Poetry and Literature / China and Macao


Danilo Barreiros*

'Sinology' means the 'study of things Chinese', be they history, geography, art, philosophy, literature, usages and customs, etc.

A 'Sinologist' is thus an 'expert on Sinology'.

The impressive study which constitutes the preface to the book by Morais Palha Esboço crítico da Civilização Chinesa (Critical Sketch on Chinese Civilization), published in Macao, in 1912, attests Camilo Pessanha's deep knowledge of Chinese civilization. This preface is the poet's criticism of corruption, crime and punishment. It is an implacable and hard text evoking the timely resonance of a gigantic gong.

The invitation to teach at the Instituto Comercial (Commercial Institute) — annexed to he Liceu (National Middle School) of Macao made to Camilo Pessanha by the Governor Amaldo de Novais attests not only recognition of his competence for this position but also his deep knowledge of the history of China.

His knowledge of Chinese history made him recognise in the mentioned preface that the establishment of the Republic of China had just opened new horizons to the Chinese people. An awakening of a collective stupor of many thousands of years which made the people refute the past, enabling them — in a relatively distant future, and after a hard crisis — to become a major force, China contributing towards Asia's hegemony in detriment of Europe's economical interests and political prestige. More than seventy-five years ago Camilo Pessanha foresaw what would take place nowadays.

Regarding his extensive knowledge of Chinese art, the invitation published in the periodical "O Progresso" on the 7th of February 1915 bears witness to Pessanha's expertise:

"The Governor of the Province of Macao and D. Berta de Castro e Maia have the pleasure to invite today, around 4 p. m., to the Government Palace, members of the society to view an exhibition of precious Chinese objects belonging to the collection of Dr. Camilo de Almeida Pessanha."

Governor Carlos da Maia, a man of great culture and taste, would never sponsor the exhibition if the displayed items were not deserving. Because of Pessanha's solid knowledge of his discernment placed in respect even the most envious, his conference on "Chinese Aesthetics" did not face the slightest criticism.

In "Seara Nova" (29th April 1926) Sebastião da Costa stated that Pessanha had been "roubado" ("exploited") in his purchases of Chinese art because he was not a "muito ilustrado conhecedor" ("illustrious connoisseur"). He added that, in conversation with the poet about "chinesisses"("things Chinese") his lack of erudition was evident since it was "[...] not comparable to the vast knowledge of Silva Mendes or to the sensibility and intuition of José Jorge."

It is quite possible that Camilo Pessanha was unable to accurately judge if an earthware, a bronze or a painting were from the period claimed by the seller as in China there has always been the tradition of manufacturing perfect copies of admired ancient works of art, not as forgeries but in appreciation of the originals' excellence. For Pessanha — and artist rather than collector — integral harmony of colour, shape and overall feeling were the most important factors in a work of art.

Alberto Osório de Castro visited Pessanha, in Macao, late in the Summer of 1912. The description of this meeting printed in the periodical "Atlântico" (Lisbon, (2) 1942) impressively renders the reaction of the poet explaining to the reporter the marvels as well as the imperfections and symbolism of each object, the innumerable items on display throughout rooms and galleries: porcelains, jades, agates, alabasters, silverware, lacquered objects, ivories, Su Luo Pang paintings and numerous other riches, which, according to the visitor were unique of their kind, belonging to a Portuguese collector. In the Catálogo da Colecção de Arte Chinesa oferecida ao Museu de Arte Nacional por Camilo Pessanha (Catalogue of the Chinese Art Collection Bequested to the National Museum of Art by Camilo Pesanha), structured of items carefully selected by a renowed Chinese expert, gives a glimpse of the original Pessanha bequest to the Museu das Janelas Verdes (Museum of Ancient Art), in Lisbon, refused by art mentors of this Museum. The collection was sent to Coimbra, where it remains stored without adequate conservation measure's and unable to be permanently displayed.

No one doubts that Pessanha was a dedicated student of Chinese language and literature. The conference he gave on the 13th of March 1915 at the Grémio Militar (Military Club) on "Chinese Literature" — a summary of which, written by the author, was published eight days after the event in the periodical "O Progresso" — is a clear and succint appraisal of the major aspects of the subject in appreciation. In the Preface of his Elegias Chinesas (Chinese Elegies) Pessanha marvelously explains the peculiarities of Chinese poetry and considers the difficulties of its translation which he summarizes as "um osso duro de roer" ("a hard bone to chew").

