Memory, Speak

Howard Goldblatt

Howard Goldblatt
Photo by Allen Krughoff

In his keynote speech from the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association's 2010 conference, celebrated translator Howard Goldblatt offers his readers a glimpse into the beginnings of his own forty-year love affair with the Chinese language. As he implores the "puppets of memory" to speak, he recounts how a single memorized poem, with its specific cadences and meanings, continues to provide a still point within his life—a space to which he can return time and again to gain a greater perspective and appreciation of the close relationship between language, literature, and life.

I am privileged to have the opportunity to be with you today. When the invitation to speak arrived, the first idea that popped into my head stemmed from a book I'd read by my former dean at Notre Dame, entitled Why Literature Matters in the Twenty-First Century. I thought about narrowing that down to my views on why translated literature matters in the twenty-first century. That, it seemed to me, could augment recent books by notable translators Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman and novelist Umberto Eco on translation as an element of cultural capital in contemporary society, and, in an hour or so, put my audience to sleep over lunch. But then I was told I'd have to manage that in half an hour; obviously, something else was needed. Something more personal.

In his memoir Speak, Memory, according to Andrew Field, Nabokov evoked his past through "puppets of memory." By reversing the order—"memory, speak," I wish to call attention to "memory," or, more specifically, memorization, not just to evoke the past, but to put it in the service of the ever-evolving present, by examining mnemonic possibilities of Chinese, especially during the language learning process and, along the way, to reveal a bit about what a forty-year love affair with the Chinese language has meant to me.

When learning, and then speaking, a foreign language, the voice takes on a special timbre, something best accomplished, I think, in the recitation of memorized passages. Socrates, we've been told, warned that the book (a new technology in his time) had the power to destroy memory. That may or may not have occurred, but one of the beauties of learning a second or third language, it seems to me, is the opportunity, if not the necessity, to memorize and recite; when the music of the human voice is employed in that process, a special joy is often the result. In a moment I will illustrate.

Memory, speak. In good times and bad. Upon reflection, I could sense that, with the help of Li Bai, I had created, in my mind, at least, a living memorial to the man who had started me on this journey.

But first, some background. Few people have been less well suited for college or a meaningful life than yours truly in the early 1960s. After completing a four-year degree program in a mere five and a half years at the only college that would accept me after an abysmal stint in high school, I found myself jobless and lacking a deferment at a time when the draft board was breathing down my neck. I managed to get into a naval officer training school in the nick of time, figuring I'd spend the next three years floating on an ocean somewhere. Instead, I was sent to Taipei, Taiwan, my first venture outside the US. An acculturation process got off to a slow start, but would bear fruit down the line despite a bit of resistance. A year and a half later, during which a maturation process had begun, initiated in part by the assassination of President Kennedy, I was sent to Yokosuka, Japan, to join a ship that would take me to places like Saigon, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Sydney, New Guinea, and Samoa. When my tour was up, still during the early phase of the Vietnam War, I was a bit smarter but no more employable than when I started, so when the Navy offered to send me back to Taipei, with increased responsibilities, I accepted. But this time something was different. I began to see and hear things around me that I did not understand, but wanted to, so I engaged a tutor and over the next couple of years spent most of my spare time with the first foreign language I'd ever been serious about.

In a recent interview with NPR's Neil Conan, journalist Anne Gerrals said, "Learning Russian saved my life." She was, it turned out, being literal. I cannot say that learning Chinese saved my life, but there is no question that it saved my life from being as dreary and unremarkable as it started out and probably deserved to be.

At first I was interested only in learning some basic conversational Chinese, for a variety of reasons, all quite utilitarian and not universally elegant. Those early attempts were, predictably, bad, but for me, uncharacteristically enjoyable. Learning to speak a musical language like Mandarin Chinese, now customarily known as Putonghua, was both fun and satisfying. Eventually, I received my military discharge, stuck around Taipei, enrolled in an intensive language program, took second place in an international speech contest, and, when a family emergency arose, returned home with the first sense of purpose not involving alcohol I had ever known.

Not long ago, while reading a story by one of my favorite authors, Alice Munro, I came upon the following description of what her narrator calls a "bright treasure":

Juliet thinks of the older teachers at the school, how little most of them care for whatever it is that they teach. Take Juanita, who chose Spanish because it goes with her Christian name (she is Irish) and who wants to speak it well, to use it in her travels. You cannot say that Spanish is her treasure.1

Food for thought. As I've said, I had modest, practical goals for beginning my study of Chinese, and, I happily admit, those goals and their achievement have served me well. But could I say that Chinese was a personal treasure? To answer that question, and to get me thinking about my second language—even, by extension, my first—in ways I had only peripherally managed before, I began to analyze aspects of the language and wondered how one ought to characterize a "treasure."

A treasure, in my understanding of the word and the concept, is seldom if ever a means to an end. It is an end in itself, something to cherish for itself, whatever its value might be otherwise. The divergent degree of fondness between a true treasure and something that falls short, even though the latter can lead to wonderful things, may vary only slightly, but the form that the fondness takes is fundamentally different.

