Clearing Rain by Du Fu

In Kansas, half way though June. Summer is not yet here, but the day time temperatures already approach 100 degrees.

Last night a violent storm blew out of the west. The news reporters spoke of straight-line winds approaching 90 miles an hour. Tree limbs fell and cars and trucks were blown off the highway. But, it rained and the farmers are grateful; for a long rain means the knee-high corn will survive the coming summer season.

In another time and place, Chinese poet Du Fu watched a similar storm and wrote a poem the following day.

lightning-2

The rain clears
(One becomes less angry in autumn)

The rain fell and the autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind has blown ten thousand li.
The morning view is good and fine,
A long rain has not hurt the land.
The willow’s leaves are turning emerald green,
On a distant hill a pear tree blazes red.
Upstairs, a flute plays,
And outside, a goose flies in the sky.

Original Chinese

雨晴
(一作秋霁)

天水秋云薄
从西万里风
今朝好晴景
久雨不妨农
塞柳行疏翠
山梨结小红
胡笳楼上发
一雁入高空

Meaning of Du Fu’s Clearing Rain

In the summer of 759, Du Fu spent about six weeks in the city of Tianshui (天水) where he wrote this poem.

Du Fu had survived the worst of the rebellion. Captured by the rebels in 756, he escaped the following year and rejoined the emperor in the south. The emperor forces recaptured the capital Chang’an. Du Fu was accused of treason for remaining behind, but cleared of the charges. Back in the emperor’s good graces he received a post as Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, which was not to his liking. It was then, in the summer of 759, that he moved on to Tianshui where he spent a short six weeks and wrote over sixty poems.

The first two Chinese characters of Du Fu’s poem translate as “sky” and “water” or combined as “rain”. The two characters also name the city Tianshui where this poem was written.

Making sense of Du Fu’s poem:

It is now the autumn of my life.

It rained last night. The skies have cleared leaving behind only a few clouds. The western wind which once overpowered the east wind has blown ten thousand miles away. The long rain has not destroyed the country. The leaves of the willow trees, though sparse, are still green. On a distant hill the leaves of a pear tree blaze red. The wars though distant still consume lives. Somewhere in the house, a single flute plays its mournful tune and above a goose flies away.

To be continued…

Back in Kansas

The morning after the storm, a cup of coffee in hand, I go outside on my back porch and survey the damage. A few weak branches have fallen from the oak tree that towers above and green leaves are scattered about. The robins are busily gathering up worms.

Inside, on the television news reporters talk of nothing but tweets.

French translation

La pluie est tombée et les nuages d’automne sont peu,
Le vent de l’ouest a soufflé dix mille li.
La matin est bonne et bien,
Une longue pluie n’a pas blessé la terre.
Les feuilles du saut tournent vert émeraude
Sur une colline éloignée, une poire flambe rouge.
Une flûte joue en haut,
Et une oie flotte sur le vent.

Jetzt auf deutsch, German translation

Der Regen fiel und die Herbstwolken sind dünn,
Der westliche wind hat zehntausend li geblasen
Die Morgenansicht ist sehr gut,
Ein langer Regen hat das Land nicht verletzt.
Die Blätter der Weide machen Smaragdgrün,
Auf einem fernen Hügel bricht ein Birnbaum rot.
Eine Flöte spielt oben,
Und eine Gans fliegt in den Himmel.

Not to be underestimated

Do not underestimate the little things in life is the simple message of this poem. To one who is weary and wet, a shack in the rain is more valuable than a palace far, far away, and coarse grain and diluted wine a feast.

shack-night

Not to Be Underestimated

Traveling, on foot with a broken-down horse
Hungry, eating food that is coarse
Thirsty, surviving on diluted wine
Famished, drinking soup that is thin
Walking, forever without a good sleep at night
Caught in the rain, catching sight of a broken-down shack

Li Shangyin’s lived (813-858) towards the end of the Tang dynasty, his life spanning the reign of five emperors. Eunuchs controlled the power of the emperors. They did not favor Li Shangyin with important appointments and he seemed to survive without great disappointment. His humble political appointments allowed him to write poems using imagery to convey his message.