It remains to be ascertained if in fact Camilo Pessanha was sufficiently knowlegeable in written and spoken Chinese to be a competent translator of this language to Portuguese.

It has been stated that the Chinese language of the poet was so bad that he was not understood by the native Chinese, but such statements came from jealous people who could not tolerate Pessanha's intellectual superiority. Such was the case of Silva Mendes, the frustrated poet of Excertos da Filosofia Tauista (Excerpts of Daiost Philosophy), who openly undermined the poetic merits of Pessanha's work on criticisms which only appeared after the death of Pessanha.

Immediately after his arrival in Macao, Camilo Pessanha decided to work as a solicitor. For this it was essential to have a sound knowledge of Guangdongnese, progressively mastered by all those who settle in Macao; the outcome of daily contacts with native Chinese speakers.

In order to adequately deal with the legal proceedings Pessanha looked for an interpreter who could equally act as an angariador (engager) of clients — as it was common in those days. The interpreter- literati contracted by Pessanha was also in charge of teaching the poet how to read and write Chinese and the meaning of its literary content. Unfortunately the poet, finding more pleasure in opium than in the exhaustive effort of memorizing Chinese characters, only learned about three-thousand-five-hundred characters. His Chinese language apprenticeship would later develop through contact with the woman with whom he would have a son, and through the continuous presence in his house of numerous female members of his companion's family and her maids. Also, but much later, through the teachings of José Vicente Jorge.

António Osório de Castro never forgot the 19th of March 1916, the departure day of Pessanha's last return to Macao, when abandoning his friends on the embarkation quay without a last farewell the poet joyfully engaged in conversation with a group of Chinese fellow passengers, astonished by the sudden appearence of this white man with a long beard animatedely speaking their mother tongue. ("Diário Popular", Lisboa, 7 de Setembro [September] 1967).

Alberto Osório de Castro commenting on his visit to Pessanha says that the author was "[...] very well known and highly esteemed by the Chinese, who surrounded him on the streets, chattering with him in that multi-millenary languague of the Celestials [...]". This statement is based on the real experience of sharing time with Pessanha, with whom he saw "[...] from side to side all of beautiful Macao, from the Border Gate and the Camões Grotto to the charming Praya Grande, the bazaars and the markets, the fan tan playing sites, the native theatres, the Chinese neighbourhoods, as well as the Macanese."

Sebastião da Costa in his already mentioned article published in "Seara Nova" on the 29th of April 1926, tells that while Pessanha's concubine prepared him opium the author "[...] usually spoke with his companion in Chinese with much enthusiasm [...]."

After spending so many years in a Chinese environment, to which he eventually belonged, after the teachings of his interpreter/ literati and constant contact with Chinese residents and antique merchants, Pessanha undoubtedly spoke fluent Guandongnese although most probably with a poor pronunciation and a limited vocabulary. These language problems gradually corrected and improved through the teachings of Jose Vicente Jorge, his "[...] dear old friend and master [...]."

But was Pessanha able to translate Chinese literary and philosophical texts?

The author himself declared his incapacity to do so, even with the help of a dictionary.

In the already mentioned summary written by Pessanha regarding his conference on "Chinese Literature", it is stated that in China the written rather than the spoken national language is the 'true' major binding force of the people's common identity. "The Chinese express all their ideas, albeit tangible or abstract, through written characters [...]" to which correspond sounds with different tones, each tone sound having a different meaning. The ideographic origin of Chinese characters prescribes that their writing "[...] is incomprehensible if only heard. In order to understand written Chinese it is necessary to visualize its characters."

Each character is the container of an element and the symbol of a tangible idea: "[...] man, planet, animal or plant, hut, vehicle, etc. "Let us take for example the character ming 明 (shine, clarity) composed by two elements: ri· 日 (sun) and yue· 月(moon).

To these difficulties are added those resulting from the written and spoken commonly used terminology being different from erudite language. Also considering the fact that in erudite language the use of metaphors is common, allusions to legendary and historical events, and in speech, the tradition of using the humblest and even depreciative termnology regarding oneself while "[...] highly praising, with the most pompous language the addressed interlocutor, [...]" (Morais Palha, op. cit., p.50). For instance rather than 'the Empress died' one should say 'the Empress lost her balance'; to enquire about someone's age it was polite to ask 'how long is your beard' or 'how many suns have you seen rising"; and to the question of about "how many precious sons' one had, the reply should be 'five stupid little pigs'; and so on. In the Preface of his Elegias Chinesas (Chinese Elegies) Pessanha openly states the difficulties of translating the following text, enhancing "[...] that, lacking sintactic laws controlling the structure of phrases (even knowing the correct idea behind the representation of each vocable), this are susceptible to the most contradictory interpretations.", thus rendering great difficulties in translating the written Chinese erudite language.

