Lazily waving my white feathered fan
Naked to the waist in the midst of the forest’s green trees
Hanging my cap on a rocky crag
Baring my head
To the wind that blows though the pines
The poet Li Bai resting and wearing a headscarf called Fu Jin幅巾
Must a poet always be a poet?
Yes, but the wind in the pines gets its due. Here, Li Bai tips his cap to Nature which is his muse and inspiration.
Far from the Imperial Court, Li Bai finds himself in the forest’s green trees on a summer’s day. He is hot and perspiring. He strips to the waist, then removes his his headscarf (掛石壁, guà shíbì). Removing his headscarf and hanging up his cap, “to be unrestrained” and “putting away his pen”.
Now it is Nature’s turn to poetically express itself which it does by the wind blowing through the pine trees. The “wind in the pines” (松風, sōngfēng) is a familiar phrase in Chinese and Japanese poetry that is incapable of translation. It is best understood as a Zen moment.
You know it when you hear it and feel it cooling the perspiration on your forehead.
Li Tang, Wind in the Pines(1050–1130)
What follows is a translation by Arthur Waley, 1919.
In the Mountains on a Summer Day, by Li Bai
Gently I stir a white feather fan, With open shirt sitting in a green wood. I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone; A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.
In the mountains, you asked, I answered, most popular answer
Why do I live in the green mountains? I laugh and answer not, my soul serene I dwell in another paradise, where earth belongs to no man Where peach trees blossom forever, and the rivers flow on and on
You ask, why I dwell on Green Mountain; I smile and make no reply for my heart is at peace. The peach-blossoms flow downstream and are gone forever, I live in a world apart from among men.
I’m asked what the sense of living on Jade Mountain I laugh and answer not, my heart at peace I dwell in another heaven where no earthly man belongs Where peach trees blossom and spring waters flow forever
green mountains where rivers flow forever
Our wandering poet lived 61 years, surviving the hardship of rebellion and the vicissitudes of court intrigue. His final punishment was banishment for life. I suspect this strongly influenced his preference for the green mountains over the imperial palace or the sinecure of an imperial posting. Tongue in cheek, he might have said:
“I do not fare too well at court, too fond of wine and pretty girls, let the emperor wait, I’d rather compose a witty rhyme.”
Poems may be allegorical, historical, legendary, sensual, descriptive, romantic, or a combination of some of the above. Li Bai’s poem draws from many of these genres.
I have given it two interpretations in three translations.
li bai reclining on rocks
Why I live in the Green Mountains
Me or she, she the Queen Mother of the West.
Me, the wandering poet. After leaving the Imperial Court at Chang’an, Li Bai, now in his late 20s and early 30s, wandered far and wide, before settling in Anlu, Hubei Province. He married well and formally adopted Taoism. His wife’s family had a country home at Bishan, Bi Mountain (碧山). There Li Bai found contentment, his heart at peace (心自閒, xīn zì xián). Several of his poems used the peach flower (桃花, táohuā) as a motif for immortality.
There in a world apart from man, he flourished. Compare 人间蒸发, rén jiān zhēng fā, to disappear from the earth.
She, Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the West.
In Taoist’s fairy tales, Xiwangmu is the Queen Mother of the West, the supreme goddess in the heaven, as well as the wife of Yuhuang Dadi, the Jade Emperor. Her palace is described as having a garden, full of peach (tao 桃) trees, a symbol of longevity. The trees from which the peaches grow are said to only bear fruit every 3,000 years. When this happens the Queen invites all the immortals to a banquet to celebrate her birthday and the day she became immortal. The trees border a Jasper Pool filled with water that flows forever.
The Title. In the Mountain, question answered
山中問答(答俗人), In the mountain, question answered, most popular answer. This question reminds me of the popular topic “Mountains or Ocean” in which each person, given only one choice, must choose between living in the mountains or at the beach. Me, I all for the mountains. Mountains are hard and serene and beaches are way too easy, only the weak prefer what is easy.
I’m on board, about to sail, Suddenly, I hear singing on the shore. Peach Blossom Pool may be a thousand fathoms deep, Yet not as deep as Wang Lun’s feelings for me.
As I, Li Bai, was about to leave by boat Alas, I heard singing on the shore Peach Blossom Lake may be a thousand feet deep It’s not so deep Wang Lun, as the love you gave to me
Parting is Sweet Sorrow
On this occasion, parting was a time of singing and dancing as the residents of Taohuatan wished Li Bai a grand send-off.
