William Empson

China (1940)

The dragon hatched a cockatrice
(Cheese crumbles and not many mites repair)
There is a Nature about this
(The spring and rawness tantalise the air)

Most proud of being most at ease
(The sea is the most solid ground)
Where comfort is on hands and knees
(The nations perch about around)

Red hills bleed naked into screes
(The classics are a single school—)
The few large trees are holy trees
(—They teach the nations how to rule)

They will not teach the Japanese
(They rule by music and by rites)
They are like them as two peas
(All nations are untidy sights)

The serious music strains to squeeze
(The angel coolies sing like us—)
Duties, and literature, and fees
(—to lift an under-roaded bus)

The paddy-fields are wings of bees
(The Great Wall as a dragon crawls—)
To one who flies or one who sees
(—the twisted contour of their walls)

A liver fluke of sheep agrees
Most rightly proud of her complacencies
With snail so well they make one piece
Most wrecked and longest of all histories.



Empson’s note:

The two main ideas put forward or buried in this poem now seem to me false, but the thing expresses a kind of ignorant glee which many visitors beside myself have felt about China (about the vitality which lets her keep the beauty of her life however cut up or disorganised, a vitality like a jellyfish, not needing a centre), and I hope that saves it from being offensive. The ideas are that Japanese and Chinese are extremely alike, since the Japanese are merely a branch of the same culture with a specialised political tradition, and that China can absorb the Japanese however completely they over-run her. This common forecast might work out, grindingly, after a few centuries, but does not make her need for victory now less urgent. However, I felt that while I was trying to help China I need not be solemn about her.

The prolonged disorder of China made everything feel crumbling like cheese but with an effect of new growth trying to start as in inclement spring weather; “Nature” is a repulsive deity, but you felt there might be something fertile in this struggle between her two allied fabulous creatures. The ideas of learning wisdom by not worrying and of getting your way by yielding, as in water, of course go a long way back into Chinese thought. The other nations perch about on rigid rules, not using laissez-faire and mutual accommodation. It is the Japanese rather than the Chinese who like being on hands and knees, but I was trying to mix them up. The Chinese coolie still regards a chair as a not very pleasing luxury, and China like Japan has her boat population all right. The Japanese missed the chair, a late T’ang introduction, because they learned nearly all their customs in middle T’ang . . . .

As to the liverfluke, who comes in the Outline of Life by Wells, etc., its child does not kill the snail and cannot when fully inside be distinguished anywhere from the body of the snail; maybe it is not even cellular. It only puts red patches containing its eggs on the horns of the snail so that these are seen and eaten by birds. The horns grow again. There is a third generation which gets from the bird to the sheep, and the child of that has to leave the sheep and dissolve itself in a snail. That the thing can play these tricks without having any structure at all is what is so frightening; it is like demoniacal possession. However, to do the Japanese justice, a normal Japanese is still rigidly Japanese after twenty years of living among Chinese in China; no man could be less like this eerie fluke. The idea that China unlike other nations can keep its peculiar life going without a central organisation was the excuse for bringing it in.


For notes about ‘China’ see the Bibliography BF9d; for notes about Empson’s relation with Japan see William Empson and Japan; and for a note about Empson titles in print and buying information see Aubade.















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