Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Draft – simple thought, tough poem to tackle, let me come back and get it right.

delphinium in the field

Spring Thoughts

In fields, Delphinium blossoms like blue silk threads
In Qin, it is said, emerald green mulberry leaves hang low
Somewhere, a husband thinks of returning home
To his saddened wife who
Feels the spring breeze strange
As it slips unseen through her silk curtains

春思

燕草如碧絲
秦桑低綠枝
當君懷歸日
是妾斷腸時
春風不相識,
何事入羅幃

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
Qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
Dāng jūn huái guī rì
Shì qiè duàn cháng shí
Chūn fēng bù xiāng shí
Hé shì rù luó wéi

My Thoughts on Spring Thoughts

Spring is the time to make war. It is also the time when flowers blossom in far-flung fields.

Back home in Qin, the ancient Chinese homeland, a wife longs for her absent husband. Low hanging mulberry leaves, upon which the silk worms feast, have recently unfolded in colors of emerald green, symbolizing sadness. A western wind slips though the wife’s silk curtains and she senses a strange emotion with the breeze that is felt but not seen.

In this short poem about the separation of husband and wife, Li Bai has managed to repeat the “shi” sound five times in six lines. Sadly, these homophonic puns do not translate well into English. Now, add the additional rhymes of “bi”, “di”, “gui”, “ri”, “qie”, and “he”.

This cornucopia of rhymes makes for a poem, whose meaning conveys, but whose beauty is obscured in translation:(

 

delphinium in the field

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Cheering Up Oneself – 自遣

Cheering Up Oneself or Self Consolation – 自遣

When I win, I sing loudly, when I lose, I rest promptly
Woes and regrets are the unending way to sorrow
Today, drink and be drunk, this wine is still mine,
If worries come, as worries will, worry not until tomorrow

A win I sing, a loss I am sullen,
Worries and regrets linger far too long.
If there is wine today, then today get drunk,
Worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
(Tomorrow there is time enough to worry)

 

“What Me Worry” would be the title if written by Mad’s Alfred E. Newman.

moon_water

Luo Yin

Tang poet, Luo Yin, was by all accounts, ugly and difficult to get along with. He had much to complain of. He failed the imperial examinations ten times, and therefore gave himself the pseudonym Yin, meaning “dormant”. So ugly he was, that the following story is told. The imperial court’s grand councilor Zheng Tian had a young daughter who enjoyed Luo Yin’s poems, frequently reading them out loud to her father’s annoyance. He had her attend court and peek out from the curtains at Luo Yin’s ugly face.

She never read another one of his poems.

This poem is translated often by those more competent than myself. The nuances are slight but significant.

Luo’s rhyming pattern is abab. He uses internal repetition of words like today and tomorrow, and sorrow. Line two is a good example, speak out loud and listen – duō chóu duō hèn yì yōuyōu.

The title is most often given as Self Consolation. That works, but it might be more accurate to use, Cheering Up Oneself, a type of toast to a cup of wine.

自遣

得即高歌失即休
多愁多恨亦悠悠
今朝有酒今朝醉
明日愁來明日愁

Zì qiǎn

dé jí gāogē shī jí xiū
duō chóu duō hèn yì yōuyōu
jīnzhāo yǒu jiǔ jīnzhāo zuì
míngrì chóu lái míngrì chóu

hands forming a heart with the setting sun in the background

To One Unnamed – Li Shangyin

Hurriedly I translate Li’s poem, no doubt I make mistakes, is liulang (line 7) young liu, Master Liu, or have I let my homeless thoughts wander far beyond Pengshan mountain? Who writes this quick note, I cannot quite read the faded words, is it she or he?

Li Shangyin’s poem paints a picture of pleasure and grief, desire and failure, of the bitter sweetness of togetherness and loneliness. It is not known to whom these love poems refer and that is part of Li’s magic.