Daming Palace

For over two hundred years, the Daming Palace, or Palace of ‘Great Brillance’, in the capital city of Chang’an was the glorious seat of government for the Tang Dynasty. The complex covers almost 2 square miles and has a total length of slightly under 5 miles. It contains 11 royal gates. Its principal bulding is Hanyuan Hall.

During excavations in 1957, archeologists uncovered a stone inscription commemorating the building of Hanyuan Hall in 831, an event with which Li Shangyin would have been certainly familiar.

Li_Shangyin

Li-Shangyin

Spring View, Du Fu

In December of the year 755, the An Lushan Rebellion began.

Thus, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are let loose on the Chinese Nation. Inappropriate allusion, but accurate since conquest, famine, war, and death swept the country.

Quickly, General An Lushan and his army swept down from the north and moving rapidly along the Grand Canal. Within a year later, rebel forces were at the gates of the capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an). The emperor decides to flee. Du Fu attempts to join him, but is caught by the rebels and taken back to Chang’an, where, it is said, this poem was written.

Du Fu’s view of the coming spring is conflicted. The 45-year-old Du Fu had removed his family to safety and a son was born. He certainly wanted to hear that they were safe. He was also fearful of his standing with the court in exile.

The beacon fires Du Fu speaks of were an ancient method of passing military information. In Europe, beacons were used by Romans and throughout the Napoleanic wars. The modern telegram rendered them obsolete.

fire

Spring View

A nation is broken by war, yet mountains and rivers exist
Spring comes to the city walls, where grass and trees still grow
This season it feels like blossoms are splashing like tears
I hate to depart, for the birds are scared in their hearts
Three months now, the beacon fires of war have burned
And one letter from home is worth ten thousand pieces of gold
While I scratch my white hair that has grown thin
Darken my desire not to be able to use a hairpin

Original Chinese

春望

國破山河在
城春草木深
感時花濺淚
恨別鳥驚心
烽火連三月
家書抵萬金
白頭搔更短
渾欲不勝簪

Poem explained

Du Fu had reason to fear the future. He was a married man with children to support. In 755 he received an appointment as Registrar of the Right Commandant’s Office of the Crown Prince’s Palace, a heady title but a minor post, but a start. The rebellion, the abdication of the emperor and his replacement, along with Du Fu’s capture was not a good omen. Though Du Fu was able to escape from the rebels, he was at first treated as a traitor. Though vindicated, he did not enjoy the new emperor’s full favor.

The hairpins in the last line of the poem are a metaphor for the union of two souls. Both men and women used hairpins and it was the custom in a Chinese marriage for husband and wife to exchange a hairpin.

Chang’an was taken by the rebel forces of An Lushan in 756 and much of it was destroyed. Tang forces retook it in 757. This dates Du Fu’s poem to the spring of 757, shortly before he left the city to rejoin the emperor.

French translation

Vue du printemps

Un pays brisée par la guerre, mais des montagnes et rivières existent
Le printemps arrive aux murs de la ville, et l’herbe et les arbres poussent encore
Cette saison, il semble que des fleurs éclaboussent comme des larmes
Je déteste partir, car les oiseaux ont peur dans leurs coeurs
Trois mois, les feux de guerre de la balise ont brûlé
Une lettre chez-soi vaut dix mille pièces d’or
Alors que je gratte mes cheveux blancs qui ont grossi
Obscurcir mon désir de ne pas pouvoir utiliser une épingle à cheveux

German translation

Frühlings-Ansicht
Eine Nation gebrochen, noch Berge und Flüsse existieren
Der Frühling zu den Stadtmauern kommt, wo Gras und Bäume noch wachsen
In dieser Saison es wie Blüten fühlt sich tummeln wie Tränen
Zu verlassen Ich hasse, denn die Vögel in ihren Herzen Angst haben
Drei Monate jetzt, das Feuer des Krieges verbrannt
Und ein Brief von zu Hause wert zehntausend Goldstücke
Während ich mein weißes Haar kratzen, die dünn ist gewachsen
Verdunkeln mein Wunsch, nicht in der Lage sein eine haarnadel verwenden

Du Fu

Du Fu

Farewell – Wang Wei

Wang Wei, 王維

Wang_Wei_left

Farewell

In the hills we said farewell, as
The setting sun fell on my cottage door
Next spring, shall the grass be green again
Should the emperor return or not return?