Danilo Barreiros' Ex-Libris. The phrase over the author's name reads: "Beauty Dazzle Thought".

Despite all the problems he faced, Pessanha managed to translate into Portuguese at least three letters, two prose essays and eight elegies. The letters, which relate to a criminal process, were translated by Pessanha at the request of the solicitor Constâncio José da Silva, mandatary of the the parents of kidnapped schoolchildren from a school in Shiqi and taken to Coloane, in 1910. The abductors demanded a ransom of thirty-five-thousand Patacas or else they would slay the children and devastate their villages.

Such letters prompted the Government of Macao to attack the kidnappers in their hidding place, thus liberating all the abducted children ("Noticias de Macau", 10 de Julho [July] 1960).

The first of two essays translated by Pessanha was the Zhongguozhou· of clear Daoist inspiration, published in the book [of the same title] China: País de Angústia (China: A Country of Anguish), published under the pseudonym of Ruy Santelmo (Dr. Brito de Nascimento, who was then a Delegate of the Government, in Macao). This translation was not included in the 1949 compilation, sadly entitled China: estudos e traduções por Camilo Pessanha (China: Studies and Translations by Camilo Pessanha), considered by many as a posthumous work of the author. In reality the poet made no direct contribution to this publication. It is also deplorable that names of the works Clepsidra (Clepsydra) and China (China) were engraved in the commemorative medal of the hundredth anniversary of the poet's birth as his works.

The second essay translated by Pessanha, Vozes de Outono (Autumn Voices) was published in the periodical "Atlântida" on the 15th of January 1918.

The only poetical work known to have been translated by him was Elegias Chinesas.

Pessanha's Preface (p. LIII) of the Morais Palha book, written two years before the translation of the Elegias Chinesas, commiserates about the enormous effort made by all Chinese in "[...] individually memorizing the formas (conventional writing) of at least five-thousand grafias (characters) [... just to able to...] read and write their insignificant familiar correspondence [...]." In fact this is about the minimum number of characters essential to read the daily newspapers.

In the Preface of his Elegias Chinesas, Pessanha, being only familiar with three-thousand-five-hundred characters, explains how he had managed to translate the work. Under the supervision of a Chinese literati he proceeded translating as literally as possible, the characters of each of the compositions according to the 'sounds' in Guangdongnese that was being dictated to him and that he progressively romanised. Extracting from the compound of sounds the ideas and symbolisms of "[...] what was translatable — the substantive of imaginative [...]" Pessanha thus structured in free verse a translation which he gradually embellished with the musical and harmonious expressions of his own poetry.

In that same Preface, Pessanha clarifies having submitted his translation to "[...] his dear Master Jose Vicente Jorge, who corrected it in same passages thus complying it more to the original's intention [... and that Vicente Jorge also supplied most of the informative notes...] without which the texts would be less exact, regardless of the correctness of the translation [...]". Vicente Jorge also reverted into Mandarin the phonetic representation established by Pessanha according to the Guagdongnese 'sounds' of all the words, which the poet had inserted in italics in the translated text.

One must conclude that the assistance of Jose Vicente Jorge was indispensable for achieving the translation, but that the final result would have been bland and devoid of beauty without the magical poetry rendered to it by Pessanha.

It is reasonable to assume that Pessanha's knowledge of Chinese was sufficient to translate the aforementioned letters, particularly because the social status of their authours did not confer great erudition to the texts. If not, he might have been assisted by his first teacher, the Chinese interpreter literati.

The same can not be said about the translation of the prose essays. Their extremely difficult interpretation most probably required the assistance of the poet's "dear Master".

Camilo Pessanha frequently visited Jose Vicente Jorge, being considered his intimate friend and a member of his family. In the study where the official sinologist had his private library, the two spent numerous hours at a time, entertained in the research of Chinese language, one as a teacher, the other as a pupil.

