Wang Chi-chen

Chinese-American scholar and translator
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Chi-chen Wang (王際真 Wang Jizhen) (1899 – 2001) was a Chinese-born American literary scholar and translator. He taught as a professor at Columbia University from 1929 until his retirement in 1965. He was known for his translations of traditional and modern Chinese literature, especially his two adapted translations of Dream of the Red Chamber in 1929 and 1958.


Chi-Chen Wang (trans.), Dream of the Red Chamber (Anchor Books, 1958), ISBN 978-0385093798
Pages full of unlikely words,
Handfuls of hot, bitter tears.
They call the author a silly fool,
For they know not what he means.
When the unreal is taken for the real, then the real becomes unreal;
Where non-existence is taken for existence, then existence becomes non-existence.
If you are free, you'll forget, and if you forget, you'll be free.
One moment we grieve over a short-lived friend,
The next we are ourselves overtaken by death.
What bustle and confusion, as one set of actors exits and another enters,
Each taking the illusory for the real.
  • Pages full of unlikely words,
    Handfuls of hot, bitter tears.
    They call the author a silly fool,
    For they know not what he means.
    • p. 4
  • When the unreal is taken for the real, then the real becomes unreal;
    Where non-existence is taken for existence, then existence becomes non-existence.
    • p. 7
  • [Shih-yin] was walking one day on the street, leaning on a cane, when he saw a lame Taoist in hemp sandals and tattered rags coming toward him, chanting this song:

    We all envy the immortals because they are free,
    But fame and fortune we cannot forget.
    Where are the ministers and generals of the past and the present?
    Under neglected graves overgrown with weeds.

    We all envy the immortals because they are free,
    But gold and silver we cannot forget.
    All our lives we save and hoard and wish for more,
    When suddenly our eyes are forever closed.

    We all envy the immortals because they are free,
    But our precious wives we cannot forget.
    They speak of love and constancy while we live,
    But marry again soon enough after we are dead.

    We all envy the immortals because they are free,
    But our sons and grandsons we cannot forget.
    Many there are, of doting parents, from ancient times—
    But how few of the sons are filial and obedient!

    After hearing this, Shih-yin went up to the Taoist and asked him, "What are you trying to say? All I can get is 'free' and 'forget.'"
    "That's all you need to get," the Taoist answered, laughing. "For if you are free, you'll forget, and if you forget, you'll be free. In other words, to forget is to be free and to be free is to forget. That's why I call my song 'Forget and be free.'"