During the reign of Tang Emperor Xuanzong (712-756), Wang Lun, the local magistrate of Jingxian County, Anhui Province, long been an admirer of Li Bai’s poetry, heard that Li Bai was traveling about southern China. Excited, Wang Lun wrote, asking “Are you fond of beautiful scenery, because we have ten miles of peach blossoms? And are you fond of drinking, because we have ten thousand taverns?”
Li Bai took the bait and showed up in Jingxian. Then, Wang Lun confessed the truth – “Ten miles of peach blossoms” referred to the ferry called “Ferry of Peach Blossom” (十里桃花者，桃花渡也), and “ten thousand taverns” was only one pub whose owner’s first name was “Wan”. Figuratively true since, the Chinese family name, “wan” has the same pronunciation as “ten thousand” (万 Wàn).
The good natured Li Bai had a good time, and wrote this lovely poem as he was about to leave. He also managed to get a dig in at Wang Lun with a play on words, 水深, shuǐshēn, figuratively means “shoddy dealings”. Furthermore, 我 wǒ, the me in the last line is subtly suggestive. Folk etymology considers it to be an ideograph of a hand (手) holding a weapon (戈), in other words, one should protect oneself from such friendships.
Sensing a business opportunity, the city named the ferry the Ancient Ferry for Farewell Song and Dance (踏歌古岸), and later a pavilion by the ferry. Taohua (Peach Blossom) Pool is now a cultural and historically scenic site.
We cannot wash away our worries with wine or words.
This is the short two line message Li Bai conveys in a long poem called, Farewell to Uncle Yun at Xietiao Tower in Xuanzhou. The message is remarkable for the repetition of the “chou” sound which, in line one, means withdraw 抽 Chōu, followed by the similar sounding word for water, 水 Shuǐ. The context being to withdraw one’s sword to cut the water. Line two repeats the sound with the repetition of worry 愁 Chóu. 愁更愁, chou geng chou, worry upon worry, the idea being that worries beget more worries.
Though I withdraw my sword to cut the water, it still runs I toast to dispel worry, and create more worry…
The water still flows, though we cut it with our swords, And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine…
Li Bai in Xuanzhou with Shūyún
Xuanzhou is modern day Xuancheng, east of Wuhan, west of Shanghai,in southeastern Anhui Province. Shūyún, Li Bai’s uncle Yun, was the Imperial archivist.
The Title: 宣州谢朓楼饯别校书叔云
Xuānzhōu xiètiǎo lóu jiànbié xiào shū shūyún.
Shūyún 叔云, was Li Bai’s uncle Shū 叔. He was an archivist in the Xietao Tower (lóu 楼, storied building) in Xuānzhōu. Xiào shū校书, literally school book, but also an archivist or librarian. The title and full poem are an oblique reference to the rhyming 5th century poet Xiè tiǎo.
Jiànbié 饯别 is a farewell or parting; broadly speaking, to give a farewell dinner.
Chinese and Pinyin
chou dao duan shui shui geng liu ju bei xiao chou chou geng chou
Two golden orioles sing in the emerald green willow, One row of white egrets fly in the blue sky.
From my window to the west, I spy the snowy mountains of Xiling, From my door to the east, come ships from far away.
A Pair of Golden Orioles Sing
Even the simplest poems present a challenge to the translator.
While we read the poet’s words, we do not see with his eyes, a two golden orioles, huangli. No doubt a pair, perched in the emerald-green willow, cuì liǔ. Are they courting, or have they mated, and now they feed their young?
Overhead a row of snowy egrets graceful in the sky. Perhaps, they are a symbol of purity, patience, and long life? And more, …perhaps, in the egrets, báilù, we recognize Du Fu’s fellow poets coming to seek his counsel.
We do not sense the distance to the snowy Xiling mountains that Du Fu views from his window. Nor do we appreciate that in the recent past An Lushan had come from the distant far away, qian qiu, north.
A life of study – hán chuāng
For those interested in chronology, we can date this poem to the period when Du Fu took up residence in Chengdu. For starters, this is December of 759 AD, when, trying to avoid the vicissitudes of war and political intrigue, he built a thatched cottage. In 762 he left because of a rebellion but returned in 764, and left the following year.
Life is not always easy. The poet knows that a life of strenuous studies, hán chuāng 寒窗, is what it takes. This applies to the translator as well.
