Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LX

This entry is part 45 of 49 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

Pound CantosThis post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, a few at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series.

Also, since the table of contents that my post series plugin creates has gotten far too unwieldy to include at the top of each post, I’ve gone ahead and made an index of the Cantos I’ve discussed, with links to each post. I’ll try remember to update it as I continue with this project. That index is here. The index is new, so I encourage you to check it out!

First, apologies for the delay. It’s been a few weeks since I last posted, and that’s only partly because of the Lunar New Year holiday—or, as a lot of Westerners would know it, the Chinese New Year. I can’t think of a more appropriate interruption to reading the Chinese Cantos, but it still delayed this post. I’ve also been hard at work on several projects with deadlines, but fear not, I haven’t abandoned the Cantos again so soon after taking them up once more.

Here we are, at Canto LX. It’s the penultimate installment of the Chinese Cantos, and again it is very concerned with the interface of “East” and “West,” or specifically European imperialism and Chinese unity and sovereignty. It’s also unusual in that it deals primarily with the rule of one monarch, whom Pound calls KANG HI—that’s K’ang H’si in Wade-Giles, but today you’d be wanting to look up The Kangxi Emperor (4 May 1654 – 20 December 1722).

The Kangxi Emperor, late in life. Click to see the page where I nabbed it.

Pound’s interest in this particular monarch is not surprising, for obvious and less-obvious reasons:

  • he was the longest-ruling emperor of Chinese history
  • he had extensive interactions with Europeans
  • he was of a scholarly bent, not only in being an amateur astronomer (as the poem notes) but also credited with a great deal of writing (also noted in the poem, right at the end)
  • he was only the fourth emperor of the Qing—that is, part of the early, vibrant stage of the empire, and given Pound’s attraction to the idea that corruption creeps in as that vibrancy fades, that’s an attraction
  • he developed a degree of ambivalence towards Christianity while still being interested in Western wisdom

From even the very first lines, we can see Pound’s attitude toward the Jesuits in China is ambivalent:

So the Jesuits brought in astronomy
(Galileo's, an heretic's)

It’s the aside that’s the rub, because the Jesuits aren’t really in China to spread The Word of Science, so much as the Gospel. That will come up again, but it’s worth thinking back over the ambivalence Pound expresses in the earlier Cantos about Christianity in Europe having steamrolled the pagan myths, beliefs, and culture that Pound so clearly favors.

But early on, Kangxi was provisionally accepting of the Christ-worshippers: he saw the religion as approximately like Buddhism and Taoism, and seemed to have an egalitarian sensibility when it came to freedom of religion, as long as the Christians behaved themselves at least. From an edict of Kangxi, as abbreviated and ventriloquized by Pound:

We permit lamas, hochangs, and taotsés to go to their churches
It wd/ seem unwarranted to forbid only these Europeans 
to go to their temples. We deem therefore
that they be so permitted
indiscriminate to pray and burn perfumes
          3rd day 2nd moon of the 31st year of KANG HI

This is a fascinating passage, given Pound’s hostility toward the Jesuits—not to mention the “lamas, hochangs, and taotsés”—but I think it’s supposed to speak to the open-mindedness and fair-mindedness of Kangxi. Given Pound’s American background and his interest in early American history, it also seems worth noting how this edict vaguely echoes the opening line of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Of course, Kangxi would have been less of a fan of freedom of speech and gatherings and the redress of grievances and all that other stuff—and more of a fan of Correct Speech, as we’ll see later in the poem—and just a few lines later we have Kangxi deriding the Dezi, that is, the Viceroy of the Dalai Lama, who (through supposedly deceitful practices and many lies) convinced Kangxi that the lamas were a pack of liars and villains (as Terrell tells us)… but still,  it’s still a noteworthy choice by Pound to include this specific ruling.