But back to Chinese. For my generation, spoken Chinese was not considered terribly important; philology and classical texts were what distinguished the work of sinologists at a time when I was still doggedly making vocabulary lists. Few of my peers, including those who had been to a military language school, spoke much Chinese, and . . . well, it wasn't pretty. There were a few—sons and daughters of missionaries who grew up in China, for instance—who were fluent, if not always sophisticated in their speech patterns and the like, but I can think of only one or two who stuck with it and whose Chinese was both utilitarian and pleasing to the ear, as, I believe, mine became.

Happily, that situation has now changed dramatically, with many young scholars, students, and translators both proficient in and comfortable with spoken Chinese. I admit that back then I'd had advantages: I'd done my preliminary work in a Chinese-speaking environment among people who encouraged me to speak Chinese all the time, and I did not begin with our alphabet as a key to pronunciation; rather I used the pronunciation system taught to Taiwanese children. But, looking back, what likely tipped the scales was that the language itself brought me often-indescribable joy.
A common complaint among adults involved in the study of a foreign language is: How do we square our relative sophistication, our worldliness, with the juvenile tenor of early language materials? With Chinese, where the mastery of tones is essential and the written language bears no resemblance to anything we have ever encountered, these childish beginnings make for rough going. My first teachers, seemingly aware of the paradox, kept me interested and moving forward by teaching me recitable texts, samples of the language that focused on the sounds and rhythms of Chinese, even when their meanings eluded me at the time.

The first example, which took a long time to commit to memory—mainly with phonetic symbols—was a moralistic primer traditionally taught to and memorized by all Chinese children. It is the "San zi jing" 三字经, or "Three-Character Classic," some 700-plus groupings of three characters that encapsulate the Chinese worldview and society's expectations and strictures. Here is how it begins:


For me it was a compilation of sounds and rhythms, nothing more; understanding would come later.

In the classroom and on the streets of Taipei I had heard other foreigners speaking Chinese and wondered why so few of them sounded like our native hosts, no matter how advanced they were in their training. The answer was intonation, that which differentiates a native speaker from a learned speaker, however proficient the latter may be in terms of structure, pronunciation, and vocabulary. I found that the rhythms, aided by training the ear through recitation—the same known elements repeated over and over—could mimic the intrinsically understood sounds of the language as they occurred in their native environment, and that is what I set as my goal.

I was then given another memorization text, along with my reading, writing, and grammatical assignments, and found the differences both obvious and significant. This was an un-rhymed section from a classical text—the Li ji 禮記, the Book of Rites, dealing with the so-called "great harmony," datong 大同, or ideal world. It took even longer to memorize and, given my pronunciation at the time, it either amused or annoyed everyone around me. The rhythms could not have been more different, while the function—engendering good citizenship—remained about the same.


The staccato, monotonous beat of the "Three-Character Classic" is here replaced by a lilting rhythm that, to my way of thinking, must have been written with recitation in mind, and my wife tells me that it was put to music for grade-school students in Taiwan.

But before I could move on to more varied examples, my "ideal world" took a detour. Back in the US and marginally bilingual, I squeezed my way into a graduate program as the student movement was heating up, and sat in on my first formal class in Chinese, one on classical poetry, taught by Professor Kai-yu Hsu 许芥昱. Early on, as if he had read my mind, Professor Hsu had the class begin by memorizing poems from a Tang collection of 305 poems—most of which he could recite from memory—beginning with short works, old standbys, to be recited in chorus.

Many of them continue to crowd my mind and fill empty silences. But then for me came an opportunity that would have profound significance in later days. Professor Hsu asked each member of the class to choose a slightly longer poem to memorize. I picked a favorite out of the few I had read by then, "Seeing Off a Friend" (送友人) by Li Bai 李白, to my mind an ideal poem, structurally and emotionally:

青山橫北郭 白水繞東城
此地一為別 孤蓬萬里征
浮雲遊子意 落日故人情
揮手自茲去 蕭蕭斑馬鳴

Verdant mountains range beyond the northern wall.
White water winds round the eastern town.
On this spot we must part, for him
To begin a journey of a thousand miles.

Drifting clouds reflect a traveler's thoughts,
A friend's affection is carried in the setting sun.
He waves good-bye and sets off from here,
With a whinny from his dappled horse.