    • pp. 13–14
  • Tonight a pair of cooing doves under red bridal curtains,
    Tomorrow a heap of bleached bones like those of yesteryear.
    One moment we grieve over a short-lived friend,
    The next we are ourselves overtaken by death.
    • p. 14
  • Careful as we may be with our sons,
    We cannot be certain they will not turn bandits and thieves.
    We would all bring up our daughters to be ladies,
    But who can say that they will not end up in courtesans' quarters?
    • p. 14
  • What bustle and confusion, as one set of actors exits and another enters,
    Each taking the illusory for the real.
    • p. 15
  • [Pao-yu] says the strangest things for a mere child—for instance, that girls are made of water while men are made of clay and that's why he feels purified and invigorated in the presence of the one and contaminated and oppressed when in the presence of the other.
    • p. 22
  • [T]here suddenly appeared on the scene Precious Virtue. Though only a trifle older than Black Jade, she showed a tact and understanding far beyond her years. She was completely unspoiled, always ready to please and enter into the spirit of the occasion and always kind to the servants and handmaids. In contrast, Black Jade was inclined to haughtiness and held herself aloof. Thus in a short time, Precious Virtue won the hearts of all, and Black Jade could not help feeling a little jealous.
    • p. 38
  • Enduring as heaven and earth—no love however ancient can ever die;
    Timeless as light and shadow—no debt of breeze and moonlight can ever be repaid.
    • p. 42
  • Just at the point when we were at a loss as to what to use for the further development of our story, there came to the Yungkuofu a visitor from a poor family only remotely related to the Chias. This family, then, will serve our purpose.
    • p. 48
  • [The Taoist priest] said to Chia Jui, "This mirror was made by the Goddess of Disillusionment and is designed to cure diseases resulting from impure thoughts and self-destructive habits. It is intended for youths such as you. But do not look into the right side. Use only the reverse side of the mirror. I shall be back for it in three days and congratulate you on your recovery." He went away, refusing to accept any money.
    Chia Jui took the mirror and looked into the reverse side as the Taoist had directed. He threw it down in horror, for he saw a gruesome skeleton staring at him through its hollow eyes. He cursed the Taoist for playing such a crude joke upon him. Then he thought he would see what was on the right side. When he did so, he saw Phoenix standing there and beckoning to him. Chia Jui felt himself wafted into a mirror world, wherein he fulfilled his desire. He woke up from his trance and found the mirror lying wrong side up, revealing the horrible skeleton. He felt exhausted from the experience that the more deceptive side of the mirror gave him, but it was so delicious that he could not resist the temptation of looking into the right side again. Again he saw Phoenix beckoning to him and again he yielded to the temptation. This happened three or four times. When he was about to leave the mirror on his last visit, he was seized by two men and put in chains.
    "Just a moment, officers," Chia Jui pleaded. "Let me take my mirror with me." These were his last words.
    • pp. 89–90
  • "I'll have this on you for the rest of my life," the maid said, smiling and dangling the strand of hair before him. "Everything will be all right if all goes well between us. Otherwise I'll drag this out and show it to her."
    "Put it away carefully and don't ever let her find it," Chia Lien importuned. Then catching Patience off guard, he snatched the hair from her, saying, "It's safest out of your hands and destroyed."
    "Ungrateful brute," Patience said with a pretty pout. [...] In his tussle with Patience Chia Lien began to feel the fire of passion burn within him. Patience now looked prettier than ever with her pouted lips and her provocative scolding. He tried again to put his arms around her and make love to her, but Patience wriggled free and fled from the room. "You shameless little wanton," Chia Lien said. "You get one all excited and then run away."
    Standing outside the window, Patience retorted, "Who's trying to get you excited? You only think of your pleasure. What's going to happen to me when she finds out?"
    "Don't be afraid of her," Chia Lien said. "One of these days I'll get good and mad and give that jealous vinegar jar a good and proper beating and teach her who is master. She spies on me as if I were a thief. It's all right for her to talk and laugh with the men of the family, but she grows suspicious if she sees me so much as look at another woman."
    • pp. 131–132
  • "It is said that when the host is worthy, the guests become innumerable. Yu-tsun must consider you a worthy host. You ought to feel flattered."
    "Enough," Pao-yu said impatiently. "I do not pretend to be worthy and I don't care to associate with such worthy people as he."
    "Still the same Pao-yu," River Mist commented. "I should think you would be interested in the Examinations now that you are older and are ambitious to get a degree. Failing that, you ought to associate with officials, so as to learn something of the official world and acquire some friends to help you in the future. You will get nowhere if you spend your life among us."
    • p. 158
  • "[Black Jade], I never dared to speak the secrets of my heart to you. I'll be bold today and I care not if I die as a consequence. I am also sick because I am constantly thinking of you. I dare not tell anyone. I won't be well until you are well again. I cannot forget you even in my dreams."
    • p. 161
  • [Black Jade] had her lamp relit and began to compose a series of quatrains, writing them directly on the handkerchiefs that Pao-yu had sent. After writing three stanzas, she began to feel exhausted and feverish. Going to her mirror, she found her cheeks flushed as if they were afire. She thought nothing of it, but from that moment on, her illness entered a more critical stage.