It’s worth remembering that the events in this poem occur at a time when “science” wasn’t yet the thing we call science. For example, if you look up the note to this passage:

... and the Portagoose king sent an envoy
and they cured KANG HI with wine from the Canaries
         w'ich putt ’em up a jot higher

… you’ll find Terrell glosses it this way:

In 1709 the emperor contracted an illness that grew worse each day. It reached a point where no hope could be expected from Chinese doctors. Then Europeans, asked for help, brewed up an “Alchemical Confection” which they gave to the emperor with wine from the Canary Islands. It worked; and little by little his strength returned…

First things first: “wine from the Canary Islands” would not be wine at all, but rather distilled spirits… probably rum made from fermented Caribbean sugar cane. Secondly, at this point in history—and even more so, given the isolation of the Jesuits in China—even distillation was perceived as an alchemical process, albeit one that was fast becoming a more mundane technical skill.

Even so, distilled alcohol was seen as a medicine throughout Europe well into the 1700s—one argument for gin being allowed in England was its medicinal properties, and the inclusion of juniper was in fact originally because of the medicinal powers attributed to the juniper berry. It’s not just a European thing, either: in East Asia there is even now a living tradition of medicinal alcohols. 1

All of this is to say that the “Alchemical Confection” Terrell mentions would not have been horribly alien to the Chinese, and likewise was a fairly usual medical prescription in Europe during the lifetimes of these Jesuits who gave it to the Kangxi Emperor. Chances are they just got lucky with their timing.

Fr. Ferdinand Verbiest, one of the Jesuits most often mentioned in this poem. Click to see the source page for the image.

And who are these Jesuits? I don’t mean who were they historically: they were just among the first Jesuits, and I don’t really believe Pound’s interest in them goes particularly deeper than that in a lot of ways, even though (unlike most of his lamas, hochangs, taotsé, and foéist villain-types) he particularizes them with names, several times throughout the poem:

... Grimaldi, Intorcetta, Verbiest, 
Les pères Gerbillon, Fourtères, Bournat...
Grimaldi, Pereira, Tony Thomas and Gerbillon
           ...[Kangxi] Set up a board of translators
Verbiest, mathematics
Periera professor of music, a treatise in chinese and manchu
Gerbillon and Bouvet, done in manchu
         revised by the emperor as to questions of style
A digest of philosophy (manchu) and current
Reports on the mémoires des académies
des sciences de Paris.

I think, on some level, it’s the last series of namings—along with what work the priests did in the court—that gives us the answer to why Pound bothers to name these individuals: I think it’s because they are translators. They translate Western astronomy (including Copernican astronomy, which was more accepted by this time than in Galileo’s), but they also attempted to translate Catholicism to Chinese, in a cultural way: they were preoccupied with the idea that Chinese (Confucian) Rites could somehow be squared with the Catholic Rite.

Matto Ricci, an early advocate of the attempted conciliation of Chinese Confucian Rites and Catholic religious practice. Click for source page.

From much earlier in the poem:

European  litterati
having heard that the Chinese rites honour Kung-fu-tseu
and offer sacrifice to the Heaven etc/
and that their ceremonies are grounded in reason
now beg to know their true meaning and in particular
the meaning of terms for example Material
Heaven and Changti meaning? its ruler?
Does the manes of Confucius
accept the grain, fruit, silk, incense offered
          and does he enter his cartouche?
The European Church wallahs wonder if this can be reconciled.

I’ll take a moment, before commenting on the content of the lines above, to comment on the fun Pound’s having: “European Church wallahs” is a play on the suffix “-wallah” in Hindi (and several other Indian langauges) that indicates a profession or type of work: a rickshaw-wallah drives a rickshaw, and a dhobi-wallah is a laundry worker, while an auto-wallah is an autorickshaw driver and a chai-wallah is a seller or server of tea.  Why the Indian reference? Why not! Likewise, the manes of Confucius—the spirits of the dead referred toi in Confucian rites—are here referred to with a Latin term that necessarily recalls Andreas Divus’ translation of Homer in Canto I: Odysseus, when he ventures into the underworld and meets his mother and Tiresias, is meeting in Divus what are surely referred to (and understood) as being manes. Here, the game Pound is playing is all about using creative mistranslation (or a form of radical code-switching, if you prefer) to find and build connections between ancient Greece and ancient China in ways that service his project of writing “a poem that contains history.”