To one unnamed

Yes come, you said, and still you vanished without a trace
Than the moonlight glancing off the tower
At the bell-sounding of the fifth watch hour
To dream so far apart and as I cannot call, I cry
As hurriedly I write these lines, in ink not quite dry
A flickering candle palely casts its light
That shines from its blue green and gold cage
A hint of deer musk gathers on the lotus embroidered curtains
Homeless I am, wandering beyond Peng mountain
You on the other side, ten thousand peaks away

Original Chinese characters

無 題 之 一
來 是 空 言 去 絕 蹤
月 斜 樓 上 五 更 鐘
夢 為 遠 別 啼 難 喚
書 被 催 成 墨 未 濃
蠟 照 半 籠 金 翡 翠
麝 熏 微 度 繡 芙 蓉
劉 郎 已 恨 蓬 山 遠
更 隔 蓬 山 一 萬 重

Notes on the translation

Twelve centuries have passed since Li Shangyin composed these lines to an unnamed beauty. To get a sense of the meaning is not an easy thing. In English, the task would be comparable to translating the Venerable Bede’s 7th century Saxon into modern English. (“For þam nedfere | næni wyrþeþ” gives one a taste of the task, from Bede’s Death Song). The meaning of words change, grammar changes, cultural and historical context is misplaced or lost.

Still we labor on, hoping to find a light in the dark.

The poet’s unnamed muse has gone and the poet writes from his room in the flickering light of a candle, hurried words, trying to catch her before she is gone to far, and yet, it is to late. Some translators say she writes. Some translators call Peng Mountain the Enchanted Mountain, who knows.

Pinyin

Wútí zhī yī
lái shì kōngyán qù jué zōng
yuè xié lóu shàng wǔ gèng zhōng
mèng wèi yuǎnbié tí nán huàn
shū bèi cuī chéng mò wèi nóng
là zhào bàn lóng jīn fěicuì
shè xūn wēi dù xiù fúróng
liú láng yǐ hèn péng shān yuǎn
gèng gé péng shān yī wàn zhòng

light-lantern

Meeting Li Guinian at Jiangnan, (South of the River) – Du Fu

Meeting Li Guinian at Jiangnan

Often we met at Prince Qi’s Palace and
Many times I heard you at Lord Cui’s home and
Just now, at Jiangnan, when the earth is its finest
When blossoms are falling, we meet again, by chance

street-performer-guitar.jpg

Notes

Poetry, calligraphy, music and art all flourished in the Tang dynasty.

But then, glory and flame are fleeting. And chance plays a major part in whether we end up rich man or poor man, poet or recluse, court musician or street performer.

Du Fu was one of the Tang dynasty’s greatest poets. He was also a prominent civil servant who unfortunately found his star falling at the close of his life.

Li Guinian was a famous musician of the same time. Likewise, his fortunes, fell during the An Lushan Rebellion, and so he ended up as a street performer South of the Yangtze River, where the encounter described in the poem took place.

Title

A literal translation of the title is At Jiangnan Meeting Li Guinian. Jiangnan also translates as South of the River, but it is also a place name. Du Fu intended both meanings.

The poem’s date

A fateful event triggered a change in fortune. This was the An Lushan Rebellion, which began in 755 and ended 8 years alter.

The poem, therefore, can be dated after this and before Du Fu’s death in 770. It would not be too far a stretch to spot the time of the meeting between poet and musician to after 765, when Du Fu and his family sailed down the Yangtze, with the intention of making their way to Luoyang, Du Fu’s birthplace.

Prince Qi and Cui Jui

Prince Qi, named in the poem, likely refers to a brother of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong. Cui Jiu likely refers to a member of the Cui clan of Qinghe, and chancellor to the emperor. I confess to confusion in the translation of Cui Jui. Jui means 9th, but I doubt that Du Fu is referring to a 9th son. Rather, it is likely Cui Jui was a prominent person in the emperor’s entourage. Exactly who is a mystery. Other Tang poets like Pei Di have referred to Cui Jui, (see A Farewell to Cui Jiu), so one suspects there is more to the passing reference.

Jiangnan

Jiangnan (South of the River) is generally described as the to lands immediately to south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Most translations of Du Fu’s poem use the literal English South of the River, rather than the geographic place name, Jiangnan. There is an argument either way, Jiangnan is more sonorous, South of the River has a better implied connotation. Crossing the river and south of the river might both be metaphors for a tragic but happy or sad change in one’s fortunes.

