Chen-ou Liu's Translation Project: First English-Chinese Haiku and Tanka Blog

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Waking from Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream -- Plagiarism or Honkadori

Michel Foucault (1977, 115) has argued that the entire concept of artist or author as an original instigator of meaning is only a privileged moment of individualization in the history of art.

-- Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody

[Basho’s] notion of the new lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past.

-- Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams

About a few months ago, I had long discussions with some haiku poets over the issue regarding "déjà-ku," a term invented by Michael Dylan Welch for “haiku that bear some relationship to other poems."1 As Welch describes in his Simply Haiku article, these relationships can be good when showing a skillful use of allusion and homage, and not good in the cases of plagiarism and “cryptomnesia (remembering someone else's poem without realizing that one is remembering rather than creating it)"2 Throughout our discussions, the recurring words or phrases were “not the first,” “similar/same,” “not original or fresh,” “has been done.” Some poets even lamented that poets who wrote déjà-ku had great difficulty in submitting them for publication. At some point, the discussions revolved around one key issue: “how similar is too similar?” [déjà-ku is not an academically recognized term but a name for a theory developed by Dylan Welch] In terms of language, structure, style, and theme, the following two haiku are the most problematic of all that we discussed for they are almost identical.

Yosa Buson’s haiku:

Japanese original:

tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochoo kana

English translation:

On the temple bell
has settled, and is fast asleep,
a butterfly.

Masaoka Shiki’s haiku:

Japanese original:

tsurigane ni tomarite hikaru hotaru kana

English translation:

On the temple bell
has settled, and is glittering,
a firefly.3

Read in the context of Western literary criticism,4 Shiki’s poem either reaches the limits of allusion,5 or is simply condemned as derivative. However, read in the context of the Japanese poetic tradition, the cultural significance of kigo, and especially of honkadori,6 a concept that is close to a loosely-defined Western equivalent of allusion, Shiki’s poem re-contextualizes Buson’s so as to create new meanings and perspectives.

The different evaluations of Shiki’s poem, one that was written in a later time and understood as reworking of an old image, result from the different understandings of the relationship of one’s creativity to originality/newness. In Edo culture, the ability to create the new through the old was a more preferred form of newness than the ability to be unique and individual.7 This Japanese view of “newness” still pervades and is in sharp contrast with that of the West.

Veteran haiku poet and editor Cor van den Heuvel gives an incisive explanation about these perspective differences: “If a haiku is a good one, it doesn’t matter if the subject has been used before. The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of ‘seeing anew’ for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept. But some of the most original voices in haiku do not hesitate to dare seeming derivative if they see a way of reworking an ‘old’ image.”8

In his haiku, Shiki used the same techniques that Buson did, but employed a related, yet dynamically, different image of a glittering firefly (a summer kigo), which stirs the tranquility of Buson’s deeply sleeping butterfly (a spring kigo). This slightly different emphasis conveyed a different feeling, and would be recognized by the informed reader at once and “appreciated as much if not more than a completely new idea. The virtuoso approach to literature, and to art as well, where the artist attempts to do essentially the same thing as his predecessors but in a slightly different way, is characteristic of Japan.”9

Shiki’s use of honkadori [Wikipedia: an allusion within a poem, to an older poem] brought to the reader’s mind an immediate identification with an earlier poem by Buson, for it conversed with and showed respect to the master and his work. Buson’s poem provided the horizon of poetic-cultural expectations/readings: “between the bell and the butterfly there are many layers of contrast -- size, color, solidity, mobility, lifespan -- which deepen the poem's meaning; there is also suspense -- the bell may start ringing at any minute, startling the butterfly.”10 Against these expectations/readings, Shiki’s poem established its “newness” or implied difference. In doing so, poetry, as viewed by the Japanese, is communally written and shared. The concept of plagiarism is a modern one. “The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem.”11

For those who are well versed in Japanese haiku and Chinese Daoist (Wade-Giles: Taoist) literature, especially in the Zhuangzi (Wade-Giles: Chuang Tzu),12 the butterfly imagery in Buson’s haiku is “not original or fresh,” rather it belongs to a massive, communally shared Japanese butterfly haiku based on Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, a famous story recorded in the Zhuangzi:

“Once [Zhuangzi] dreamt he was a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was [Zhuangzi.] Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable [Zhuangzi]. But he didn't know if he was [Zhuangzi] who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was [Zhuangzi.] Between [Zhuangzi] and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”13

In the first haiku lexicon, Yama no I (Mountain Spring, published in 1647), there is an explanatory passage under the entry titled Butterfly: “Butterfly. The scene of a butterfly alighting on rape blossoms, napping among flowers with no worries. Its appearance as it flutters its feathery wings, dancing like whirling snowflakes. Also the image is associated with [Zhuangzi’s] dream, suggesting that one hundred years pass as a gleam in a butterfly’s dream.”14 To demonstrate how to use this butterfly imagery, the compiler Kigin gives the following example:

Scattering blossoms:
the dream of a butterfly –
one hundred years in a gleam15

Since then, the penetration of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream into themes and images has clearly been seen in Japanese haiku. Among these butterfly haiku,16 the following was written by Basho and is often regarded as one of the most overtly allusive ones:

You are the butterfly
And I the dreaming heart
Of [Zhuangzi].17

Basho wrote a note about this occasional poem sent o his friend named Doi:

“You’re the butterfly, and I the dreaming heart of [Zhuangzi]. I don’t know if I’m Basho who dreamed with the heart-mind of [Zhuangzi] that I was a butterfly named Doi, or that winged Mr Doi dreaming me is Basho.“18

While Zhuangzi played with the “transformation of things,” specifically with himself and a butterfly, Basho played with Doi, personalizing the Buddhist community (the sangha).19

The following are two more butterfly haiku by Basho, which subtly allude to Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream:

not grown to a butterfly
this late in autumn
a caterpillar20

At the denotative level, Basho saw a caterpillar on a late autumn day, lamenting that it has not matured into a butterfly. At the connotative level, Basho reflected on his own life, one which had not been through a transformative change. The poem echoes one of the key themes in Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream – the “transformation of things.”

butterflies flit...
that is all, amid the field
of sunlight21

Because of Basho’s use of the flitting butterfly imagery, some Japanese Basho interpreters, such as Nobuo Hori, think that “the poem has something of a daydream in it, …harking back to [Zhuangzi’s] dream.”22

And the most covertly allusive and regarded butterfly haiku is also written by Basho:

is that warbler
her soul? there sleeps
a graceful willow23

Unlike any poet who saw “a willow hanging its branches as if in sleep and might compose a poem alluding to the butterfly in [Zhuangzi’s] dream,”24 Basho replaced the butterfly with a warbler, subtly comparing the willow tree to Zhuangzi, and the warbler to his butterfly. Thus, he skillfully used this age-old allusion in haiku and was not used by it. This is a perfect example of showing his “haikai imagination”25 creatively reworked an old image. Oshima Ryota claims that Basho “deserves to be called the [Zhuangzi] of haikai.26

As Koji Kawamoto emphasizes in his essay dealing with the use and disuse of tradition in Basho’s haiku, “the key to [haiku’s] unabated vigor lies in Basho’s keen awareness of the utility of the past in undertaking an avant-garde enterprise, which he summed up in his famous adage “fueki ryuko,”27 which literally means “the unchanging and the ever-changing.” This haikai poetic ideal was advocated during his trip through the northern region of Japan . He stressed that “haikai must constantly change (ryuko), find the new (atarashimi), shed its own past, even as it seeks qualities that transcend time.”28 However, his notion of the new “lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past.”29

Through analyzing Shiki’s allusive variant on Buson’s poem, which is implicitly part of a communally shared poem based on Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream, we can see the Japanese view of newness and the constant use of honkadori play a significant role in the historical depth and cultural richness of Japanese haiku, which has been highly influenced by the Chinese poetic tradition, especially by Taoist literature.30 In writing this essay, I am reminded of Haruo Shirane’s critique of North American haiku: “the emphasis on the ‘haiku moment’ in North American haiku has meant that most of the poetry does not have another major characteristic of Japanese haikai and haiku: its allusive character, the ability of the poem to speak to other literary or poetic texts.”31 I would like to add one more reason: that is the obsession with originality. As Hiroaki Sato stresses in his introduction to Basho's Narrow Road, “the extent of the annotations [342 allusions in Narrow Road to the Interior] might make Basho appear derivative, but as I have pointed out elsewhere (and as everyone knows), the ‘cult of originality’ is something new to our literary experience. A rich fabric of reference – in good hands, such as Shakespeare’s, Eliot’s or Basho’s – is an incomparable resource and a source of wonderment.”32

After all has been said, I would like to conclude my essay with a tribute poem to converse with and show my respect to masters and their works.

My Butterfly Dream: A Haiku Sequence Based on Chinese Poetics33

thinking about
Zhuangzi... a butterfly
flutters its wings

autumn twilight
butterfly darts in and out
of my shadow

my dream floats
the shape and size
of a butterfly

waking from
the dream of a butterfly
me in the mirror?