A beautiful woman, unfurls the pearly curtain
Quietly sitting, how troubled her brow
I see the tears now, glistening on her cheeks
Still I don’t know who she hates.
Love and Hate
Love, it is said, is the strongest emotion. But hate must be a close second.
Li Bai sees a beautiful woman with tear stained cheeks, but not the bitter hate she feels. A beautiful woman unfurls a pearly curtain but not her feelings. It is a great prompt for a story.
Who does she bitterly hate? Will she get revenge?
Notes on Translation
Yuàn Qíng, the title is a bit tricky in English. Grudge, if you are looking for one word, Bitter love is more popular choice, literally, one comes up with blame the passion, which doesn’t quite fit.
Měirén, a beautiful woman. Line 2, é méi moth eyebrow, a euphemism for a beauty, which originates in the shape of the eybrows which resemble those of a moth. Last line, Bùzhī, unknown, xīn hèn shuí, who she hates, or, what she feels in her heart.
Pinyin and Chinese Characters
měirén juàn zhū lián shēn zuò pín é méi dàn jiàn lèi hén shī búzhī xīn hèn shuí
Perhaps he was a student away from home for the very first time, or a diplomat on his first foreign posting, there is a chill in the air, the room is dark and and our poet is lying in bed. Through the window the bright moonlight enters his bedroom and casts a silvery light on the floor at the foot of the bed.
He thinks, this same moon shines on my home far away.
Our poet, Li Bai (701–762) was, along with Du Fu, considered to be a Rock Star of Tang Dynasty poetry. In his mid-twenties he began what are called his wanderings. He left home in Sichuan and floated up the Yangtze through Dongting Lake to Nanjing. Perhaps, this initial homesickness inspired this poem, but we don’t know. Li Bai had many occasions on which to reflect of the emotion of being far from loved ones and far from home. This feeling of separation is one experienced by many students who go away to school, and this probably accounts for its continuing popularity today.
Li Bai lived during the tumultuous An Lushan Rebellion. He found himself on the wrong side of an internal struggle for succession and power, was condemned to death, then exiled, then pardoned, but before being recalled to the imperial court, died in 759.
A poem the Second time around
A poem the second time around can be better than the first. You’re older, presumably wiser. You know yourself a little better.
This is not your first rodeo.
A poem, like a cup of tea or a glass of wine, should be sipped and savored. The process repeated giving the poem new meaning. So I return to have a second look at Li Bai’s Quiet Night Thought.
Not a native Chinese speaker, I mouth the syllables, I hear the rhyme, notice the constant repetition of the glottal “g” sound. I am enamored with the second line, Yí shì dìshang shuāng, I am aware of the subtle meaning of Yí shì, and that sleep is but a thin veil between the conscious and the unconscious, that a thought is both real and unreal, that homesickness is a longing for a place we want to be.
That place is home, gùxiāng. Dītóu sī gùxiāng, bowing, which I prefer to lowering, my head, I recall the my parents, my family, the place I call home. Gùxiāng has a broader meaning of both home and homeland, making this poem applicable to one who is traveling in a distant land.
A winding stream, the smell of pine in the wind, A gray rat flees under ancient tiles. I don’t know whose royal palace is this, Mislaid beneath steep cliffs.
In dark rooms ghostly fires glow green, A sorrowful stream flows over a broken path. A million sounds from the earth are the true flutes and reeds Autumn is sprinkled in colors positively sad.
Palace beauties have turned into yellow dust, And what’s more, scattered are their powders and paints. Where once they awaited a glorious golden chariot, Now, of those things, only the stone horse remains.
Cares come, and to the grass I sink, Singing loudly, while tears fill my hands. On and on, a traveler slowly on his way But who is he who lives forever?
Du Fu’s Yuhua Palace is an example ofhuaigu 懷古, a reflection on things past, a type of nostalgia recognizing the transitory nature of all things. Death comes to us all. Palace beauties turn into dust, and of golden chariots, only the statues of horse remain. The Roman and Latin equivalent is Sic transit gloria mundi, Thus passes the glory of the world.
The generally accepted date for this poem is 757. If correct, then it was written during the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763), after the fall of the capital of Chang’an, when all of China was in chaos. If we attempt to be more specific with the date, it may have been written during that period of time when Du Fu was granted leave by the Imperial court in exile to visit his family. Du Fu would continue to write poems in the Qiang Village where his family waited out the rebellion.
