th-century English poetic styles, imagist vers libre, might have been (and partly was) devised deliberately to give the translator from the Chinese just what he wants and needs to function intelligently. (704)

Although Davie’s more concrete historical claim applies only to the short-lived Imagist movement, his first pronouncement is considerably bolder: “our poetry,” he claims, meaning, presumably, later-20th-century poetry as a whole, “has adapted” itself to the Chinese written language and not, as Adamson would suggest, to the English spoken one; in other words, through one of the many related literary movements that made up Modernism, a language entirely foreign to English has had a lasting effect on the poetry of our time.  To give some support to Davie’s counterintuitive claim, what I want to suggest here is that a particular set of ideas about the Chinese written characters, put forth by the late-Victorian scholar Ernest Fenollosa, together with certain syntactical strategies that came out of Ezra Pound’s experiences in translating Chinese poetry, had a profound influence on both the language and the structure of Imagist poetry and, subsequently, on a much wider range of literary production.



As Hugh Kenner points out, “composition à la mode chinoise was one of the directions the vers-libre movement, guided by current intuitions of beauty, was fated to explore had there been no Fenollosa and no Pound” (196).  By the end of the 19th century both James Legge and Herbert Giles had published scholarly translations of classical Chinese poetry, and the first decade and a half of the 20th century saw the publication of several volumes of “translations” by Helen Waddell, Charles Budd, Launcelot A. Cranmer-Byng , and W.J.B Fletcher, all of which employed a very conservative style—what Ming Xie calls “the debased Tennysonian and Pre-Raphaelite line of archaic diction and exoticism” (5).  For example:

The world is weary, hasting on its road;

Is it worth while to add its cares to thine?

Seek for some grassy place to pour the wine,

And find an idle hour to sing an ode. (qtd in Xie 5)

Though it contains a certain faux-Zen sentiment, there is nothing to distinguish this linguistically from the mass of mediocre Georgian poetry; were this the only avenue through which classical Chinese poetry could enter the English-speaking world, it would have had little lasting effect.  However, in 1913, Ezra Pound received a package of manuscripts from Ernest Fenollosa’s widow, and Chinese poetry gained an entry to the poetic avant-garde.


Trained in philosophy, divinity, and the fine arts, Ernest Fenollosa was an enthusiastic admirer of things Oriental but, as generations of sinologists have delighted in pointing out, no expert on classical Chinese.  While lecturing on Hegel at the University of Tokyo in 1878, Fenollosa studied traditional Chinese poetry under professor Kainan Mori, and at his death, in 1908, he left behind a number of notebooks containing, among other things, notes from his sessions with Mori, a selection of heavily glossed Chinese poems, and an unfinished essay on “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.”  Pound received these papers in 1913, and they formed the basis for Cathay (1915), a collection of translations from the Chinese (which also contained, oddly, a version of the Old English “Seafarer”).  The essay on “The Chinese Written Character” was eventually published in The Little Review in late 1919, and has since suffered both the excessive enthusiasm of literary theorists—“one of the high points of modern poetics” (Welsh 101)—and the withering scorn of sinologists—“a small mass of confusion.  Within the limits of forty-four pages [Fenollosa] gallops determinedly in various directions, tilting at the unoffending windmills” (Kennedy 25).


Turning Chinese

Working with Fenollosa’s cribs, Pound became the first serious poet to make translations from the Chinese.  Pound spoke no Chinese when he began his work on the Fenollosa poems, and to the English speaker, one of the most striking characteristics of the Chinese written language is its flexibility as to parts of speech.  As Hsieh Wen Tung points out, Chinese

is an uninflected language and its grammar is contextual rather than explicit.  The word being an integral character rather than an alphabetical group, it cannot carry suffixes or prefixes to indicate its mutations in function.  In English red is an adjective and as a noun remains the same, but as a verb it is to redden; as gerund and present participle reddening, as past participle reddened; in Chinese hung would have to stand for them all.  Its function would be determined by its position in the sentence, its significance defined by the context. (414)

Any Chinese word, then, can be reasonably translated into one of several English parts of speech.  And, since English, as Fenollosa points out in his essay, is cursed with “a lazy satisfaction with nouns and adjectives” (28), it is hardly surprising that most Chinese words, when translated into English, should translate as such.  Add to this the fact that Chinese tends to eschew “personal pronouns and connectives,” again as a result of the reliance on context (Hsieh 414), and one finds that a cribbed Chinese poem has a distinctive sound.  Take for example, Fenollosa’s crib of this short Chinese poem:

   MOON                 RAYS                  LIKE                 PURE               SNOW

      PLUM               FLOWERS       RESEMBLE         BRIGHT             STARS


      CAN                  ADMIRE              GOLD                DISC               TURN


   GARDEN          HIGH ABOVE         JEWEL             WEEDS          FRAGRANT


 (Fenollosa 35)

We have here mostly nouns with a few adjectives, and no pronouns, articles, conjunctions, or conjunctive adverbs; when translated literally into English, classical Chinese is a rather terse language.  Most translators would add appropriate parts of speech wherever necessary, and this, among other things, is what Pound does in his paraphrase of the poem:

The moon’s snow falls on the plum tree;

Its boughs are full of bright stars.

We can admire the bright turning disc;

The garden high above there, casts its pearls to our weeds.

(Fenollosa 36)

By adding articles (“The moon,” “The garden) and pronouns (“We can admire”), changing bare nouns into prepositional phrases (“on the plum tree,” “to our weeds”), and contextualizing with possessive adjectives (“Its boughs”,” “our weeds”), Pound turns a gloss into a translation. 


But the experience of working in and with a language that has a different relationship to parts of speech, inspired Pound to begin to reevaluate their role in his own English poetry, producing what has come to be recognized as the Imagist effect.  The first two tenets of Imagism—“Direct treatment of the `thing' whether subjective or objective” and the use of “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Literary 3)—though conceived shortly before Pound received the Fenollosa papers, were quickly twisted into linguistic imperatives through which to apply the lessons learned while working with Chinese poetry.  The first of Pound’s Cantos, written in 1917, opens with this new and distinctive voice:

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea. (Cantos 3)

The lack of a pronoun in the first line starts the poem with a lurch, and the lack of either conjunction or pronoun in the second line leaves the reader equally uncertain: is “forth on the godly sea” an adjectival phrase modifying “set” and roughly equal to “to breakers”? or is it an independent clause with pronoun and verb elided? and should there not be a few more articles as well?  The reader is most likely to reconstruct the first lines as

And then we went down to the ship,

Set the keel to the breakers, and sailed forth on the godly sea.

The elisions may be Chinese in origin, but the effect is not particularly Chinese; instead, this is a new, lean English, the challenges of which are familiar to any student of Modern poetry. 


The Ideogram

But more complex and more curious than, though not unrelated to, this questioning of parts of speech is what Pound called the ideogrammic method, a method that favours merely putting things—ideas, texts, phrases—side by side without comment or explicit conjunction.  Again, this came from the Chinese via Fenollosa, who based much of his praise for the Chinese written language on the false assumption that it was essentially ideographic and non-phonetic in nature, that the characters were constructed on the principle of mimesis.  As opposed to the abstraction of a phonetic language, he argues, “in reading Chinese we do not seem to be juggling mental counters, but to be watching things work out their own fate” (9).  His example is the following:

                           MAN                           SEES                   HORSE

Unlike its English equivalent, the Chinese is not based on “arbitrary symbols” but “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature”:

First stands the man on his two legs.  Second, his eye moves through space: a bold figure represented by running legs under an eye, a modified picture of an eye, a modified picture of running legs, but unforgettable once you have seen it.  Third stands the horse on his four legs. (8)

Fenollosa would claim, and Pound would echo him, that the Chinese ideogram presented a necessary relationship between its components: “eye on legs” can only mean “see,” because in

this process of compounding, two things added together do not produce a third thing but suggest some fundamental relation between them. (10)

For Fenollosa, a Chinese person does not experience the Chinese written language in the same way that an English speaker experiences the English written language.  Whereas we have lost the original metaphors that “our ancestors built […] into structures of language” (24), the Chinese written language “bears its metaphors on its face” (25), and while “there is little or nothing in a phonetic word to exhibit the embryonic stages of its growth,” Chinese etymology “is constantly visible” (25).  This is a fascinating idea, but false.  As George Kennedy points out, “the odds against the meaning of a character being equal to the sum of the meaning of its parts are fifty to one” (29, emphasis original).  And even if such calculus were to prove accurate, Cai Zong-Qi reminds us that “the Chinese respond to their modern printed characters as abstract linguistic signs in the same way that Westerners read their non-character equivalents in Western languages” (174-5).  But it is the thought that counts, and on this thought Pound based his ideogrammic method.  Hence his famous Imagist poem “In a station of the metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough. (Personae, 109)