French Translation

Au Revoir

Dans les collines que nous avons dit au revoir et
Comme le coucher de soleil fermé ma porte chalet
Au printemps prochain, est-ce l’herbe verte encore
Doit l’empereur retour ou non retour?

German Translation

Aufwiedersehen
In den Bergen haben wir gesagt, Aufwiedersehen, und
Der Sonnenuntergang geschlossen auf meiner Haustür
Im nächsten Frühjahr wird das Gras wieder grün, und
Du, mein Herr, zurückkehrt oder nicht zurück?

Original Chinese by Wang Wei, 王維

送別

山中相送罷
日暮掩柴扉
春草明年綠
王孫歸不歸

Spanish Translation

En las colinas nos despedimos, como
El sol poniente cayó sobre la puerta de mi casa
La próxima primavera, será la hierba verde de nuevo
¿Debería el emperador regresar o no regresar?

Notes.

Perhaps I rushed this translation as I was in a hurry, and I did not give it the time it deserved.

I have a tendency to believe that goodbyes are long and farewells, short.

The title is straight forward – farewell. In French and German can one question the translation. “Adieu” works as well in French, but “a bientot” is hopeful. In German, I have used the familiar “aufwiedersehen”, but could have used the colloquial “tschüss” as well, while “bis bald” would be similar to the French “a bientot”.

To whom is the poem written?

The poem is clearly a sad farewell, about whether the two shall meet again. But to whom is it written.

The best translation for 王孫 is noble friend, but as I will explain later, this is not entirely clear. Perhaps understanding the circumstances of the parting sheds some light on the mystery.

On the one hand, it can be imagined that the farewell came at the end of a long memorable day. Two friends shared much and only took their parting at the setting of the sun.

The other possibility is that the farewell was rushed. War intervened, to be exact, the An Lushan Rebellion, and rebel forces threatened the imperial seat at Chang’an. While the emperor and his retinue fled south to Sichuan, Wang Wei, sick with dysentery, stayed behind, and he was captured by the rebels. When Wang Wei recovered, the rebels took him to their capital at Louyang, where he was forced to collaborate.

The emperor’s forces would eventually retake the capital and defeat the rebels, and Wang Wei was for a time treated as a traitor.

Last line

王孫歸不歸.

The last line of Wang Wei’s poem is packed with meaning.

The first character is Wang’s surname, and the character for lord or emperor. The second character , is literally sun. Combined the two characters may refer to: 1. the poet Wang as a descendant of his own honorable ancestors, 2. the emperor as “sun king”, or, 3. a noble person, and one on who Wang Wei would have sought patronage.

There are several ways of saying emperor in Chinese, including 天王. Wang’s 王孫 is not one of those ways, so we are left with the question as to whom Wang is saying farewell. The Chinese character 孫, the sun, and its obvious connection to spring and the green grass, returning or not returning.

In English, it is not uncommon to say, “You are the sunshine of my life.”

The last three characters of the last line are 歸不歸, literally “return or not return”, and I have kept the translation as it is.

Wang Wei’s name – 王維

Wang Wei’s Chinese name 王維 is itself an interesting play on words.

The first character 王 appears in the poem’s last line. It has several translations including “sun” or “lord”. The second character is 維, which may translate as “maintain” or “preserve”.

Does Wang Wei ask if he may maintain or preserve his family honor, or keep his place in the sun?

winding-river

Spring Night Rain

Poem for a rainy day

It rained all last night here in Oz, it is raining now and will rain all day, and tomorrow. This is unusual. Here the rain falls occasionally and sometimes not at all, but when it falls it is always welcome.

Du Fu’s poem, 春夜喜雨, is variously translated as Spring Night Rain, or Welcome Rain on a Spring Night, or Delight taken in a Spring Night Rain. The simple thought is  – at night the spring rain is delightful, the sound soothing, the smell redolent of earth and life. The poem’s words remind me of Lerner and Lowe’s description of King Arthur’s Camelot where “the rains may never fall till after sundown,” but the circumstances in Du Fu’s poem not so lovely, as I will explain later.