These doctrinal concerns—what Confucian Rites specifically meant, and whether there were any specific spiritual significance to aspects of them—perplexed the Jesuitsfor reasons that didn’t seem all that apparent to most of the Chinese they asked. Perhaps, Pound is hinting, this is why the Chinese caught on: in order to effectively translate Christianity to Chinese and evangelize the population, they would need to understand whether Christian theology could be reconciled with (and plugged into) the Chinese worldview, or whether it inherently contradicted it and would need to steamroll the present view in order to become dominant.

It’s not broad-minded Kangxi who figures this out first, notably: rather, it’s “Tching mao”, whom Pound tells us is “a tsong-ping or second class mandarin” who

putt up a petition:
              AGAINST Europes and Xtianity
That there had been nine red boats into Macao
Dutchmen, red-jheads or Englanders.
Japan, sex Tching mao, is the only considerable kingdom
             to east of us
and Japan kept peace even all through the great Ming rebellion.
Siam and Tonkin pay tribute, 
only danger to us is from these Europeans
by Hong-mao I mean any nordic barbarian
there are Yenkeli and Yntsa (meanin’ froggies) and Holans
all equally barbarous
I have knocked about at sea for some years
and the Dutch are the worst of the lot of them, 
                                        poifik tigers, 
their vessels stand any wind and carry a hundred cannon
if ten of ’em get into Canton
who knows what cd/ happen. 

We know, of course, at least those of us who’ve read our Chinese history, though it was the English rather than the Dutch who did it, and the pretext was a little different: the English demanded recompense for opium destroyed by the Chinese customs officials, despite the fact the English had been smuggling illegally it into China.

But even in the time of the Kangxi Emperor, there was plenty to be nervous about. The Dutch had achieved a strong and brutal presence in the East Indies and in India, ousting the Portuguese dominance there, and the VOC—the Dutch East India Company—wasn’t alone in eyeing China’s shores. While  China enjoyed dominance in the East Asian sphere, having nothing to fear from its vassal states nor, anymore, from Japan—who’d kept quiet during the Ming Rebellion, after failing to invade China during the Imjin War a few generations earlier—but the East Asian sphere was no longer effectively the whole of the world. Europe had come a-callin’ and was not to be ignored.

“Tching mao”—whom Terrell tells us is actually Ch’en Mao, “a mandarin of the second rank, [who] held a military command in Kwangtung [Guangdong] and served as viceroy of Canton”—goes on to explain that the Europeans had wormed their way into Japan via Manilla—that is, Manila—and petitioned that the Catholics be permitted to remain in China only if their churches were torn down and they committed not to proselytize or convert any Chinese to their faith.

What was the predictable response?

Jesuits appealed that they be not 
          confounded with Dutchmen
Let stay, if wd/ promise never see Europe again
various churches were levelled (...)

But all’s well that ends well for this pack of Jesuits: they ultimately survive, and are permitted to remain, taking on the role as translators mentioned above. Still, the last few lines of the poem suggest a few things: first, that their work was constrained primarily to the job of translating—European science texts and Manchu history to Chinese, and not European religion to a Chinese cultural context—and second of all, that they were exhorted to follow a deeply Confucian ideal:

He ordered ’em to prepare a total anatomy, et
qu'ils veillèrent à la pureté du langage
et qu'on n'employât que des termes propres
(namely CH'ing ming)

This passage is followed by the sole Chinese text in the poem, the aforementioned “CH’ing ming”:


In those two little characters is a whole mass of cultural baggage needing unpacking, but I’ll put it this way: the concept indicated, “The Rectification of Names,” was as fundamental and pervasive to traditional Chinese culture as the notion of Divine Will was in Medieval and early Renaissance European culture.

Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher credited with originating the notion of the Rectification of Names. Click to see the source page for the image.