Crucially, this meant to be more than a simile with “like” deleted, although whether it succeeds in this is questionable.  Reading it as such makes it little more than an example of the syntactical elision described above and reduces the second line to a description of the first.  What Pound wants is to bring out “some fundamental relation between” things: the two lines are juxtaposed, and this should enable one to read them in much the way that a (fictional) Chinese person reads “eye on legs” as “see.”  This is a relatively simple example; the Cantos are famously organized along this principle to the point of being at first incomprehensible.  Here, for instance, is the end of “Canto I”:

Lie quiet Divus.  I mean, that is, Andreas Divus,

In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

And he sailed, by Sirens, and thence outward and away

And unto Circe.


In the Cretan’s phrase, with the golden crown, Aphrodite,

Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden

Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids

Bearing the golden bough of Argicida.  So that: (Cantos 5)

The Canto has, up until this point, taken the form of a free translation from The Odyssey.  What follows is an apostrophe to the author of the Latin translation from which Pound is working (Andreas Divus), the title page of that translation, a bit more Odyssey, and a half-translated selection from a medieval Latin version of a Homeric Hymn.  There is no indication of how or why Pound is moving from one section to the next; instead, the reader is to perceive “some fundamental relation between them.”  By transforming the fundamental (false) principle of the Chinese ideograph into a poetic method, Pound, in effect, elides all connecting thoughts in much the same way he elided connecting parts of speech, replicating, as it were, at a supra-linguistic level the syntactical basis of the Imagist voice.



And from this, we can go much, much farther.  Marjorie Perloff has suggested that Pound represents one half of “the larger aesthetic dichotomy at the heart of Modernism” (23).  She contrasts Pound with Wallace Stevens, praising him as a revolutionary advocate of “collage,” “encyclopedia,” and “the jagged fragment,” while condemning Stevens as a reactionary revisionist of “lyric,” “meditation,” and “the still moment” (23).  This schema does little justice to the complexities of Modernism, and even less to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, but insofar as it places Pound at the source of much that we now call the post-modern, it may be right.  Fragmentation and collage, which are related, respectively, to the elision and juxtaposition discussed above, are, for better or for worse, techniques employed by all aspirants to a post-modern literary voice, be it in the poetry of John Ashbery or in the prose of contemporary Canadian author Lisa Moore:

Father Ryan raised the Eucharist, torpid complaint from the organ, seagulls screeching, wings slicing the pillar of sun from the skylight.  His bald head.  Now this chilly drip.  She touches her cheek.  Doesn't know herself. How dark in here, cool.  A deluge, part of her dream last night.  Everything comes true. (Moore 108)

While it may be something of an exaggeration to trace Moore’s sentence fragments directly back to the poetry of Li Po, and while there are many, many other factors that have shaped contemporary letters, it is surprising to see the extent to which something as foreign as classical Chinese poetry has shaped modern English literature.




Works Cited

Adamson, Sylvia.  “Literary Language.” The Cambridge History of the English

Language. Vol. IV. Ed. Suzanne Romaine. Cambridge: CUP, 1998. 589-680.

Cai Zong-Qi. “Poundian and Chinese Aesthetics of Dynamic Force: A Re-

discovery of Fenollosa and Pound’s Theory of the Chinese Written Character.” Comparative Literature Studies 30:2 (1993): 170-187.

Davie, Donald. “On Translating Mao’s Poetry.” The Nation. 200:26 (28 June

1965): 704-705.

Fenollosa, Ernest. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Ed.

Ezra Pound. San Francisco: City Lights, 1936.

Hsieh Wen Tung. “English Translations of Chinese Poetry.” The Criterion 17:68

(April 1938): 403-424.

Kennedy, George. “Fenollosa, Pound, and the Chinese Characters.” Yale

Literary Magazine 126:5 (1958): 24-36.

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

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

Garland, 1999.

Moore, Lisa. Open. Toronto: Anansi, 2002.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect. Cambridge: CUP, 1985.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1934.

___. Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1976.

___. Literary Essays. Ed. T.S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1935.

___. Personae.  New York: New Directions, 1971.

Welsh, Andrew. Roots of Lyric. Princeton: PUP, 1978.