Meryl Streep reciting a "Mandarin poem"

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On The Late Show (12/8/20), Stephen Colbert coaxes Meryl Streep to recite a very famous Tang poem (her English rendition begins at 4:28 and her Mandarin recitation starts at 4:45 — total 6:02):

In her prologue, Streep mixes up a lot of things about Mandarin (wrong tones and meanings for "ma" — she says that indeterminate tone "ma" means "mother" (all right, I suppose), "ma" in a very clear second tone means "horse" (should be third tone), and "ma" in a sort of fourth tone means "hooker", which almost made me fall off my chair because of the guileless way she said it (actually means "swear; curse; scold").  She also says that the poem has to do with clouds, that it's from the fourth century, and many other things that are not right.  Yet Streep does so in such a charming manner that she somehow manages to capture the gist and feeling of the poem.  It's really quite an impressive performance, despite all the imprecision.  What's most amazing, however, is that her recitation of the Mandarin poem itself is excellent.  Considering the fact that she learned the poem years ago, for her to recite it from memory in Mandarin with near perfect pronunciation, including getting most of the tones right, and with such wonderful composure and delivery, I could not help but feel profound admiration.

The poem is the one featured in a celebrated little book by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987) — by now aficionados have collected upwards of fifty different translations of the poem.  Here it is:

Wáng Wéi 王維 (699–759)

Lù zhài

kōngshān bùjiàn rén
dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng
fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín
fù zhào qīngtái shàng

鹿 柴

空 山 不 見 人
但 聞 人 語 響
返 景 入 深 林
復 照 青 苔 上

Deer Fence

In the empty mountain, no one is seen,
All that is heard are the echoes of human voices;
Returning shadows enter the deep woods,
Again shining upon the green moss and rise.

(VHM's 19th way of translating the poem)

Critics and commenters argue over various points, some of which are moot because of phonological and orthographic changes that have occurred since the time the poem was composed.  For example,

1. how to write and pronounce the second character of the title:  zhài or chái, 寨 or 柴, stockade, stronghold, fortress or firewood, fence, protective enclosure

2. how to write and pronounce the second character of the third line:  jǐng or yǐng, 景 or 影, light or shadow

3. how to pronounce and interpret the last character of the poem:  shàng or shǎng, 上, upper part, on, above or rise, ascend

One thing is certain, the poem as Wang Wei would have recited it in the 8th century would have sounded very different from any Mandarin reading of it today, just as a Cantonese or Minnan recitation of the poem today would sound quite different from any Mandarin reading.

Every year when I teach Chinese poetry and prose in translation, I spend the first two and a half weeks on the twenty syllables of this pentasyllabic quatrain.  One of best parts of the experience is when I have the students create an artistic rendition of what they imagine is happening in the poem.  It is incredible how many starkly different visualizations of the poem they come up with — one of the things that makes teaching poetry to bright minds so thoroughly enjoyable.


Selected reading


[thanks to John Rohsenow]


  1. Phil Hand said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 1:00 am

    This is great! Of course, like every China person, I'm going to immediately declare that she's got it all wrong, and it doesn't mean that at all. But that's not the most important thing. The important thing is that this brilliant literature gets shared and enjoyed by more people, so this is a really lovely development.

    I have my own translation of this poem, for what it's worth – an attempt to preserve the tightness of the structure and make the meaning a little clearer:
    Deer Grove
    I only caught the echoes of men's voices,
    The hills were empty, no one to be seen.
    The sunset's afterglow flowed through the branches,
    In mossy woods it shone on mossy green.

    If LL doesn't mind me giving the link, some friends of mine are putting together a website with mini-courses to help explain poems like this to anyone interested. I'm planning a video on this very poem, though it's not finished yet:

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 4:09 am

    From her fixed eye position, I would respectfully suggest that Meryl Streep may not be "recit[ing] [the poem] from memory in Mandarin" but reading it, possibly from a tele-prompter Reading it very well, and reading it very impressively, but not necessarily reciting it from memory. Her eyes return to camera when she finishes the recitation. Of course, some people avert their eyes when calling something up from memory, and that may indeed be the case here, but I don't think that there is an a priori case, based on the available evidence, for the suggestion that she is reciting the poem from memory.

  3. John Swindle said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 5:01 am

    I'll vote for her looking away to recall. Good job either way.

    Her interpretation of the second line of the poem—that the poet hears human voices and is therefore no longer alone—is reasonable and not one I would have thought of. I see him alone in the mountain forest despite hearing human voices.

    And I never knew there was controversy about the last character in the poem. I always gave it its modern Mandarin meaning in context ("on" the green moss), which might be anachronistic. But what else could be happening? Reflected sunlight ascending the moss? Hitting the top of the moss? Sunlight reflecting off the moss and rising up? Sunlight reflecting and the moss rising up to serve all the lonely people?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 11:20 am

    From Cecilia Segawa Seigle (professor emerita of Japanese language and literature [native speaker], PhD in comparative literature, and knowledgeable in Chinese):

    Meryl is incredible! How could she remember that poem in Chinese!!
    I can't remember any poem in English – even in Japanese – let alone Chinese!!!

  5. Jonathan Cohen said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 11:34 am

    Yes, it is lovely to see and hear this brilliant poem shared widely. Eliot Weinberger's book, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, offers a magnificent choral rendering of the poem in English. If he had known of the rendering by William Carlos Williams, he told me he would have included it; my presentation of it was published by Words Without Borders ( Not many know that Chinese poetry from centuries ago, like Wang Wei's famous poem, exerted a tremendous influence on modern American poetry in the early 20th century. It's the beauty of cross-pollination of poetic language — through translation.

  6. Julian said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 4:42 pm

    Thanks for the terrific linked article on WC Williams, particularly this:
    [in the four-line, stop-short poem] "it is only the words which stop, the sense goes on."
    A bit off-thread, but related: in a museum some years ago I came upon a Li Bai poem written in very large letters on the wall. Something about watching ships moving on the horizon, and when you look again later they're gone. I tried to memorise it but of course it was gone in an hour. I haven't been able to find it since. Can anyone help me?

  7. Julian said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 6:25 pm

    Do we know much about how it would have sounded in the 8th century? Are there online examples of an 8th century reading?

  8. John Swindle said,

    December 10, 2020 @ 6:35 pm

    @Julian: Maybe this? I think I hit the wrong key when I tried to submit it the first time.



    My old friend said goodbye to the west, here at Yellow Crane Tower,
    In the third month's cloud of willow blossoms, he's going down to Yangzhou.
    The lonely sail is a distant shadow, on the edge of a blue emptiness,
    All I see is the Yangtze River flow to the far horizon.

    Seeing off Meng Haoran for Guangling at Yellow Crane Tower"
    (second poem discussed on that page)

  9. Julian said,

    December 11, 2020 @ 4:55 pm

    That's probably the one. Thank you

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