Original Chinese

江 南 逢 李 龜 年
岐 王 宅 裡 尋 常 見
崔 九 堂 前 幾 度 聞
正 是 江 南 好 風 景
落 花 時 節 又 逢 君

Pinyin

Jiāngnán féng lǐ guī nián
qí wáng zhái lǐ xún chángjiàn
cuī jiǔ tángqián jǐdù wén
zhèng shì jiāngnán hǎo fēngjǐng
luòhuā shíjié yòu féng jūn

French

Li Guinian et moi, nous nous rencontrons
Au Palais du Prince Qi, souvent, nous nous sommes rencontrés
Chez le maître Cui, plusieurs fois, je vous ai entendu
Tout à l’heure, à Jiangnan, quand la terre est son meilleur
Quand la floraison tombe, on se retrouve, par chance

streets-guitar

Yearning – Wang Wei

Red berries born in the south

Whose branches are full in the Spring

A gentleman wishes you gather many

As a symbol of our love

Wang Wei

Wang Wei (王維, 699–759) is regarded as one of the three most admired poets of the Tang dynasty, the other two being Li Bai and Du Fu. But Wang has the distinction of also being a recognized painter and musician. Rising to the position of Chancellor of the Tang court, he fell in disfavor during the An Lushan rebellion.

What are we to make of this poem?

Surviving the rebellion, and grieving for the death of his wife and sister, he retired to the family estate along the Wang River. I think we may gather that this poem was written there, that it was an epitaph for his dearly beloved wife for whom he still longed.

The title of the poem, 相 思, Xiāngsī, is most often translated as yearning, but it is also the Chinese symbol for love-sickness. Wang fittingly concludes his poem with the same characters to emphasize the emotion. I simplified this to “love” in my translation.

adzuki beans

Red, red beans

For some reason Neil Diamond’s silly song Red, Red Wine comes to mind. Its repetitive lyrics are somehow relevant.

“Red, red wine, stay close to me
Don’t let me be alone
It’s tearing apart
My blue, blue heart”

Line one, 紅 豆, hóngdòu, the red berries that Wang refers to are Azuki beans, which make into a red paste commonly used in Chinese treats. Red is a symbol of joy and happiness, but also the color of ink for writing the names of the dead in China. I have found a reference to “red beans” as missing someone. This comes from an ancient story of a Chinese wife who missed her warrior husband. He never returned and she cried tears that watered the ground, hardened into red beans, and grew into vines that produced still more red beans, 紅 豆, hóngdòu.

In China today, red beans still symbolize love and fidelity. So, a husband would be happy and lucky for his loving wife to serve a steaming bowl of red pinto beans.

French

Baies rouges nées dans le sud
Au printemps, les branches sont pleines
Un monsieur, vous souhaite glaner de plus
Symbole de notre amour

Original Chinese

相 思
紅 豆 生 南 國
春 來 發 幾 枝
願 君 多 采 擷
此 物 最 相 思

Pinyin

Xiāngsī
hóngdòu shēng nánguó
chūn lái fā jǐzhī
yuàn jūn duō cǎixié
cǐ wù zuì xiāngsī

The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl, Meng Jiao

The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl

As Wutong-trees, live life as one
As Mandarin ducks, mate til death
As a virtuous woman loves only her husband
I swear in life, to be faithful forever
For a billowing wave cannot stir
A water-like-spirit in a timeless well

concentric waves

Original Chinese

烈 女 操

梧 桐 相 待 老
鴛 鴦 會 雙 死
貞 婦 貴 殉 夫
捨 生 亦 如 此
波 瀾 誓 不 起
妾 心 井 中 水

Pinyin

Wú tóng xiāng dài lǎo
yuān\yāng huì shuāng sǐ
zhēnfù guì xùn fū
shě shēng yì rúcǐ
bōlán shì bù qǐ
qiè xīn jǐngzhōng shuǐ

Meng Jiao

May I introduce you to Master Meng, the latest poet in my list of Tang poets.

