This paper examines the reception of Catullus in China today. Catullus is a poet long known, but rarely read, in China: there was simply no substantial translation of his work available before Yongyi Li’s Latin-Chinese version of Carmina appeared in 2008.
This belatedness can be attributed to the fact that very few Chinese know Latin, but more importantly, scholars who are proficient in the language usually let Catullus alone as they are secretly convinced that much of his poetry is “improper” and offensive to the Chinese aesthetic sensibility. Dominated by the Confucian doctrine of exercising restraint and avoiding excess, classical Chinese poetry exalts implicit presentation and affective balance. The ubiquity of sexual and abusive vocabulary in Catullus is disturbing, even repugnant, to poetry readers steeped in that tradition, and tortures their moral sentiments when they have been taught all along that poets excel not only in talent, but also in character, a myth that has survived many counterexamples. How could a poet threatening to punish his detractive readers with his phallus and smacking of a pedophile be reconciled with the image of the Confucian gentleman of “complete virtue”?
Given this mindset, it would have seemed impossible for Chinese readers to embrace the complete translation of Catullus. Surprisingly, the book was a success: it was given a second printing within a month. When we reflect on comments and reviews, a picture of complex motives and attitudes emerges. The first factor is a toleration of “the foreign.” Adopting a cosmopolitan complacency, Chinese readers, recovering from initial shock and indignation, quickly reassure themselves with the belief that after all, these poems only represent “their” views whose world is millennia and oceans apart from “ours.” Some readers are attracted to Catullus for the very human reason that they secretly enjoy what they publicly condemn, who treat his poetry as highbrow pornography. There are other readers, mostly amateurs of literature, who accept Catullus wholesale because they know he is a great name in history, and great poets have their poetic license: Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin wrote obscene lines too. As the recent decade has witnessed a boom of Western classics in China, part of the Catullan readership here takes interest in the bilingual version out of a passion for learning the Latin language and Roman culture.
The most enthusiastic audience is found in poets. Many of them, especially those in academia, are well acquainted with the Modernist and postwar poetry in the English-speaking world. Masters like Yeats, Pound, Stevens, Frost, Cummings and Ginsberg, with artistic views and techniques inherited from Catullus, have prepared these Chinese poets for a full exposure to his oeuvre. They now have a chance, aided by nuanced Chinese texts and extensive notes, to see why this Roman bohemian is revered by so many 20th century artists obsessed with innovation, and why the sophistication of his poetry can withstand the bewildering complexity of the modern and postmodern condition. It is this group of readers, with their in-depth knowledge of Western poetry and a historical perspective, that finds the greatest zest in Catullus and imbibes the most from the translation. Even though they know no Latin, they understand the poetry better than most Chinese scholars in Western classics. They are the ideal audience Catullus craves, possessed of the golden apple that ensures enjoyment of his guarded treasure: “Tam gratum est mihi quam ferunt puellae / Pernici aureolum fuisse malum, / Quod zonam soluit diu ligatam” (c. 2b).