    • p. 178
  • [...] Pao-yu was given even more freedom than before. He spent most of his time playing the willing slave to the young ladies and his favored maids. Occasionally Pervading Fragrance or Precious Virtue would remonstrate with him and advise him to give some thought to his studies and his future career, but such advice only irritated him and brought the retort that he was surprised to see in them the same worldliness that he only associated with the more vulgar sex. Black Jade, alone, never gave him occasion for such remarks.
    • p. 182
  • As [Phoenix] drew near her room, she heard a woman's voice saying, "It will be easier for us when that monster of yours dies."
    "There will be another one, and she will be the same," answered Chia Lien's voice.
    "You can make Patience your wife," the woman said. "She will be easier to manage."
    "She won't even let me touch Patience," Chia Lien said. "And Patience doesn't dare complain, though she doesn't like her vigilance either. I wonder what I have done to deserve such a wife."
    Phoenix shook with rage. Thinking that Patience must have complained behind her back, she turned to her and slapped her face. She then burst into the room, seized Pao-er's wife and struck her repeatedly. Fearing that Chia Lien would bolt from the room, she planted herself at the door while she denounced the woman. "Prostitute!" she cried, "you seduce your mistress's husband and then plot to murder her! And you," she turned to Patience, "you prostitutes are all in conspiracy against me, though you pretend to be on my side." She struck Patience again.
    Patience was outraged. She cried, "You two—is it not enough for you to do this shameful thing without dragging me in?" She also made for Pao-er's wife.
    Chia Lien, who had until now stood helplessly watching Phoenix beat Pao-er's wife, took the opportunity to hide his own embarrassment by beating Patience. "Who are you to raise your hand against her?" he said to the maid.
    Patience retreated and said, weeping, "But why did you drag me into it?"
    Phoenix's anger mounted when she saw that Patience was afraid of Chia Lien and commanded her to ignore him and beat Pao-er's wife. The maid, outraged and helpless, ran out of the room, crying and threatening to kill herself.
    Phoenix now threw herself at Chia Lien, crying that he might as well kill her then and there since he wanted to get rid of her. Chia Lien grew desperate. He seized a sword from the wall and said he would gladly oblige if she insisted.
    Yu-shih and others arrived on the scene. "What is the matter now?" she asked. "Everything was going well a moment ago."
    Emboldened by the presence of the newcomers, Chia Lien became more menacing. Phoenix, on the other hand, quieted herself and left the scene to seek the protection of the Matriarch. She threw herself sobbing into the Matriarch's arms and said, "Save me, Lao Tai-tai. Lien Er-yeh wants to kill me."
    • pp. 198–199
  • [Pao-yu] could not see why beautiful maidens should marry and become slaves of men who would take them for granted, when they could just as well remain carefree and do nothing but play games and write verses.
    • p. 272
  • Hsueh Pan was a living example [of the] common saying, "To covet the land of Shu after grabbing the region of Lung." After having gratified his passion for Cassia, he began to turn his attention to her maid Cherry, who was by no means unattractive. The maid was willing enough but, knowing her mistress well, was afraid to encourage him. [...] Later at bedtime, Cassia made a pretense of not caring where he spent the night. "Go where your heart is," she said to him with a playful push. "I don't want to see you starve your heart out." [...] To show his gratitude, Hsueh Pan performed his conjugal duty to the best of his ability that night.
    • pp. 273–274
  • "What follows the way of Heaven prospers and what goes against it perishes."
    • p. 290
  • "You need not think of [Black Jade] any more, for she died a few days ago while you were unconscious!"
    Pao-yu sat up and cried, "Is it true?"
    "Of course it is true," Precious Virtue said. "Do you think I would say such a terrible thing of anyone if it were not? [...]"
    Pao-yu cried unrestrainedly until he fell back, exhausted and unconscious.
    • pp. 306–307
  • The death of Black Jade coincided with the wedding hour of Pao-yu and Precious Virtue. Shortly after Snow Duck was taken to the wedding chambers, Black Jade had regained consciousness. During this lucid moment, which was not unlike the afterglow of the setting sun, she took Purple Cuckoo's hand and said to her with an effort, "My hour is here. You have served me for many years, and I had hoped that we should be together the rest of our lives... but I am afraid..."
    The effort exhausted her and she fell back, panting. She still held Purple Cuckoo's hand and continued after a while, "Mei-mei, I have only one wish. I have no attachment here. After my death, tell them to send my body back to the south––"
    She stopped again, and her eyes closed slowly. Purple Cuckoo felt her mistress' hand tighten over hers. Knowing this was a sign of the approaching end, she sent for Li Huan, who had gone back to her own apartment for a brief rest. When the latter returned with Quest Spring, Black Jade's hands were already cold and her eyes dull. They suppressed their sobs and hastened to dress her. Suddenly Black Jade cried, "Pao-yu, Pao-yu, how––" Those were her last words.
    Above their own lamentations, Li Huan, Purple Cuckoo, and Quest Spring thought they heard the soft notes of an ethereal music in the sky. They went out to see what it was, but all they could hear was the rustling of the wind through the bamboos and all they could see was the shadow of the moon creeping down the western wall.
    • p. 307

Quotes about Wang

  • The translation is singularly accurate, and the work of adaptation skillfully performed.
    • Arthur Waley, Preface to Wang Chi-chen's translation of the Dream of the Red Chamber (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1929), p. xiii