One could say that Meng Jiao had both the good and bad fortune to be born in interesting times. Meng Jiao was born in 751 in the Chinese province of Huzhou. Soon after his birth, the Tang dynasty experienced major military defeats on its western and southern borders. Shortly thereafter followed the An Lushan Rebellion, which laid waste to the Chinese population and economy. Floods followed further devastating the land and population.

Meng Jiao lived out much of these times as a Zen Buddhist recluse and poet in the south. Then at the age of forty, his wandering ways ceased and he settled in Luoyang, which was considered the “Eastern Capital” of the Tang Dynasty, with a population that approached one million, second only to Chang’an, the capital,which, at the time, was the largest city in the world.

Meng Jiao settled in as an impoverished and unemployed poet. Unwillinbg at first to take the imperial examinations, he eventually did at the urging of his mother, and at the age of 50 passed the test, after which he received a minor post.

After Meng’s death, the poet Han Yu wrote an epitaph saying:

“He had no sons. His wife, a woman of the Cheng family, informed me. I went out and stood weeping, and then I summoned Chang Chi to mourn with me…

As for his poetry, it pierces one’s eye and impales one’s heart. It cuts to the point like a thread parting at the touch of a knife. His barbed words and thorny sentences tear at one’s guts. His writing ability is spirit-like or like that of a ghost, glimpsed in between and over and over again. He cared only for writing and cared not what the world thought.”

The poet’s meaning

The title, 烈 女 操, one could replace “chaste” or “virtuous” for the words pure-hearted, but why, a pure heart employs better imagery. A modern day translation might be “an exemplary woman”.

The poem places a value on the fidelity and loyalty of a wife to her husband, and, can one assume, the reverse? So, perhaps Han Yu is too harsh in his assessment of Meng Jiao’s complete detachment from the world.

Line one, 梧 桐, (Firmiana simplex) the Chinese Parasol tree, a flowering tree whose wood was used for soundboards in Chinese musical instruments like the guqin and guzheng.

Line two, 鴛 鴦, Mandarin ducks yuan and yang, male and female, which mate for life.

The meaning of the poem lies in its final two lines – a billowing wave cannot stir the water like spirit in the deepest well. Han Yu elsewhere has given us an understanding of the effects of nature’s interactions with man, “Trees have no sound but cry when the wind stirs them, water has no sound but sounds forth when the wind roils it, and thus the heavens move men to speak when their spirits are troubled.” Master Meng is suggesting jut the opposite here, the steadfastness of the devotion of a pure-hearted wife.

There is a complementary Latin phrase that “still waters run deep” meaning that a quiet exterior may hide a passionate heart.

Let me leave you with Lao Tzu’s observation that “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.” Master Meng would say the same is true of love, which is soft and yielding, but firm in its devotion over time and tragedy.

Shall I return and translate this poem into French? Time will tell.

mandarin ducks pair

Bamboo House – Wang Wei

Bamboo House

In quiet bamboo, I sit alone
Plucking the zither, repeating its song.
In the forest deep, quite unknown
The bright moon shines and comes

Original Chinese characters

竹 里 館
獨 坐 幽 篁 裡
彈 琴 復 長 嘯
深 林 人 不 知
明 月 來 相 照

Pinyin

Zhú lǐ guǎn
dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
tán qín fù cháng xiào
shēn lín rén bù zhī
míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was and is highly regarded as poet, painter and musician.

The 琴 referred to in line two is a Chinese zither, a stringed instrument that is plucked. The English/Chinese translation is more correctly “guzheng”.

Late in life, Wang became a devout Buddhist. His poems and this one in particular refer to emptiness and the lessons of silence. The poem was composed during the An Lushan Rebellion, when Wang’s fortunes with the Imperial Court fell and rose again. The poem was likely composed at his family estate near the Wang River in Shaanxi province.