Yuhua Palace, in far western Shaanxi province, built in 647 by Emperor Taizong as a Summer Palace. In 651, it was converted into a temple where the Buddhist master Xuanzang (602-664) lived and died, working on translating Indian Buddhist texts.
Shaanxi province on the edge of the Huangtu Plateau (literally, Yellow Earth plateau), is the location of the terra cotta army that contains vast numbers of statues of soldier and horses. .
Notes on translating Yuhua Palace
The first four lines seem straight forward. Du Fu approaches the ruins of the ancient palace walking along a meandering stream. In the air is the wind blown scent of pine trees, 松 風, sōng fēng, literally pine and wind, wind in the pines, or, as I prefer, the scent of pine in the wind. The palace is empty, save the gray rats that scurry in the ruins.
In the fifth line, Du Fu makes reference to a green ghostly fire, 鬼 火, guǐ huǒ. This may refer to the phosphorescence sometimes seen in caves or more likely to sighting the will o wisp, an atmospheric ghostly light travelers often see at night in marshy areas. Du Fu then refers to a myriad of natural vents in the earth that emit a sound similar to two types of Chinese flutes, 笙 and 竽, shēng and yú.
In line nine, Du Fu remarks that the palace beauties have all turned to yellow dust, 黃土, huángtǔ, literally yellow earth . This is a popular Chinese belief that the Yellow Earth is made up of the Chinese people. The historic northern boundary of China is the Yellow River, 黄河, Huáng Hé.
Again, in line 9, Du Fu uses the Chinese characters 美人, měi rén, which should be translated as a lady or as a consort. Such ladies would be escorted about the area in a golden chariot drawn by horses. Now, the ladies are gone, turned to yellow dust, the wooden chariots gone, and the only thing remaining, are the famous statues of terra cotta horses.
In the last four lines, Du Fu becomes thoughtful. Overcome with sorrow, he sinks to the ground, and begins to sing loudly, we assume using a Buddhist chant, tears welling up in his eyes, his hands clasped together in prayer.
Then, Du Fu acknowledges that he too is a lonely traveler, and that life is transitory.
A constant rumble of war carts And never ending horse whinnies Soldiers with bows at their waists Fathers and mothers, wives and children rushing to see them In the dust and dirt one cannot see Xianyang bridge Pulling clothes, stamping feet, blocking the way and weeping The sound of weeping rising above to heaven Along the wayside a passerby asks a soldier The soldier’s simply replies, we are called up often Some of us, at fifteen, were sent north to guard the river And then, til forty, went west to farm for the army Each time we left, the village head wrapped our heads in cloth Coming back our hair was white, still we manned the borders At the border outpost, the flow of blood fed the ocean waters Emperor Wu’s desire to conquer more had not yet ceased Sir, have you not heard, that in the Han empire there are 200 prefectures east of the mountains And now a thousand villages and ten thousand hamlets are overgrown with briars and thorns And even there are women healthy enough to plow The crops planted in the fields are in disorder Since the dynasty of Qin, how can a soldier endure such bitter warfare Driven on, no different than like dogs or chickens You sir may ask But a soldier dare not state his resentment For example, this winter At Guanxi, soldiers have not yet been relieved While county tax officials seek new taxes But where will these taxes come from? It’s true, I know, to bear a son is bad Bearing a daughter, I can marry her to a neighbor Bearing a son, he will be buried in the midst of a hundred grasses Sir, have you not seen the shores of Lake Qinghai Where white bones lie and no man comes to collect them Where new ghosts are troubled by the cries of the old The sky is gray, it rains, it’s wet, and all about, the sound of constant wailing
The history behind Du Fu’s Ballad of War Carts
This rather long poem by Du Fu tells the story of the common peasant who is conscripted into the Chinese army and sent away for years to serve the emperor. Wisely, Du Fu has chosen to place this story in the Han dynasty during the 54 year reign of Emperor Wu, 武皇 (157 BC – 87 BC). It was a time of expansion to the west, the north, the south, and into the Korean peninsula. Obviously, this increased the prestige and power of Emperor Wu, but only at the expense of the peasant who was conscripted for years on end, and saw his land ruined by taxes and neglect.
