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The Lost Poems of Cangjie
Reviewed By: Susan Keefe
Susan Keefe reviews novels, poetry and non-fiction books for TheColumbiaReview.com

The Lost Poems of Cangjie by John Briscoe is both a book of poetry and of history, reviving lost poetry and forbidden love from the time of China’s Yellow Emperor

Author John Briscoe has practiced law in San Francisco for 45 years. He is also a successful published author. In The Lost Poems of Cangjie he reveals how the Xian scrolls, the oldest poems on earth, were discovered, and leads the reader on a journey of discovery into ancient china and its emperors. The book is absolutely fascinating as historical reading for anyone interested in China, and the poetry is simply beautiful.

Looking back through history it seems incredible that these poems could have survived the centuries. It is surely fate’s hand which placed them with the sculptor who was working at the tile kilns, which made the Terra-Cotta army for the First Emperor. It was through him that the Xian scrolls were translated, and their passage through time was secured. This is especially amazing when we realise that it was at this time that the First Emperor ordered the Burning of Books, decreeing that the ordinary people shouldn’t have access to poetry and literature. The way in which they surfaced again, back in the early 1970’s is equally unbelievable, and since that time they have been translated from ancient Chinese, to modern Chinese, and for this book, into English; however, to this day, their location is still kept a secret.

So who was the poet Cangjie? Well, Cangjie was historian at the court of the Yellow Emperor, who united Han China, conquered his enemies and gathered them together into a mighty empire, forty seven centuries ago. The achievements during his reign are many, and one of them is believed to be that he asked his historian Cangjie to invent writing as he wanted an effective way of delivering his decrees to his people, though the Xian scrolls tell a different story.

You see, Cangjie was in love with the emperor’s favourite courtesan, and the emperor was so jealous that he summoned Cangjie and decreed that he must no longer talk to her. However, undaunted, and truly confirming that love knows no bounds, Cangjie developed writing as a way of overcoming this barrier, and delivering his words of love and adoration to her in the form of poetry. His absolute obsession with her and his contempt for the emperor are not hidden in the poems. He talks of her as his inspiration, he sees her in everything around him, and in his dreams, but also he writes of his rage at the Emperor’s intense jealousy, and describes him in derogatory terms, even to the extent of comparing him to a pig: ‘His are the leathered blotches and warts of a swine his age.’

In summary, I found The Lost Poems of Cangjie not only an extremely interesting read for its historical content, but also a wonderful insight into how love is eternal, while the poems in themselves are beautifully timeless. –Susan Keefe for TheColumbiaReview.com