The influence of the notion persists most strongly in Asia where I live—in South Korea—where people invoke the notion (without necessarily being conscious of its provenance) as a given. Ask someone why high schoolers should wear uniforms, and once you provide counter-evidence to all the reasons conventionally offered, you often arrive at The Rectification of Names: “Because students should look like students, not like college kids.”

But the Rectification of Names is really the linchpin of Confucian thought: it demands that one be what one is obligated to be, whether that is the laboring peasant or the Emperor of the Known World. Bidding the Jesuits observe this introduces the conflict: are they to be evangelists—which is, really, part of their job description—or are they to play the role the Emperor assigns them, as translators and advisors but not as spreaders of the Gospel?

Storm clouds gather on the horizon for the Jesuits in the Kangxi Emperor’s court, we can see, and yet the Canto ends on a high note, mentioning the many workrooms of the emperor’s palace, his interest in models for art and sculpture, and the length of his rule.

In closing, it’s worth returning to the question implied earlier on: why Kangxi? Why, specifically, does Kangxi get a whole poem to himself, when so many others flashed past in the blink of an eye in earlier cantos? Well, there are probably a few reasons:

First, Pound’s source, de Mailla, actually met and lived under the Kangxi Emperor. Though I don’t have access to his work, it seems very likely de Mailla had a lot more to say about the Kangxi Emperor than earlier ones, too. de Mailla is also likelier to have written positively about the Kangxi Emperor—and negatively about certain previous Emperors and figures, as well—for political reasons: he lived and worked in China from 1703 until his death, after all.

Second, the length of the Kangxi Emperor’s rule is notable because the reasons underlying it—or, rather, the reasons suggested by Pound for its longevity—tell us something about Pound. The picture of Kangxi that Pound presents looks a lot like the (rather odd) picture of Mussolini we get from Pound: a “strong” leader who isn’t afraid to wield his authority, but wise and something of a polymath. Kangxi by Pound’s account is intelligent both about astronomy and about military matters, is broad-mindedly tolerant about religion without being gullible or allowing himself to be vulnerable the religious troublemakers. He is a scholar and a patron of translators, and a leader who is interested in the world outside his empire’s borders. And, most importantly, a man concerned not just with things being in their proper place (as per the Rectification of Names) but also with the purity of the language, and the purging from the Chinese tongue of any improper words and terms… which seems like something Pound would have been very likely to back, all things considered.

We’ll see how it works out for the Jesuits under Kangxi’s successor in the next—and final—installment of the China Cantos, Canto LXI.

As for my Occult Pound… well, as I’ve said, I’m not sure I have a Pound novel in me, but in case I do, I would look to both the astronomy brought to China by the Jesuits, and the characters for the Rectification of Names. I feel like the latter could be a very powerful incantation of sorts, if one knew how to inscribe it just so… a sort of sigil of binding, or some such.

Or, for a less overtly magical Pound, I suppose I’d have him looking into various actual conspiracies that existed within the Qing Dynasty who opposed the (foreign) Manchurian rulers, and working in references to them—or maybe wards against them—within these last Chinese Cantos. That, or invocations of them: it could well be he longed for a conspiracy rectifying the True America just as the White Lotus society or various other triad societies in Qing China longed to reinstate the Ming Dynasty for centuries after the Manchus triumphed. (There’s tantalizing stuff in Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son, the book on the Taiping Rebellion, about those groups, but it’s been a while so I only vaguely recall anything at all on the subject.)

I think, also, in some narrative sense China would be my occult Pound’s retreat from the front, his foxhole waiting out the hidden, occult war that precedes and births World War II. China here seems to be a terrain he’s searching, hoping to find something useful in. I don’t think he finds much—at least not much that seems like it will prove useful. But one never knows, in the end, what a properly inscribed ideogram might achieve, I suppose.

That’s it till next time!

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIXBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXI >>

  1. Several times during my years in South Korea, I myself have been generously gifted medicinal liquors. It’s usually quite terrible-tasting stuff, to be honest: the idea that good medicine tastes bad has a lot of currency here, as I remember it having in North America.

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