by Ha Jin
So the wars went on for another century.
Under heaven roads sprang up, unconnected,
from three to eight feet wide,
impossible for vehicles to travel;
money also ran wild in form—
precious stones, shells, silk, bones;
scholars were busy inventing bizarre words
while people followed their own tongues
writing scripts of Worm,
of Vine, of Fish, of Cloud, of Bird.
As soon as the First Emperor conquered
the other kingdoms, he set standards
for coinage, roads, weights and measures.
His ministers advised him to fix
written words, which they argued
formed a foundation for the Empire
because a disordered official script
would cloud meanings, causing chaos.
The High Minister designed a script called
the Clerk Style, whose characters looked
august and simple, so his dictionary
of thirty-three thousand words
were carved on stone tablets while
all the other scripts were banned.
Misinscribers were caught and sent away
to build canals or the Great Wall
after their faces were cut or seared.
So today we write the same script
that is atemporal—a stone lyre
in the chorus of living tongues.
It has bound us together, synchronizing
our songs and shrieks, and kept hundreds
of dialects noteless on the page.
Ha Jin has published several books of poetry and fiction. His most recent novel, Waiting (Pantheon, 1999) won the National Book Award. This coming fall he will publish a book of poems, Wreckage (Hanging Loose Press), and a book of short stories, The Bridegroom (Pantheon). (2000)