1 Michael Dylan Welch, "An Introduction to Déjà-ku," Simply Haiku, Vol. 2, No.4 (July/August, 2004),

2 Ibid.
3 For English translations, see Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958, p. 154. For Japanese originals, see ttp://

4 In writing, one of the most important features of imitation that defies the charge of plagiarism is allusion. Since the 1970s, literary theorists not only viewed allusion as a "tacit reference to another literary work," but also argued that an allusion is "a device for the simultaneous activation of two texts." Here are the four modes of allusion well articulated in a typology developed by Earl Miner, who is a well-known scholar of Japanese court poetry:

“i) metaphoric allusion in which an echo of the previous work imports the tenor of the previous work to the new context;

ii) imitative allusion in which a quotation of the exact language or representation of generic characteristics of the previous work creates an equivalence between the previous context of utterance and the new context;

iii) parodic allusion in which a quotation of the language or representation of generic characteristics of the previous work suggests a discrepancy between the previous context of utterance and the new context; and

iv) structural allusion in which repetition of structural elements (e.g., recognition and reversal) of a previous work gives form to the new work by analogy to the previous work.”

For further information, see Earl Miner. "Allusion," in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.

5 There are “rules” to delineate the limits of the use of allusion. For further information, see Michael Leddy, “The Limits of Allusion,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1992, pp. 110-122.

6 Honkadori is not simply an allusion to a literary work and it may also function as quoting, which means lines are copied word for word. “[It] is true that within the Japanese cultural tradition there is a well-developed custom of quoting and borrowing…
In fact, more than just a custom is involved here: various ways of quoting were themselves regarded as artistic techniques and were admired and appreciated in the same way as original works of art. It is natural to suppose that an 'art of quoting' could be appreciated by connoisseurs who share common knowledge with the artists, since quoting is quoting something that is known by those who quote and those who listen, view or read… If somebody tried to summarize the stylistic character of the 20th century western art, what should he say? One thing he might say is that the 20th century was one in which each artist was expected to have his own style, and possessing this sort of uniqueness and individuality of style was the necessary condition of being considered an artist at all.” For further information, see Akiko Tsukamoto, "Modes of Quoting: Parody and Honkadori," Simply Haiku, Vol. 2, No. 4 (July/August, 2004),

7 Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 5.

8 Cor van den Heuvel, ed., The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, New York: W.W. Norton, 1999, p. ix-x. In fact, “Michel Foucault (1977, 115) has argued that the entire concept of artist or author as an original instigator of meaning is only a privileged moment of individualization in the history of art.” See Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985. p. 4.

9 Donald Keene, Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers, Grove Press, 1955, p. 15.

10 Makoto Ueda, The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, c1998, p. 159.

11 See Shirane, p. 27.

12 The Zhuangzi is the second foundational text of the Daoist tradition as well as the name of the putative author of this text.” For further information, see Peipei Qiu, Basho and the Dao: the Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005, pp. 3-4.

13 Burton Watson, trans., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968, p. 49.

14 See Qiu, p. 18.

15 Ibid.

16 Buson wrote two more butterfly haiku. The following comes from the poem text of one of his haiga:

first dream of the year
even though I become a butterfly
I'm still cold

For detailed information, see Cheryl A. Crowley, Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival, Boston: Brill, c2007, pp. 192-3.

Here is another one:

as if in a dream
the fingers hold on --
a butterfly

For further information, see Ueda, p. 74.

In Viral 7.1, Scott Metz lists the following butterfly haiku (accessed at

butterfly what are you dreaming fanning your wings

-- Chiyojo (18th c.)

The butterfly having disappeared, my spirit came back to me

-- Wafū (19th c.) [trans. R. H. Blyth]

a butterfly went past after seeing me as an apparition

-- Yasumasa Sōda (20th c.) [trans. Gendai Haiku Kyokai]

17 Robert Aitken, A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen, New York : Weatherhill, 1978, p. 125.

18 Ibid., p. 127.

19 Ibid.

20 Makoto Ueda, compi. and trans., Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 271.

21 Ibid., p. 133.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., p. 88

24 Ibid.

25 “Haikai imagination, which took pleasure in the juxtaposition and collision of these seemingly incongruous worlds and languages, humorously inverted and recast established cultural associations and conventions, particularly the ‘poetic essence’ (honi) of classical poetic topics.” See Shirane, p. 2.

26 See Ueda, p. 88.

27 Koji Kawamoto, “The Use and Disuse of Tradition in Basho’s Haiku and Imagist Poetry,” Poetics Today, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), p. 709.

28 See Shirane, p. 294.

29 Ibid., p. 5.

30 See Qiu, pp. 1-12.
31 Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths”, Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000),

32 Hiroaki Sato, trans., Basho's Narrow Road : Spring & Autumn Passages: Two Works by Basho Matsuo, Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 1996, p. 35.

33 According to classical Chinese poetics, a poem sequence is a group of poems by one poet or perhaps even by two or more poets intended to be read together in a specific order. The integrity of a poem sequence is dependent on this prescribed order of presentation. A poem sequence by a single author is sustained throughout by a single voice and point of view, and it shows consistency in style and purpose from one poem to the next. The defining characteristic of a poem sequence is that each poem must have its own value and integrity yet contribute to the artistic wholeness of the sequence while maintaining the logical progression of events.

Autumn 2010 issue of Simply Haiku