Still alive, the two daughters and a granddaughter of José Vicente Jorge still vividly remember many of these meetings. Maria José, the youngest daughter, still a child at the time, remembers the frequent presence of the poet in his father's home and that he was a frequent guest for lunch. She also remembers the poet's exotic presence frightening her so much that she used to hide under a bed. The older daughter, Henriqueta, was a student of Pessanha at Liceu (National Middle School) and remembers more vividly the meetings between her father and the poet, the meals when they were both present, their conversations about Chinese subjects, especially about painting and ceramics (José Vicente Jorge had a collection of ten-thousand Chinese artworks). She is a great enthusiast of Pessanha, having memorized many of his poems and being always willing to speak about the poet and his work.

José Vicente Jorge's grand daughter Maria do Céu, is the author of a remarkable essay on Camilo Pessanha ("Palestra", (30) 1967) where she also describes these events.

Camilo Pessanha with a Chinese literati.

Extracted from an article by Antonio Osório de Castro published on the 7th of September 1967. in the Lisbon daily "Diário Popular".

From 1935 to the date of his death in Lisbon, on the 22nd of November 1948, José Vicente Jorge equally provided us with precious information attesting Pessanha's deep theoretical knowledge of the general structure of the Chinese language. According to him, the poet had a considerable fluidity in simple and colloquial Chinese, and that regarding Chinese writing, he had learned a fair amount of characters althought not enough to allow him to translate without assistance erudite texts. For the translation of these Pessanha sought assistance from competent experts. Such was the case with the translation of Elegias Chinesas, the prose essays and a number of other renderings never published and whose whereabouts are presently unknown.

These conculsions do not include the third volume of the Guo wen kao fu shu, an educational book of Chinese texts, where the names of Camilo Pessanha and José Vicente Jorge jointly appear.

It is obvious that José Vicente Jorge, Head of the Bureau of Sinic Affairs; Vice-Consul; Official Translator and Interpreter of the Portuguese Consulate in Shanghai; Secretary, Translator and Interpreter of the Portuguese Legation in Beijing, during the times of the Qing dynasty, "[...] was always valued for his competence and worthy of the most honourable of praises [...]" (José de Carvalho e Rêgo, in "Notícias de Macau", Macau, 10 de Novembro [November] 1968), assistant to the representative of Portugal in the official funerary cerimonies of the Emperor Guangxu (1909), translator and annotator into Portuguese of the Xin du ben· — a novel reading method adopted in the Macao schools for learning Chinese —, did not require Pessanha's assistance to translate the third volume of a work of which he had already translated the first two volumes.

Based in unanimous and categorical informations from "learned people", António Dias Miguel states in his remarkable study on Pessanha that the "[...] translations of the Elegias Chinesas can only be attributed to him as peacock feathers' adornments [...]". This is an unjust statement and its criticism derives from spiteful and envious "informers", and frustrated poets who denied Pessanha of his true poetical merit, the one of being the unique real symbolist of Portuguese literature and, in general, one of the greatest interpreters of the European symbolism (Barbara Spaggiari, O Simbolismo na Obra de Camilo Pessanha, Amadora, Biblioteca Breve, 1982).

In reality, the intervention of Camilo Pessanha in the translation of the Elegias Chinesas was as we previously stated and according to the constraints confirmed by José Vicente Jorge.

His intervetion in the Guo wen kao fu shu was limited. Pessanha simply assisted José Vicente Jorge in the preparation of the book, who at the same time was making progress with the translation of the original text, explained to the poet the meaning of the Chinese characters unknown to him and the meaning of characters' compounds, i. e., que ming ji· (magpie-call-sing-happiness) = the song of the magpie is a good augury, or, ya ming xiong· (crow-call-sing-unhappiness) = the song of crow announces disgrace.

In reality, thanks to this book Camilo Pessanha was able to expand his knowledge of the Chinese language under the teachings of José Vicente Jorge. As an act of true friendship, the "Master" gave undue credits to Pessanha for the book's translation, thus greatly elating the poet. The dedication of Pessanha to Dona Ana da Castro Osório transcribed in the valuable compilation by Maria José de Lencastre (Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional - Casa da Moeda, 1984, p.87) in which the poet classifies the translation as a "[...] feeble attempt of a work which, in its own right, deserved a better execution in order to honour its old motherland [...]", is a flagrant example of false pretense modesty. In fact Camilo Pessanha's assumption of having truly coauthored the translation is just another of the several manifestations of his exaggerated alter-ego. These have been remarked upon by Armando Boaventura ("O Século Ilustrado", 2 de Agosto [August] 1954) who states that these "[...] critics [... took Camilo Pessanha...] down Rua do Arsenal and Rua do Ouro, late in the night when returning to the hotel [... to stop...] and recite his verses, echoing in the silence of dawn as the [...] arcades of a cello [... and then asking in a singing voice...] and so, after all, where is Camões, and where lies Antero [de Quental]?"

