“Mu Dan and Ambiguity” by Candy Wang

Mu Dan

Mu Dan’s (1918-1977) poems, while incorporating elements and sentiments of classical Chinese poetry, also exhibit characteristics of Western modernist aesthetics and thoughts. For example, his poetry was influenced by William Empson (1906-1984), and this influence partially ushered Mu Dan’s shift towards Modernism.

Perhaps the most significant impact of Empson on Mu Dan’s poetry was the concept of ambiguity, which Empson developed in his influential critical study, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). In a poem Mu Dan wrote and published in 1947 (at this point he had already taken some of Empson’s courses), “China in Hunger” 饥饿的中国, we can see ambiguity at work in one of its stanzas:

I see at every gate hunger
Or evil, his complacent brother;
Nowhere could we escape from his
Gazing eyes: we are thus taught to become.
(Wang, 147-148)[1]

The possessive pronoun ‘his’ in the third line can be interpreted in several ways. It can refer, most straightforwardly, to the ‘hunger’ or ‘evil’ of the first two lines. It can also refer to the hungry everyman—this depicts a vivid picture of China in early twentieth century where starving men stood by the roadside staring at passersby. It might even signify the personified China, the country itself, watching people starving on this land with pity or anger.

Another example of ambiguity can be found in the first part of Mu Dan’s famous poem “A Farewell Remark” 赠别:

Here so many youth are fanciful,
And then step in the crowded road,
Hazy is your tiredness, and clouds and rivers,
They lost their self and before long forget it,

For so many times your garden is open,
Your beauty, regained, your heart frozen,
A singing voice is so nice of all seasons
When the wingless dewdrops condense—

When you’re old, by the fire, alone,
You’ll be aware of a soul, quietly, approaching,
He was a lover of your infinite variation in youth,
Now dream broken, he loves the sorrows in youth.
(Wang, 99)[2]

W.B. Yeats

The similarity between “A Farewell Remark” and W.B. Yeats’s (1865-1939) “When You Are Old” is rather apparent. In fact, the last stanza quoted above is almost a rephrasing of Yeats’s poem. However, while Yeats’s poem conveys quite concrete ideas, the meaning of Mu Dan’s poem is perhaps much more obscure.

Wang translated the first line of this poem by starting with the location ‘here’, yet, throughout the poem, there is no specific description to locate ‘here’. It is possible that the word ‘here’ refers to the place where the poet bid his friend farewell, but it is also plausible to interpret ‘here’ as a certain temporal point during one’s life. In Chinese, the word 这 zhe can be understood as either a space term or a time term,[3] and the word 在 zai can be followed by either a location or a time period. If the word ‘here’ refers to a time period, then the phrase ‘the crowded road’ would be a metaphor of one’s life road after youth. The third line would be even more difficult to understand, however. While one might be able to comprehend the line ‘hazy is your tiredness’ by linking one’s own experience of how the feeling of being tired would gradually dwindle away, the hidden meaning of ‘the clouds and rivers’ is still rather vague. It might indicate past time and past experience, or it might suggest something precious in one’s youth. Yet, no matter what, the only definite answer provided by the poet is that they will all be forgotten ‘before long’.

The second stanza also contains many ambiguous symbols. For instance, in the first line, the poet writes, ‘for so many times your garden is open’; the ‘garden’ here certainly does not refer to a particular garden outside someone’s house. Instead, it is a symbol, signifying something else. Considering some lines from another poem by Mu Dan, “Spring” 春, in which the image of the garden also appears: ‘If you awake, push the window open, / Watch the beauty of desire overflowing the garden.’ (Wang, 65)[4], one might be able to perceive the idea of ‘an opened garden’ as a wonderland full of energy, enthusiasm, beautiful dreams, and perhaps even ‘desire’, mentioned in “Spring”. If this is the case, then the image of the garden in “A Farewell Remark” not only suggests the influence of Empson’s theory of ambiguity on Mu Dan, but also conveys the poet’s modern self-consciousness.

In Chinese, 欲 yu (‘desire’) is usually regarded as dangerous, immoral and shameful. Normally, yu is aroused by some evil temptation and without proper control. Even the beautiful ancient Chinese verse: “满园春色关不住, 一枝红杏出墙来”[5] gave rise to the idiom “红杏出墙”.[6] That is why most Chinese poets would avoid using the term yu so as to exclude personal intention in their works. In Mu Dan’s poetry, however, the concept of the opened garden, or desire, is justified as a positive idea.

Other than the ambiguous images discussed above, the rest of the poem is also veiled with uncertainty. While Yeats’s poem is more or less clear about its use of the personal pronoun ‘you’, readers of Mu Dan’s poem might find themselves a bit confused if they want to figure out whom this poem is addressed to. The word ‘you’ in Mu Dan’s poem can refer to a metaphysical person, which means the second-person pronoun is speaking directly to whoever is reading the poem, or the poem can be read as the poet’s inward soliloquy. It can even be read as a song to that period of history, to the nation, or even to an ideology.

William Empson

This kind of ambiguity is also in rapport with Empson’s opinion that poetry should be self-contradictory and let the readers decode or interpret by themselves. The function of this idea shares some similarity with many Western modernist writers’ intentional design of ‘story without ending’. And this also leads to another impact Empson had on Mu Dan’s writing, that is, to design poems with unresolved conflicts. As Zheng Min has pointed out, Mu Dan’s poems are full of conflicts as well as the self-torture any conscientious intellectuals should have had in the 1940s, Mu Dan has borne the responsibility of questioning himself with the conundrums thrown up by society in his time.


[1] The original lines in Chinese: 我看见饥饿在每一家门口,或者他得意的兄弟,罪恶;没有一处我们能够逃脱,他的 / 直瞪的眼睛: 我们做人的教育。 Translated from the Chinese into English by Wang Hongyin in Mu Dan’s Poems: A Chinese-English Version with Chinese Commentary (2014). All translations are by Wang.
[2] The Chinese version: 多少人的青春在这里迷醉, 然后走上熙攘的路程,朦胧的是你的怠倦, 云光和水, 他们的自己丢失了随着就遗忘, /多少次了你的园门开启, 你的美繁复, 你的心变冷, 尽管司机的歌喉唱的多好, 当无翼而来的夜露凝重—— / 等你老了, 独自对着炉火, 就会知道有一个灵魂也静静地, 他曾经爱过你的变化无尽, 旅梦碎了, 他爱你的愁绪纷纷。
[3] For example, the Chinese phrases 这天 zhetian (‘this day’) and 这时 zheshi (‘this time’).
[4] The original lines are: 如果你是醒了,推开窗子,看这满园的欲望多么美丽。
[5] ‘The colour of spring overwhelms the garden, and a red apricot grows beyond the wall’. This depict a beautiful spring scene with many flowers blossoming.
[6] A negative idiom usually referring to a woman who cheats on her husband.


candyCandy Wang was an MALCS (MA in Literary and Comparative Studies) student (2014-2015) at the Department of English Language and Literature. She is currently a PhD student at the Department.

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