 

rain-boat-crop

Zha Shibiao, Man on a boat in rain, detail (1615–1698)

English translation

Spring Night Rain

A good rain knows, it is spring
When wind-borne, it steals silently in the night
And wets all things, yet
Wild is the way the dark black clouds
Leave the river boat fires lit
And, at dawn reveal
Chengdu blossoming splendidly

du-fu

Du Fu

Note. 花重 Chegndu, literally the official city and capital of Sichuan province, where the emperor fled to during the An Lushan Rebellion (In China, An-Shi Rebellion).

Du Fu was captured by rebel forces, and after a year behind rebel lines, managed to make his escape and join the emperor in Chengdu. For the remainder of the rebellion, Du Fu lived there and wrote poetry in a thatched cottage next to the Flower Rinsing Creek.

Francais

Au printemps, il pleut plus à la nuit

Une bonne pluie connaît la saison
Quand le printemps arrive
À vent, il vole silencieusement dans la nuit
Et mouille tout, encore
Furieux la façon que les nuages noirs et sombres
Laissez les feux de bateaux de la rivière brûler
Et à l’aube révèle
La ville s’épanouir splendidement

German

Ein guter regen kennt die Saison
Wenn der Frühling stattfindet
Wenn der Nachtwind kommt, stiehlt er leise
Und benutze alle Dinge, noch
Wild ist die Art und Weise,
Wie die dunklen schwarzen Wolken
Lassen die Flussboot Feuer verbrennen
Und in der Morgendämmerung offenbart
Chengdu zu blühen herrlich und wunderbar

Chinese

好雨知时节
当春乃发生
随风潜入夜
润物细无声
野径云俱黑
江船火独明
晓看红湿处
花重锦官城

rain-boat

Zha Shibiao, Man on a boat in rain (1615–1698)

A Message to Meng Haoran – Li Bai

li-bai

Li Bai

Message to Meng Haoran by Li Bai (李白)

Master Meng, my heart hails you
Your fame rises to the heavens
You, with youth’s impudence, renounced the emperor’s kind hand
Choosing piney woods and clouds; and now, white-haired
Moon drunk, flower-bewitched, a sage of dreams
But deaf to the the Emperor’s ear
How I long to be with you, high in the mountains
To breathe in your sweetness, even here

French Translation – Message à maitre Meng

Maître Meng, salue de mon cœur
Dans les cieux votre renommée s’élève
Vous, qui, dans l’impudence de la jeunesse, ont renoncé au service de l’empereur
Choix des pins et des nuages; Et maintenant, les cheveux blancs
Lune ivre, fleur enchanté, une sage de rêves
Mais sourd à l’oreille de l’empereur
Comment j’aimerais être élevé dans les montagnes, avec vous voici
Pour respirer votre douceur, même ici

German Tanslation – Nachricht an Meister Meng

Meister Meng, Herzliche grüße!
Dein Ruhm erhebt sich im Himmel
Sie, der in der Frechheit der Jugend, auf den Dienst des Kaisers verzichtet hat
Leben in Wäldern und Wolken; Und jetzt, weißhaarig
Mond betrunken, blumen verhext, ein Salbei der Träume
Aber taub zum Ohr des Kaisers
Wenn ich nur in den Bergen mit dir war
Um deine Süße zu atmen, auch hier

Original Chinese

赠孟浩然

吾爱孟夫子 风流天下闻。

红颜弃轩冕 白首卧松云

醉月频中圣 迷花不事君

高山安可仰 徒此挹清芬

SOS

Somewhere in the back of my mind comes a refrain from ABBA’s song, SOS:

“Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find. I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind. Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood. It used to be so nice, it used to be so good. So when you’re near me, darling can’t you hear me.”

“S. O. S.”

During the An Lushan rebellion, when war and famine devastated northern China, rebel forces captured the capital, and the Emperor fled south. Li Bai was captured but after a year he escaped. Forgiven by the emperor for remaining too long in the north, he never fully recovered his status; and his poems on a sadder tone.