The River, line 10, (河, hé) the Yellow River (huáng hé 黄河), considered the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Xianyang and Xianyang bridge in line five refers to the city of Xianyang, the capital of the Qin dynasty that preceded the Han dynasty. In 1974 farmers digging wells east of Xianyang, found a buried vault containing a terra-cotta army of life-size figures, including warriors, horses, and wooden chariots. The mention of 200 prefectures east of the mountains refers to the fact that the majority of Han Chinese lived east of the capital.
In 2012, the 2,000 year old remains of the largest wooden bridge in the world was discovered at ancient Xianyang. This may have been the bridge that Du Fu refers to (China People’s Daily, July 30, 2012).
Han and Qin Dynasty – The Han dynasty was China’s second imperial dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), preceded by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Much like the Tang dynasty, the four centuries of the Han emperors was considered a Golden Age in China.
Guanxi (關西) – the area west of Hangu Pass, separating the upper Yellow River and Wei River valleys. I was the site of many battles, thus the earlier reference to blood that flows into the ocean.
Lake Qinghai (青海) – a shallow alkaline lake on the Tibetan plateau. The province of Qinhai is the source of the Yellow River. During the Tang dynasty an area contested by Tibetan and Chinese forces. Alkaline lakes bleach bones white.
Every translator takes some liberties with translation. I have done so with the title, Ballad of War Darts. Du Fu’s original title, 兵車行, Bīng chē xíng, obviously rhymes. The first two characters, 兵車 are a compound which in modern parlance translates to an armored personnel carrier, but in the era of the Tang dynasty, a war cart, pulled by horses, transporting supplies. To this Du Fu adds the character 行, xíng, which does not mean ballad as many translators choose. Actually, it is a verb meaning go.
For this reason, one could choose the title, As War Carts Go, and remain closer to the Du Fu’s original meaning.
Already, the sticks I tied are withered and falling, The calabash leaves are thin and sparse. Luckily the white flowers have born their fruit, And peacefully the green leaves have faded. Autumn insects speak not a sound, What’s must sparrows think at dusk? For bitter cold is now our prison; So, Life too has such beginnings.
Autumn 759, Tang dynasty
The Tang Dynasty lasted from 618 to 907. This is often referred to as the golden age of Chinese history. This prosperous time was interrupted by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) which caused the capital of Chang’an to fall, the emperor to flee to the south, along with massive human casualties before the succeeding emperor Suzong began the process of reestablishing imperial rule.
The poet Du Fu suffered throughout the rebellion, though he realized that his troubles were little when compared to the peasant. He escaped the capital and made his way to the imperial court in exile. In 757, he was given leave to visit his family in a Qiang village Du Fu had placed his family for safety. There he wrote three poems title Qiang Village 1, 2, and 3.
Late in 757, Du Fu returned to Chang’an along with the imperial court . He was then given a position of some importance, but this lasted only until the summer as Du Fu was one who spoke freely, and sound advice is not always well taken. Thus, Du Fu was relegated to remote Huazhou where he was made Commissioner of Education, a post not to his liking.
In the spring or summer of 759, Du Fu moved on to Qinzhou (Tianshui, Gansu province), west of the capital of Chang’an, where he wrote more than sixty poems including the one above. In a way this has brought Du Fu full circle to the Qiang village where his family had sought safety during the worst of the An Lushan rebellion.
The poem Taking down the Trellis is best understood by a gardener who sees and understands the cycle of life. The trellis refers three or more staked sticks, the technique of raising the vines off the ground so that insects and ground animals will not eat the fruit.
Du Fu picked the calabash 瓠 to grow on the trellis. The calabash is a traditional Chinese vegetable consumed when young and used as utensils when mature. The gourd being smaller than a pumpkin is lighter and the vine can grow in a pot or staked to sticks tied together to save space.
除架, chú jià, the title, literally means removing the frame, or in this case the sticks that hold up the vine, poetically, taking down the trellis.
寒事, Hán shì, this “cold thing” I translate to bitter cold, also may refers to the Han dynasty, an earlier dynasty of four centuries that also succumbed.
牢落, láo luò, seems to have two meanings, “prison” and “fasten”; 落 luò, maning leaving behind, suggesting the idea of leaving our earthly world (prison) behind.
人生 rén shēng means life, one’s time on earth.
The Qiang 羌 people (the Chinese character 羌 is itself a combination of sheep 羊 and a man 人) is an ancient term for pastoral nomads who lived in the west on the border with Tibet. This would have given Du Fu an affinity for the people based on his own itinerant life.