The challenge with translation is to try and keep both the cadence and meaning of the poem intact. Wang composed his poem in four lines of five characters.

wang wei Scenery of Snow and Creek

Wang Wei, Scenery of Snow and Creek, wikiart

French translation

Seul dans le bambou tranquille, je suis assis
Tapoter de la cithare, répéter sa chanson
Dans la forêt profonde, tout à fait inconnu
Brille la lune brillante, va et vient

Alternate translation

Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo
I strum my zither, and whistle a tune
Deep in the woods, no one can hear
Still, the bright moon comes to shine on me

A Wilderness View – Du Fu

china mountains snow

A Wilderness View

In the western mountains the snow is white where lies three forts
In the south, the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River
Oh, the wind and dust keep me from my brothers, and
The edge of heaven ends in tears, as I am so far away
And the future offers only many ills and the stay of the sunset
To the imperial court, I have less use than a speck of dust
Yet, astride my horse I sally forth to the open country
No man can endure the chaos of the world

Setting for Du Fu’s Wilderness View

In the far west, the Tang imperial forces are hard pressed to keep out the Tibetan army. The poet Du Fu, old in years, approaches the three forts that guard China from the invaders. Astride his horse he stops for a moment to gaze at the snow on the western mountains to compose this poem.

The Jin River (Jinjiang) begins in the western province of Sichuan, that boarders Tibet. I can not find a bridge named Wanli on the Jin River and it may be that Du Fu is using the two Chinese characters 萬 and 里, to mean a thousand miles, or a long bridge, rather than as a place name, wan meaning a thousand, and li being a unit of measurement often equated with a mile.

One Chinese frontier city was Songzhou (松州, in modern Sichuan). Phonetically this is similar to chéng shù of the first line, but this interpretation is a stretch. The characters also sound like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

Alternate translation of line 2: To the south it is clear to where the the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River. The similarity in structure of the two characters 浦 and 清 is obvious, but the significance is not.

Line four, edge of heaven is often translated in English as the end of the world.

The Style of Du Fu

Du Fu liked to write in a structured poetry of balancing couplets, a style called Lu Shi (律詩). This can be observed in the Pinyin translation below, particularly in the last two lines.


kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáo

Original Chinese and Pinyin

野 望

西 山 白 雪 三 城 戍
南 浦 清 江 萬 里 橋
海 內 風 塵 諸 弟 隔
天 涯 涕 淚 一 身 遙
唯 將 遲 暮 供 多 病
未 有 涓 埃 答 聖 朝
跨 馬 出 郊 時 極 目
不 堪 人 事 日 蕭 條

Yěwàng

Xīshān báixuě sān chéng shù
nánpǔ qīngjiāng wànlǐ qiáo
hǎinèi fēngchén zhū dì gé
tiānyá tìlèi yīshēn yáo
wéi jiāng chímù gōng duō bìng
wèi yǒu juān āi dá shèng cháo
kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáoDu Fu’s Laments from the South

History of Chinese Tibetan Warfare

The history of Chinese warfare with Tibet is beyond my understanding. One source is China’s Golden Age. Another translation of this poem with background material is found in Du Fu’s Laments from the South by David R. McCraw.

china mountains river

Deer Park

Deer Enclosure
Deep in the mountain forest, not a soul to be seen

Yet I hear a sound stirring, a voice
And as the setting sun looks back at the deep forest
Shining back at me reflecting off the green moss

Version Two

No one is seen in the empty mountains, and yet
A voice is heard, no more.
In these deep dark woods, setting sunlight
Shines on green moss, rising up at me.

Wang Wei

Wang Wei’s life spanned the years 699–759 AD.

He must be included in anyone’s list of superstar poets of the Tang Dynasty. He was also an accomplished painter and musician.

Wang Wei’s poem Deer Park  (Deer Enclosure, Deer Hermitage…) stands on its own as a poem of nature’s beauty, but it has an underlying story. Most scholars agree that 鹿柴, Lù Zhài, Lu Chai, is an allusion to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, where Buddha first preached.  Beneath the famous Bodhi Tree, Gautama Buddha became enlightened, an event that took place in the 6th century BC.

 

tree in a forest

Interpretation of Deer Park

Buddha taught the four noble truths: that we crave and cling to impermanent things, that these things are incapable of satisfying us, that this suffering ends with the freedom from these wants, that freedom is achieved through the right way.

Line 1, Wang Wei’s setting, 空山 translates literally as empty mountains, its literary meaning is serene mountains. 空 which is generally translated as empty may also mean: hollow, in vain, sky, air, or free, another allusion to Buddha’s teaching of the noble truths.