Meng Haoran died during the rebellion. Older than Li Bai by a dozen year, he did not curry favor with the emperor, preferring his native province of Hubei to a posting in a distant province. His eccentricity was well known, and it is said that he threw away his poems after they were written. An admirer, Wang Shiyuan would gather them up. The story is also told that one evening he fell from a boat, intoxicated with wine, watching the moon’s reflection.

Why send Meng a message?

China had an ancient postal system that dated to the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC). Oistal stations were set up and couriers carried mail by horse and boat. Li Bai’s message to Meng was likely poetical.

Tang poets wrote messages to other poets, to the Emperor, to loved ones back home and to wives and lovers. If one could not be present in person, one could reach out and and touch a kindred spirit with the mind.

“Can’t you hear me?”

meng-same

Meng Haoran

It is a Cowboy T’ang

Just for fun, imagine a cowboy sending a message to his long lost love. It might go something like this: “Send a message to my heart on the wings of the wind. Let me hear your sweet voice sayin’, ‘You love me again, even though we’re apart, I hold to your memory. Send a message to my heart to keep you here with me.’ ”

Send A Message To My Heart Dwight Yoakam with Patty Loveless

cowboy-hat

Justin Cowboy Hat

Spring Dawn

As Poet Meng Haoran observes in four lines of five characters each, some years Spring is late to arrive.

The earth is cold and the blossoms on the branches fail to bloom. Crows darken the sky; their stink fills the air. At night, nothing is heard but the sound of wind and rain; in the morning flowers rot on the ground.

Spring Dawn

Spring sleeps, I do not think it’s dawn
The air stinks and crows cry
Last night there was nothing but
The sound of wind and rain and
Where the flower blossoms fell, what’s left?

Francais

L’aube du printemps

Au printemps, je dors, je sais que le jour ne commence.
Des corbeaux puants pleurer partout et
Toute la nuit, j’ai entendu le son du vent et pluie, quand
Le prochaine matin, qui sait combien de fleurs sont tombées.

Original Chinese

春晓

春眠不觉晓
处处闻啼鸟
夜来风雨声
花落知多少

raindrops-on-branch

The Dawn of Spring, Meng Haoran

Meng did it in 20 characters. Not counting articles, prepositions, and conjunctions, I am close.

Sunrise and Spring sleeps .
The morning stinks as crows cry
In the night, there is nothing
But wind and rain while
Blossoms fall from the trees

Meng Haoran was not a successful civil servant. He remained close to home, living off the wealth of his land owning parents, and contenting himself with drink, friendship, and poetry, most of which dealt with the natural world.

“Does Spring sleep still?” Meng Haoran asks and concludes perhaps.

Now, gentle reader, may I momentarily divert?  Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring that, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” The cycles of seasons are refreshing.

Or, as Meng meant.

All night long, it rained, accompanied by a drum-like sound and pungent smell of  flowering rattan 夜来 . One could not breathe nor sleep. If this is not punishment enough, flocks crows (啼) gathered and added their sound and stink to nature’s mournful symphony.

When morning come, will the blossoms survive?

English Translation

Most English translation translations present spring in a kinder light.

“Spring sleeps, at dawn I do not wake
All around I hear birds cry
Night falls to the sound of wind and rain
While flowers fall and few remain”

The title is Spring Dawn, 春晓. An old proverb goes, the wise man sees one word and hears two. Does Meng speak of the dawn of spring or waking one spring morn?

The crows both stink and cry,  闻 啼 鸟, but the sense of smell 闻 is gone and we are left with bird is 鸟 that cry 啼, aka the foul smelly crow.

I recall an early morning in Bruges, Belgium. I would get up early to go for a run, delighted that it was raining. Disturbed by the weather, the crows would gather in city parks. The sound and stench was something out of a horror film. Combine the sound and fury with the thick white globs the defecating birds left and one has the beginnings of a movie, The Blob of Bruges.

Meng begins the third line begins with 夜来, night falls. It is also the Chinese word for Rattan, a vine we use in furniture making, but which has a night blooming flower that stinks. One could say, look beyond the words to find the meaning; this is the essence of good Tang poetry.

blossom-bird

Dispelling Sorrow – Du Mu

waterfall-one

Dispelling sorrow

In English, the title,  遣怀, of Du Mu’s poem is often given as Dispelling Sorrow. There are other choices equally as good: Drowning my sorrows or Scattering my sorrows, for example. One could also substitute for the word sorrows: woe, unhappiness, pain, regret, and so on. A longer translation is ‘easing the ache in my heart”.