The next three years—Ph.D. course work in Indiana, followed by a Fulbright year in Japan to write my dissertation—left little time for mnemonics, and the Japanese language, which rhymes entirely too easily for my taste, was for me strictly utilitarian. But my first published translations—a clutch of essays by a master lyricist, Zhu Ziqing 朱自清—served to point out why I committed Chinese to memory rather than English or Japanese. While his "Haste" ("Congcong" 匆匆) is not a Bach cantata, to my ear it sings, and it became an exercise I frequently required of my own students over the years. Here is the opening paragraph:


Although a memorization program at IU took a back seat to completing course work, it wasn't forgotten altogether. Certain lines took hold in my mind and continue to do their magic. When I recall lines from Du Fu's 杜甫 "Spring Prospect" ("Chun wang" 春望), I am back in Professor Irving Lo's Tang poetry seminar and recall what life was like during my first year in the Midwest. Then I reflect upon my favorite essay by Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元, about a gardener who literally loves his trees to death. That is all it takes for me to be back in Professor Wu-chi Liu's 柳无忌 prose seminar the following year and reflect anew on Vietnam, on the anti-war McGovern campaign for president, and on learning how to read French.

Four years later, diploma in hand, I returned to my MA alma mater as a junior scholar, where on my first day back Professor Hsu asked if I still knew my poem. I did, and I proved it. The very next day I found on my desk a piece of calligraphy in Hsu's hand with the first five characters of my poem; it has become one of my greatest treasures.

Seven years after that, a northern California storm carried off this remarkable man, when his house collapsed around him as he tried to save his paintings and calligraphy. I was teaching at UCLA at the time and was invited back to San Francisco to speak at his memorial. There were, I thought, no words to convey my sense of loss, at least none that I could craft. So I decided to let my Tang poet say it for me. Here, again, the poem by Li Bai:

青山橫北郭 白水繞東城
此地一為別 孤蓬萬里征
浮雲遊子意 落日故人情

Before I reached the last two lines—"He waves good-bye and sets off from here, /With a whinny from his dappled horse"—I turned and looked blurry-eyed at the blown-up photo of my mentor, colleague, and friend, Kai-yu Hsu, then:

揮手自茲去 蕭蕭斑馬鳴

These re-spoken lines, especially the mournful 蕭蕭 whinny, articulated my sadness over Kai-yu's premature departure, but also called up a sequence of years and events with him at the center often and the periphery otherwise. I was moved by the power they had and reminded of the function of memorization—bei shu 背書—that has served generations of Chinese: the material is committed to memory and stored away to be called upon at the right moment. Memory, speak. In good times and bad. Upon reflection, I could sense that, with the help of Li Bai, I had created, in my mind, at least, a living memorial to the man who had started me on this journey.

So as not to end on a sad or overly reflective note, permit me to close with an additional thought or two. There is, as we have seen, more to memorization than merely smoothing out the rough edges of learning a foreign language. As anyone who has read Jonathan Spence's fascinating book on the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci's "memory palace," and, of course, anyone who has committed to memory lines from Shakespeare, Goethe, or Voltaire, can attest, memorization helps keep the mind supple and stores up treasures, big and small, to be revisited later on. That takes some of the sting out of the aging process, one of giving back, of returning much of what we have earned and learned over the preceding decades: we honor our parents by nurturing our children; we repay our teachers by investing in our students; we slough off the details surrounding events while retaining their essence; we donate our libraries to our alma maters, holding back that which fits into our mental storehouse; and more.

The relinquishing process holds true for language—native or acquired—at least it has for me. The words don't come as easily these days, the mistakes are more frequent. But where the treasured qualities of Chinese are concerned, if anything has changed, it is that a deeper personal attachment has evolved. As the printed words or written characters from which lines have been memorized fade into the ether, the sounds themselves call up images to which they refer, freeing me to recall circumstances of the time of learning, and transforming my memorized lines into catalysts for broader memories.

Now that I have less to say (and less that I have to say) in Chinese, I can, if I choose, simply repeat the things that please me, the words that, when spoken, still give me goose bumps and serve as a sort of time machine.

I take pleasure in reciting lines that I have kept with me for years—those bright treasures—usually aloud, and often when I am oblivious of my surroundings. So if one day you see me on the street muttering to myself, you can merely nod and say, "He's strolling with Li Bai through his treasure house."


1 Alice Munro, Runaway (New York: Vintage, 2005), 84.


From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.1

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March 2011 Issue

Volume 2, No. 1


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Table of Contents



  • 06 "Beef Noodles" by Li Ang
  • 14 Dark Li Ang vs Bright Li Ang: A Self-Interview by Li Ang
  • 24 The Spirit of Deer Town and the Redemption of Li Ang's Uncanny Literary Home by Darryl Sterk





  • Editor's Note
  • Contributors
  • Chinese Literature in Review
  • Pacific Bridge

ON THE COVER Moon 2 by Chen Nong


  • Qi Bangnuan, The Big Run River, A Memoir
  • Liang Hong, China in the Liang Village
  • Zhang Dachun, The Urban Violent Gang (in two volumes) 
  • Tianxin Zhu, A Song of Clog Throwing
  • Shijiang Li, The Chinese Department
  • Bei Dao, The City Gates Open
  • Yang Jiang, About to Drink Tea
  • Han Han, Chorus of Solos
  • Li Ang, A Romance Across Seven Incarnations

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