Two coffee cups.

Topic Languages

玉 Jade 阶 Steps 怨 Grievance
玉 Jade 阶 Steps 生 Generating 白 White 露 Dew
夜 Night 久 Long Time 侵 Penetrate/invade 罗 Gauze 袜 Socks
却 However/retreat 下 Downwards 水 晶 Crystal 帘 Curtain
玲 珑 Tinkling 望 Gaze/full moon/expect 秋 Autumn 月 Moon

Li Bai (mid eighth century)

‘I like coffee’ we say in English - nearer to the Mandarin would be ‘Coffee, I like’. ‘Topic’ Languages highlight the topic, whereas ‘Subject’ languages promote the subject of a sentence. Both types of language have topics and subjects, but a different emphasis can mould our thinking: unconsciously we are nudged. In the example from Li Bai, poetry is seen exploiting the ambiguity induced by the lack of subject - no grammatical person appears in the Chinese writing, but it is necessary in English. When it comes to ethics, responsibility matters. If English edges us towards a subject, isn’t that an influence we must note?


Li Bai (also rendered as Li Bo or Li Po) lived from 701 to 762 reaching and staying in high office. He was one of the most eminent T’ang poets. The poem in this form was recorded in The Complete T’ang Poems (1705), its provenance before then is opaque. Ezra Pound featured it in his work Cathay making it familiar in the west. Above the poem is shown character by character. Many translations are possible, below three are given: Ezra Pound’s 1915 version; David Hinton’s is from his 2008 book Chinese Classical Poetry; and the third is from Zong-qi Cai’s (2008) How to Read Chinese Poetry. The diminutive coffee cups were on the table of a famous coffee house in the Cafe Lâm chain in Hà Nội - Vietnamese is a topic language, as are Japanese, Korean, Hungarian, and Singapore English, amongst many others.

The Jewel Stairs Grievance - Ezra Pound
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

Jade-staircase Grievance - David Hinton
Night long on the jade staircase, white
dew appears, soaks through gauze stockings.
She lets down crystalline blinds, gazes out
through jewel lace-work at the autumn moon.

Lament of the Jade Stairs - Zong-qi Cai
On jade stairs, the rising white dew
Through the long night pierces silken hose;
Retreating inside, she lowers crystal shades
And stares at the glimmering autumn moon.

Saturday 27th July 2019

Murphy on duty

Details of the
Greeting Card

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