Ren Xujun, MA student, Graduate Institute of Chinese Literature, National Central University
If I were boiling water
And you were leaves of tea
Then your fragrance
Would depend on my flavorlessness
Let your dryness softly, softly
Open up inside me blossoming
Let my wetness unfold you
I have to be hot boiling, even
For only then can we be one
We have to hide
In water, gazing at each another, intertwined
Time will determine what color
Our cup of tea will be
No matter how you float and drift, ungraspable
In the end you’ll slowly (oh, so lightly) descend
Collecting in my deepest places
And then your bitterest teardrop
Will be my sweetest sip of tea
Poem by Zhang Cuo (Dominic Cheung)
Translated by Robert Fox
Tea and coffee are the world’s most popular beverages. Coffee is dark, rich, and bitter, and cream and sugar are often added to enhance its flavor. In literature and film, coffee is associated with romance. Tea is a simple drink, light in taste and color, clean and pure. Artless and sincere, tea drinkers enjoy the sweet, clean aftertaste that follows the initial bitterness. Thus, poets ancient and modern have celebrated the art of tea – to paraphrase lines from Tang poet Bai Juyi, “Sit and pour clear, cold mountain spring-water into a cauldron and watch the green tea leaves billow like dust as they boil.”
In his 1974 “Tea Love Poem,” Zhang Cuo takes another view of the beverage, overturning its image of purity and simplicity, associating tea with love and desire. In simple, declarative sentences, the six-verse poem turns the brewing and drinking of tea into a metaphor for sexual love, evoking the flavor of sensual passion.
In the first verse, “I,” the lover, is “boiling water,” and “you,” the beloved, “tea leaves:” If I were boiled water /And you were leaves of tea / Then your fragrance / Would depend on my flavorlessness. Of itself, boiled water is tasteless, yet it is a crucial component in making flavorful tea; just as tea leaves’ taste and aroma can only be released by steeping in hot water, so a lover’s passion can only be expressed through the beloved. Charm and loveliness can blossom forth only if there is someone to appreciate those qualities.
The succeeding verses deepen and refine the metaphor. In the second verse, the dry leaves open in the boiling water, an image filled with sexual tension. Readers can easily imagine this type of scenario: When lying in a lover’s arms one can let down the hard, resolute mask one usually shows to the world, softening one’s voice and demeanor.” And so the “boiling water” tenderly says: Let my wetness unfold you. To elicit that response, “I” – the boiling water – must be passionately in love: I have to be hot boiling, even / For only then can we be one. Hence, the third verse is tantamount to a song of praise for the flavorless water. In the fourth verse, the relationship is further elucidated: If “time”…determines what color / A cup of tea will be / We have to hide / In water, gazing at each another, intertwined. Becoming one takes time, a period of quiet waiting; thus, to the poet, love is like brewing tea, needing both “boiling water” and “tea leaves,” that is, mutual awareness and interaction. What’s also needed is long steeping time, for only then will love come to fruition.
Sexually suggestive, the fifth verse echoes the second verse, yet it is also a contemplation of life: No matter how you float and drift, ungraspable / In the end you’ll slowly (oh, so lightly) descend / Collecting in my deepest places; thus, the beloved ultimately returns to the lover’s “deepest places.” When the lovers are intimately united, the beloved’s “…bitterest teardrop” becomes the lover’s “sweetest sip of tea” – as when drinking tea, the sweetness comes after the bitterness has passed. The sixth verse heightens and deepens the relationship described in the first verse.
Zhang Cuo has turned the simple process of brewing tea into a metaphor for romantic love. More than a merely a sexual analogy, the poem takes a penetrating look at lovers’ lives. The work is light and graceful, the plain style belying the poet’s mastery. Zhang Cuo is not only well versed in the art of brewing tea, but is also an accomplished poet who has written a number of other excellent works on tea, such as “A Tea Tale,” “Drinking Tea,” and “Sonnets to Tea.”
Ren Xujun, MA student, Department of Chinese Literature, National Central University
Zhang Cuo (1943- ) is the penname of Zhang Zhenao, Born in Macao, Zhang traces his ancestry to Huiyang in China’s Guangdong province. After completing elementary and middle school in Hong Kong, Zhang came to Taiwan in 1962, studying Western languages at National Chengchi University. He earned a master’s degree in English at Brigham Young University and a doctorate in comparative literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1974 he began teaching comparative literature and East Asian languages at the University of Southern California, a position he still holds today. In 1974 Zhang Cuo, Wang Runhua, and Lin Lü formed the “Constellation Poetry Society,” publishing an eponymous poetry journal. Zhang has received the China Times Narrative Poetry Award, the Chung Hsing Literary Arts Award, the National Council of Fine Arts Literary Arts Award, and the Academy of American Poets Prize.
Zhang Cuo published works include poetry, essays, and criticism. Because he has lived an itinerant life, a nostalgic longing for home pervades his poems, which at times are gracefully lyrical, at other times boldly adaptive. Zhang’s essays present his multifaceted views of aesthetics and social realities. His research and criticism focus on Asian and Western comparative literature, postcolonial theory, and social criticism. Recently he has also written on ancient cultural artifacts.
Zhang Cuo’s poetry collections include Crossing Over (1966), Death’s Antennae (1967), Bird Calls (1970), Los Angeles Grass (1979), Fourteen Mistakes (1987), A Jade Bracelet’s Complaint (1987), Wanderer (1986), Spring Night Silence (1988), Betel Palm Blossoms, (1990), Constantly Changing Man (1997), Snowflakes (1996), A Map of Wandering (2001), Even a Blade of Grass (2012), and Mountain Home Map (2013). His essays collections include The Third Season (1964), From Muzha to Seattle (1976), Those Joyous and Sad Ones (1988), Children’s Affairs (1993), Talking and Listening (1998), News of the Loquats (1998), Mountain Home Letters (2001), Looking for Zhang Ailing and Others (2004), Quiet River of Fireflies (2004), and Looking for Chang’an (2008). Zhang’s Golden Tears (1985) is a work of reportage. His scholarly works include The Face of Contemporary American Poetry (1972), Culture Pulse (1995), A Date with Criticism – Discussions of Literature and Culture (1999), and From Shakespeare to Ueda Akinari (1989). Works on art include Gentle and Dignified: Porcelain, Bronze, and Painting (2008), A Piece of Porcelain Heart: A Collection of Chinese Porcelains (2010), Objects of Style (2012).
|Work(English)：||Tea Love Poem|
|Anthology：||Sonnets to Error|
|Author：||Zhang Cuo (Dominic Cheung)|
|Publisher：||Taipei: Crown Publishing Company, Ltd.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/%200010098221|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Unpublished Translation by the Literature Toolkit Project|