Poetry
REMEMBERING QIN’E

This poem was originally written in Chinese by Jao Tsung-I. It was translated into English by The Select Centre.

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The great Chinese intellectual Jao Tsung-I passed away in Hong Kong on 6 February 2018. A sinologist, calligrapher, historian, painter, and musician, he was considered by many as the last of the giants of Chinese learning. Among his many great works was the translation of the Akkadian epic “Enûma Eliš” into Chinese, a monumental task that took him ten years.

Not many people know that he spent five years in Singapore as the first Chair and Head of the Department of Chinese Studies at the former University of Singapore. Appointed to an eight-year term in 1968, he chose to leave prematurely in 1973. In his memoirs, he mentioned that even though he received very generous remuneration for his work, he quit because Chinese culture was a predominant part of his being and he felt stifled because he perceived that Chinese culture was being suppressed (“在新加坡生活待遇虽好,但是我呆不下去,只因我是以中国文化作主体的人。那里压制中国文化,我觉得很压抑。”).

At his departure, he composed the following “ci” poem, adapted from a piece by Fang Yizhi, a well-known intellectual of the late Ming Dynasty. It is worth noting that the original piece was written in a mood of sadness and loss, as the poet witnessed the encroachment of the Manchus on several major historical sites in Southern China.  The original piece goes: “花如雪。东风夜扫苏堤月。苏堤月。香销南国,几回圆缺。 钱塘江上潮声歇。江边杨柳谁攀折。谁攀折。西陵渡口,古今离别。”

Jao spent much of his Singapore tenure outside the country as a visiting professor at other universities. During his time on the island, he had interesting engagements with local scholars, travelled the region, and compiled a notable work on the history of Singapore. From his poem, one discerns his identification with the role of a nomadic scholar. While he bemoans that his efforts in Singapore have been to little avail, he reminds himself that the Chinese civilisation is like a great mountain that will stand tall in the face of time and other ravages.

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Remembering Qin’E
Snow-like blossoms. I open the door to welcome the courtyard moon.
Courtyard moon. Barely covered by her robe of clouds, she shines exquisite and round.
My sojourn in the southern seas was a genteel respite. Clear river waters, a mournful heart.
Mournful heart. A mountain hardly ages, but I leave in sorrow, my labours futile.

《忆秦娥》

花疑雪。开门且纳中庭月。
中庭月。云衣低护,有圆无缺。
南溟道是清游歇。湛湛江水徒心折。
徒心折。苍山难老,谩劳伤别

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Jao Tsung-I (1917-2018) was a distinguished Chinese sinologist, calligrapher, historian, and painter. A versatile and prolific scholar, he contributed to many fields of humanities, including history, archaeology, epigraphy, folklore, religion, art history, musicology, literature, and Near Eastern Studies. He published more than 100 books and about 1,000 academic articles over a career spanning more than 80 years.