Whatever title one gives it, the thought is a remembrance of better times.

Dispelling Sorrows

Down on my luck, wandering and drunk
Oh, those slim waisted girls of Chu in the palm of my hand
Ten years gone by, and still I dream of Yangzhou,
Why, even in the blue houses, you said I was fickle.
Sadly, the poem’s meter and rhyme are both lost in translation.

Pinyin (phonetic Chinese)

Luòpòjiānghú zài jiǔ xíng,
Chǔyāo xiānxì zhǎng zhōng qīng.
Shíniān yī jué Yángzhōu mèng,
Yíngdé qīnglóu báo xìng míng.

Chinese characters

杜牧

落魄江湖载酒行
楚腰纤细掌中轻。
十年一觉扬州梦,
赢得青楼薄幸名

French translation, Dissiper la tristesse

Au bord de la rivière, le vin à la main
Rappelant ces filles minces, Si petit qu’ils pouvaient danser dans ma paume.
Dix ans passés, réveillés, À partir d’un rêve Yangzhou,
Où parmi les maisons bleues, J’ai gagné un nom pour la changeabilité

Du Mu, cowboy poet of the Tang dynasty

du_mu-sq-flip

Du Mu and a glass of wine

Du Mu is a late Tang poet whose death occurred about 50 years before the official end of the Tang dynasty.

He joined the imperial civil service at a young age and was assigned to the city of Yangzhou on the Yangtze River. It was “the most prosperous city in the whole world,”  famous for rich merchant families, poets, courtesans, and scholars.  Du Mu’s stay was relatively brief, followed by a succession of posts to minor prefectures, none with much success.

Ten years (十 年) go by. Like Rip Van Winkle, Du Mu wakens as if from a dream.

If we take the poem literally, Du Mu is now 35 years old and down on his luck. He consoles himself with a glass of wine (,  also spirits generally) and reflects on those heavenly days in the blue houses (青楼) of Yangzhou with the slim waisted girls of Chu (楚, the district of Chu, also can mean “pain”).

Why even then, Du Mu recalls he had gained a reputation among the courtesans for fickleness (薄 幸) .

Wine as a motif

Wine is Du Mu’s relief and so, he is often picture with a glass of wine in his hand. Du Mu wrote several poems about drinking. One poem was entitled Drinking Alone, and another  Drunken Sleep.

He died in 852 at the age of 49 in Chang’an, 50 years before the official fall of the Tang dynasty.

Dispelling Sorrow 杜牧

The title of the poem, 杜牧, is often translate as Dispelling Sorrow. Today one might say, drowning my sorrows in drink. Alternate translations: relieving my worries, awakening, and others that don’t make sense. How about washing away my worries with wine?

Du Mu, wine and women

One can imagine Du Mu, mounted on his pony, with his worldly possession packed in his saddle bags, traveling from town to town, trying to fit in, but never quite finding a place to settle down. In his sorrow he takes to spirits and song. Sounds to me like the makings of a country western song.

How about Tennessee Whiskey by Chris Stapleton? “I used to spend my nights out in a barroom. Liquor was the only love I’ve known, But you rescued me from reachin’ for the bottom, And brought me back from being too far gone.”

So what’s the difference between Chris Stapleton’s Whiskey and You and Du Mu?

“There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring. And it’s empty so right now I don’t feel a thing. I’ll be hurting when I wake up on the floor. But I’ll be over it by noon.”

Poetry is the universal language and it speaks to us across time and across cultures.

In the palm of my hand as motif

English has a similar saying – “in the palm of my hand”. The words imply an ability to control another person.

Second line, the Chinese characters 楚腰 (Chǔyāo), Du Mu’s reference is to the Han beauty, Zhao Feiyan, Empress of the Western Empire (16–7 BC), who it is said was so light she could dance in the palm of the emperor’s hand.