Camilo Pessanha intended to impress his dear old friend, convincing her that his knowledge of Chinese was good enough to collaborate in such translations.

A meritorious decision to which I feel greatly honoured to contribute is the publication of the integral text of Elegias Chinesas according to its original format, enriched by an Addenda [Complementary Notes] to the Notes elaborated by Dr. Jing Guoping, · Professor of the Department of Portuguese of the Foreign Languages University of Beijing.

In fact, that translation, imbued by the fascination of Pessanha's poetry, can only be duly appreciated by someone fluent in both Chinese and Portuguese able to compare both languages's texts as they were printed in the first edition.

If Camilo Pessanha decided to publish the Elegias Chinesas with both the Chinese original and its Portuguese translation, with respective dates, places and dedications, João de Castro's reprint in the periodical "Descobrimento" is less praiseworthy as the text suffers from severe amputations and is devoid of the remarkable annotated preface and the lack of sources. [...]

Antonio Valdemar ("Diário de Notícias", Lisboa, 7 de Setembro [September] 1967) severely criticises this systematic procedure not only regarding the Elegias Chinesas but also Clepsidra stating that João de Castro Osório acted "[...] as if he exclusively controlled [the literary estate of] Camilo Pessanha [...]" ("Diário de Notícias", Lisboa, 30 de Setembro 1982) in the manner of a landowner. Pedro da Silveira, one of the most devoted worshipers of Pessanha's work, also condemns such "omissions" ("Vértice", Coimbra, Abril [April] 1959). And so does Alfredo Margarido, who in an admirable article ("Persona", (11-2)) exposes and castigates João Castro Osório's "lapses", considering them as unjustifiable.

Regarding the supression of dedications which were finally reproduced in the 1969 edition of Clepsidra (pp.537-538), the "justification" of João Castro Osorio is not only unconvincing but injust, in saying that those mentioned in the dedications —excluding Venceslau de Morais — never contributed towards the realization of any single work projected by Pessanha, that is, to "[...] vastly [publish] the works which he considered to be the meaning of the last period of his life."

In fact, if Camilo Pessanha so wished there would be plenty of funds and typographies to fulfill such a project.

On the other hand such a "justification" by João de Castro Osório is in total contradiction in relation to one of those mentioned in the dedications, i. e., Carlos Amaro. In several passages of the aforementioned edition, namely on p.23, the appreciation of this friend of the poet attest the contrary.

The omission of the Chinese texts due to the lack of Chinese characters is equally not admissable. Indeed, there were people capable of composing them in the Portuguese typographies. There was no problem to simply make a facsimile of the original edition.

João de Castro Osorio was too concerned about being credited with being the first to publish the poems by Pessanha, but the reality is that, although he was not aware of the fact, most of them had already been previously published.

The fundamental importance in Camilo Pessanha's work is the value of his marvelous poetry which overcomes sterile discussions resulting from personal vanities. This judgement is common to the work of all artists who, by their genius "[...] se vão da lei da morte libertando [...]" ("[...] gradually become free from the laws of death [...]").

All past and future honest research and critical appraisal of Pessanha's work is not only laudatory but indispensable ad perpetuam rei memoriam. Finally, one must render justice and recognize that, although lacking in some aspects, João de Castro Osório greatly contributed to the appreciation and diffusion of the work and personality of Camilo Pessanha, stimulating the interest of the public in general for the poet's fascinating literary contribution.

Lisbon, the 1st of October 1986

Translated from the Portuguese by: Jose Silvério

*Lawyer, professor and writer. Lived in Macao from 1931 to 1946 contributing to a number of periodicals, amongst others "A Voz de Macau", "Boletim Ecclesiástico da Diocese de Macau", and "Renascimento" — of which he was founder. Researcher on Chinese ceramics, Macanese dialect, and the work of Venceslau de Morais and Camilo Pessanha. Author of numerous works of literary fiction.

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