Line 4, the light of the sun that shines back at us is a mere glimmer of complete understanding. It is nevertheless, something, and like the will o’the wisp, as we approach it, it fades, ever receding from our grasp.

road-forest-fall

Original Chinese and Pinyin

空 山 不 見 人
Kōngshān bùjiàn rén
但 聞 人 語 響
Dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng
返 景 入 深 林
Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín
復 照 青 苔 上
fù zhào qīngtái shàng

French Translation of Deer Park by Wang Wei

Nul n’est vu dans les montagnes serenes, mais
Une voix est entendue, et pas plus.
Les bois sombres profonds, la lumière du soleil
Brille sur la mousse verte, se lève sur moi.

Notes

This poem is an endless source of study for scholars and translators. Here is one such study of thousands. Lichtung and Luchai, by Toming Jun Liu. Enjoy.

Du Fu – The Evening Council Chamber

A poem is never done, it is left unfinished or abandoned, but never done, and, what is more, never fully understood.

The Evening Council Chamber

While the winter curtails the daylight
At the end of the world the frost and snow swirl in the night
At the fifth-watch the drums and bugles sound their sad song
O’er the Three Gorges pours the Star River (Milky Way)
From a distance women wail of war and
At dawn fishermen and woodcutters go to work
Wolong and his Leaping Horse are the Yellow Earth
A man’s work makes a letter unfettered, sound lonesome and alone

Dating the Poem

During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), Du Fu (杜甫, 712-770) was captured by the rebels and then escaped, and he later sought refuge in the wilds of the Gorges. It is likely that he wrote this poem then. In particular the date of this poem may be placed between the spring of 766 and the autumn of 768, when Du Fu and his family stayed in nearby Kuizhou. Chapter One, Rising From a Placid Lake, China’s Three Gorges

Caveats

This poem is a translator’s nightmare.

Translation that are literal miss the mark because they do not take into account compound words, place names, and pseudonyms for famous Chinese figures. Modern translation also miss subtleties of language.

The Title

The English title of the poem seems to wander from Du Fu’s intention. I have seen the title both as From the Watch Tower and as Night in the Watch-tower. The first character translates directly as council-chamber, not watch tower. And the intent of the poem is discuss the affairs of the day among those who make war and cause death. The second character in the title is “night” but “evening” works as well.

The Poem

Line 1. Du Fu uses the characters 陰 and 陽, yin and yang, to represent the opposing forces in nature.

Line 2. 天 涯, Tian Ya, at the border of heaven, at the horizon.

Line 3. The Fifth Watch, from 3 to 5 am.

wang shimin landscapes inspired by dufu  qing dynasty 1665 wikipedia

Line 4. The line identifies the place as today’s scenic Three Gorges. In the heavens above shines a River of Stars which we know as the Milky Way.

Line 6. Wolong (臥龍) is an alternative name for Zhuge Liang, Chinese general, statesman and strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 -280), which began with the dissolution of the Han Empire. The kingdoms were separated by the natural boundaries of the Yangtze River and the central mountains where the Three Gorges are. Wolong, also called Sleeping Dragon,  was a general for the Shu Han. His death ended a strategic threat to the Chinese Kingdom.

Line 7. Begins with 人事, a man’s work, or human affairs, but also a homophone to 詩 or 诗, Shi, the Chinese word for all poetry generally.

Du Fu compares man’s work with a letter 書, Shu.

Du Fu had in mind the deaths of his good friends Li Bai and Yan Wu. What happens to poetry that is not collected? Will his story be different than Wolong?

There is a common belief in China that the dry dusty yellow earth (loess) of north China is made up of the remains of the millions of dead soldiers.

Original Chinese

閣 夜
歲 暮 陰 陽 催 短 景
天 涯 霜 雪 霽 寒 霄
五 更 鼓 角 聲 悲 壯
三 峽 星 河 影 動 搖
野 哭 千 家 聞 戰 伐
夷 歌 數 處 起 漁 樵
臥 龍 躍 馬 終 黃 土

This poem is unfinished… Recheck the last two lines.