“Why do you drink?” asked the girl.
“To forget,” replied the poet.
“Forget what?” inquired the girl, who was now sorry for him.
“Forget that I am a poet,” he confessed, hanging his head.

“Not all who drink are poets,” said the girl.
“Don’t think I don’t know it,” said the poet.

The courtesan replies

Courtesans were not only beautiful but also accomplished in the arts. Yu Xuanji, for example, gives us the woman’s view:

at night, against my pillow,
I weep secret tears
by day, among the flowers,
I hide a broken heart
why, if we can make poets friends
then, should we not take lovers?

River Snow, Liu Zhongyuan

fisherman-2

River Snow, Liu Zhongyuan

River Snow 江雪 (Jiāng Xuě)

A poem by Liu Zhongyuan (Liǔ Zōngyuán 柳宗元).

A frozen landscape among a thousand mountains, so cold all the birds have left and along ten thousand trails  not a single footprint can be found. And yet, in this wintry scene, alone on the river a fisherman, clad in traditional straw cape and hat, is fishing.

Twenty Chinese characters convey the coldness and loneliness of life.

Is the poet the Confucianistic third party observer, or is he the fisherman himself in a Buddhist trance? A third point of view is Taoist, Liu’s attempt to live in harmony with the Way, no matter how harsh circumstances may be.

Exiled to faraway Guangxi, Liu succumbs to life’s vicissitudes at 46.

River Snow

In a thousand mountains (千山) the birds have flown and gone
On ten thousand trails there is no human trace
But one old man on a boat in straw cape and bamboo hat
Fishes alone in the cold river and snow.

Fleuve Neige

Dans mille montagnes  les oiseaux ont volé
Sur dix mille sentiers, il n’y a pas trace humaine
Mais un vieillard seul dans un bateau en paille cape et bambou chapeau
Pêche dans la rivière et neige.

Fluss Schnee

In tausend Berge haben die Vögel geflogen
Auf zehntausend Pfade gibt es keine menschliche Spur
Aber ein alter Mann auf einem Boot im Stroh Umhang und Bambushut
Im kalten Fluss und Schnee allein angeln.

江雪

Jiāng Xuě

千山鳥飛絕
萬徑人蹤滅
孤舟簑笠翁
獨釣寒江雪
Qiān shān niǎo fēi jué
Wàn jìng rén zōng miè
Gū zhōu suō lì wēng
Dú diào hán jiāng xuě

 Notes.

For the sake of convenience, I repeat the traditional title. River Snow. The title seems ambiguous unless one interprets the two characters

江雪

as, on the river in snow. This makes sense in that the poet/philosopher is on the river, his fortunes faded and now, sad and lonely, he finds himself ill-equipped to stay warm.

Alternate title could be – On the River in the Snow, a wordier, but more accurate description of the scene. Or, the slightly less wordy, River in Snow. Some have chosen to translate the title as River Winter, but this makes less sense to me, giving the impression of time rather than emotion.

Line 1. 千山, literally one thousand mountains. The idea of a journey of one thousand miles beginning with a single step is often associated with Confucius. 千里之行,始於足下, literally, a trip of a (千里) a thousand li (里, li, a Chinese mile, about 500 meters) begins with the next step. Laozi, founder of Taoism is the actual author of the line.

Line 2. 萬徑, ten thousand paths or ways, Liu’s nod to Taoism.

Line 3. 孤舟, a solitary boat, or, alone in his boat, a Buddhist point of view. The fisherman/poet is wearing a traditional cape and bamboo hat.

Line 4. The cold lonely fisherman.  Liu himself was banished from the royal court. Here, Liu gives us a double entendre, 寒江 literally the cold river, and a place name for a tributary of the Yangtze, in Shaanxi, where Liu is from.

Twenty Chinese characters convey the coldness and loneliness of life.

 

A Song at the Pass

English, French and Chinese translation of Wang Changling’s poem

On the frontier, a cavalryman pauses at a river crossing to allow his horse to drink. In the dark, dark distance lies the Great Wall at Lintao. It is autumn and already cold. The wind cuts like a sword. The setting sun is not yet gone. The cavalryman’s thoughts return to battles long ago.

