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查慎行《養蜂歌》 “Beekeeping Song ” by Zha Shenxing

Translating terms of flora and fauna into another language is never an easy task, and for myself, one of the trickiest terms is feng 蜂 (bee). Technically speaking, bees are not exactly honeybees (mifeng 蜜蜂), but the two ideas often merge into one in daily Mandarin. The word feng sounds somewhat bald and is homophonous with other high-frequency words (e.g. feng風/wind, feng 峰/peak and feng瘋/mad), so the most commonly known type, mifeng/honeybee, is often used to represent the whole category of bees. To make it worse, the word feng in Chinese encompasses several types of insects including wild bees, honeybees, wasps, etc.

Then it all gets very complicated when I start to talk about a feng in English. I remember sitting with a friend in the garden and seeing a six-legged fly-shaped little thing with yellow and black stripes landing on the other end of the table. I said, “Oh, there’s a bee.” (I meant a feng). My friend said, “No, it’s not a bee, it’s a wasp.” I was perplexed, because that response translated “No, it’s not a honey feng, it’s a yellow feng” in my head, whereas I wasn’t really ready to differentiate what kind of feng it was.

Recently, I got something even better: a series of science education booklets about bees to be translated from English to Chinese. Thanks to this task, I had the pleasure of swimming in a sea of bee-related terms, including honeybee, wasp, bumblebee, and hornet, which translates into mifeng (“honey feng”), huangfeng 黄蜂 (“yellow feng”) or mafeng 馬蜂 (“horse feng”), xiongfeng 熊蜂 (“bear feng”) and hufeng 胡蜂 (“barbarian feng”). And I had to write sentences like: “Remember, a yellow feng (wasp) is not a feng (bee).” I felt a bit sorry for the primary school students who would study the Chinese version of these booklets. I imagined the schoolteachers would be surrounded by curious faces, asking why on earth they are all called feng when many of them are not feng.

Meanwhile, I also learned many interesting things about these insects and started to look for feng in poetry. A short selection of classical Chinese poems on bees can be found in Wilt Idema’s Insects in Chinese Literature: A Study and Anthology (Amberst, New York: Cambria, 2019), including Guo Pu’s 郭璞 (276-324) “Mifeng fu” 蜜蜂賦 (Rhapsody on the Honeybee). The latest poem in Idema’s selection dates from the twelfth century, whereas the one translated below represents an example of beekeeping from the seventeenth to eighteenth century. I found the poet’s perception of bee society very lovely, and he clearly has a tender heart...





The master who hosts [me] is obsessed with beekeeping,

In a wooden cabinet binding a thousand layers of chambers,

Opening multiple holes to let [them] in and out freely,

Putting [them] high up under the roof for fear of [their] darting about.





Quite like a ruler and [his] subjects, [they] clearly follow proprieties;

Delicately differentiating the clans, [they] seem to understand genealogy.

Buzzing in [their] two town halls, [they] flutter [their] wings with diligence;

Hectic in four seasons, [they] take [their] rest at no time.





Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law in discord may share the same room;

Younger boys coming to their prime are soon to be enfeoffed.

Qin Gong often lives under the flowers; [2]

Han Ping is mostly to be met on the branch. [3]





Together with the bitterness of goldthread, [their honey] serves as an envoy of medicine;

[Producing] sweetness comparable to grains, [they] become floral farmers.

How great the world is, where things gather with their kind like this;

[Their] bodies are diminutive, yet [their] temperament is fierce.





By nature, this creature lives in valleys

Vying for nothing in the world – it’s better to coexist with it.

Seeking to be stung – who started this?

Even going further to enslave [these] creatures to serve men.





Renting a residence on a rafter in a cramped alley,

[When] cornered [they] want to escape, sadly having no way.

Knowing clearly [they] are terrified, no big harm,

[One] can’t help but be mindfully cautious about [their] stings.





I shall let you go wherever you like:

Untying [your] clothes, spreading [your] legs, [you] can then feel at ease.

The master, with a smile, doesn’t approve,

[As they] are kept for harvesting honey to withstand the harsh winter.

* From Zha Shenxing 查慎行 (1650-1727), Jingyetang shiji 敬業堂詩集, Yingyin Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 景印文淵閣四庫全書 edition (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987, vol. 1326), 24b-25a.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] Qin Gong was the servant and lover of the general Liang Ji 梁冀 (98-159).

[3] Han Ping is a metaphor for a loving couple. After the king took his beautiful wife from him, Han Ping and his wife soon committed suicide. Two trees grew from their tombs, intertwining with each other through their branches.

Album leaves by Ju Lian 居廉 (1828-1901); picture credits: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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2 commenti

Fascinating post. I've long been interested in the linguistic differences between Chinese and English in relation to animals and insects. Like mouse and rat being treated as the same animal by most Chinese speakers. Also rabbit/hare, sheep/goats* etc. These, as you know, are considered to be different animals in English. I know Chinese can differentiate, but seldom does, outside of scientific contexts. English always does. Thank you again for bringing the poem to my attention, but also for the cultural and linguistic insights. * The sheep/goat conflation is common in many places and languages.

Mi piace
05 lug 2021
Risposta a

Thanks a lot for your comment – great addition to the blog! Reminds me that the first attempt to talk about zodiac animals is always an interesting challenge for language learners...

Mi piace
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