Chinese Poetry in Motion

INSCRIBED LANDSCAPES; TRAVEL WRITING FROM IMPERIAL CHINA, translated with annotations and introduction by Richard E. Strassberg (University of California Press, $60 hardcover; $20 paper).

“On the twelfth, the night was spent at Feng-kao. On this day, a Court Gentleman Brave as a Tiger was dispatched to ascend the mountain in advance to inspect conditions. He returned and another thousand penal workers were added to repair the road.”

This is travel writing, 1st-Century Chinese style--as found in “A Record of the Feng and Shan Sacrifices; The Supreme Mountain,” written in AD 56 by Ma Ti-po. This is the first selection in this extraordinary volume of Chinese travel-related excerpts and journal entries and apercus, assembled by a professor of Chinese at UCLA. It is material that, for the most part, has simply never been seen before in English--a treasury of description and observation, reaching from Ma Ti-po’s time through the 19th Century. It’s great stuff.

Color and poetry abound. (“We ascended the Peak That Toys With the Pearl Moon”; ". . . I viewed Wang Hsi-chih’s Pond for Washing Away Ink.”)


Travelers prove inquisitive, intrepid, fearless, tireless. (“Barefooted, I bounded through the grass, swung around trees and followed along cliffs.”) A concern for nature and its spirituality permeates the prose. And there is philosophy (“It is human nature to be incapable of lingering for long where the eyes experience pleasure but the body feels discomfort”), and there is wry humor. As much as we may have read about China, in both fact and fiction by Western authors, those of us who don’t speak Chinese have never before encountered the country in these terms.

BLUE GUIDE; ALBANIA by James Pettifer (W.W. Norton / A. & C. Black, $17.95 paper).

There are no luxury hotels in Albania, or fancy restaurants. The language is impenetrable (“hello” is tungjatjeta; “thank you” is faleminderit), street signs are confusing or nonexistent, inflation is rampant--and, warns author James Pettifer, “In the countryside savage dogs belonging to shepherds are common hazards.” Why on earth, then, would anybody want to visit this, the poorest country in Europe by far? For the magnificent Greek, Roman and Turkish ruins. For the unspoiled landscapes, rich with flora and fauna--some of which has disappeared from the rest of the continent. (The tiny country has six national parks.) For the friendly people. Pettifer’s guide is extremely detailed, full of history, generous with practical advice and skillfully evocative. I can’t imagine anyone going to Albania without it.

Quick trips:


DINOSAUR SAFARI GUIDE; TRACKING NORTH AMERICA’S PREHISTORIC PAST by Vincenzo Costa (Voyageur Press, $14.95 paper). Mermaids and Lion Kings and such may come and go, but dinosaurs perpetually fascinate the young--and intrigue the older. In something of a stripped-down, just-the-facts format, this guidebook lists more than 160 fossil sites, dinosaur exhibits and the like, all over the United States and Canada--enough to inspire several years’ worth of trips and detours.


Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.