王 昌 齡 Wang Changling

A Song at the Pass (Under a Border-fortress)

horse

A song at the pass

Drink deep, my horse, it is autumn as we cross the river

The river is cold, and the wind cuts like a sword
Across the sandy plain, the sun flickers
Far, far faraway lies Lintao
Where at the Great Wall, we once battled day long
With salty high spirits, and hoarse voices
The past and the present are the same Yellow Earth
Bleached bones scattered in bitter sagebrush

Une chanson au passage

Buvez bien, mon cheval, c’est l’automne et nous traversons la rivière,
La rivière c’est froid, le vent coupe comme un couteau
Le sable est de niveau, le soleil était encore dans le ciel
Loin, loin, Lintao est lointain
Où nous nous sommes battus journée sous la Grande Muraille
Esprits élevé bien qu’il parlait sourdement
Ce qui était alors il est poussière jaune
Os blanchis perturbés dans l’armoise amère

塞下曲

飲馬渡秋水
水寒風似刀
平沙日未沒
黯黯見臨洮
昔日長城戰
咸言意氣高
黃塵足今古
白骨亂蓬蒿


Discussion of Wang Changling’s poem

Tang cavalry defeated the Gok Turks in 639, helping the empire to secure peace along the Silk Road, but later battled Tibetan and Mongol armies for control. Perhaps it is this first battle that is recalled and the later battles to be fought that await.

The usual title is Under a Border Fortress, but this seems inaccurate. The Chinese characters  塞 translates stopped or plugged,下  translate as beneath, and the last character 曲 as either song or wrong. The play on characters, Wang’s amusing political commentary.

The soldier and his horse are at a river crossing that serves as the frontier border. He stops to allow his horse to drink. The sun has not yet set, 日未, (third line) and so we know the day’s journey is not over. The cold autumn wind cuts like a sword 刀.

The fourth line begins with the repetition of the Chinese characters 黯黯, literally dark, dark.

Such a lovely choice of characters, like Robert Frost’s “dark and deep” these words work at several levels. The day is not yet dark. What is dark is hidden. Dark are our memories of long ago. Dark and light are the yin and yang of Chinese poetry.

These characters are usually translated as “far, far” implying distance, but that fails greatly.

The adjective is paired with the noun 見, which is the Chinese character for opinion or view. Used as a verb it means to see.

The only specific place-name is Lintao, a far western province at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau along the Silk Route. Tibetan conflicts occurred early in the Tang dynasty and the conflicts favored the Chinese. However, in 763 AD, the Tibetans captured the Chinese capital city of Chang’an during the midst of the Anshi Rebellion.

The fifth line speaks of the battles beneath the Great Wall, 長城 (Changcheng), literally long walls. The Tang Dynasty did not resort to extending the walls already built, but to warfare as a means of protecting the empire. There were battles far to the west at Lintao with the Tibetan empire and with the Mongols to the north in the Yin Mountains. The poet gives the specific place name of Lintao, but does not name his present location.

Sixth line. Then the soldier’s salty spirits were high.

Seventh line. 黃塵, Yellow Dust, a metaphor for earth.The drying bleached bones of dead soldiers make up the Yellow Earth. The sagebrush that grow there is bitter and so is the memory. The character 蒿 is wormwood. It may also be a reference to Chrysanthemum tea, which is an herbal remedy for a sore throat. Some translators substitute the less hardy herb “basil,” a thickener for soup, which is another good metaphor.

An allusion to the Yellow River, the mother river of China, which produced huge amounts of “yellow” loess sediment.

Or, the Yellow Dust, also called Asian Dust, a sulfuric mixture that rises from the Mongolian and Tibetan plains and falls on China.

wang-changling

Wang Chengling

The poet Wang Chengling leaves us with many unanswered questions. Who is the warrior poet who composes these words at the river. Where is he headed? Is he one of many or alone?

Is Tang poetry relevant today?

Listen to the lyrics of two very different pop culture songs, A Horse with No Name by America, or Leon Russell’s This Song is for You, and draw your own conclusions.

A man and a horse, crossing the desert or a river, memories, and a song for you, all universal motifs. We are not so distant in time and culture that the far, far hills of Lintao can’t be summoned quickly to mind.