farmhouse on the Wei river

Farmhouse on the Wei

wang-wei

While fading light falls on the land
As the cattle and sheep trail down the country lane
An old man stands at the door of his thatched cottage
Leaning on a staff with thoughts of his son, the herd-boy, thinking
Of fluttering pheasants amongst sheaves of wheat
Of silk worms asleep, among half-eaten mulberry leaves
Of farmers returning with hoes hoisted on shoulders
Exchanging words of hello
Oh, how I long for the simple life
And sigh, as I sing the old song,
Oh, to be young again!

Wang Wei spent much of his adult life in seclusion. For a period of time he retreated retreat to the mountains, just south of the Tang capital, Chang-an. The Wei River that he writes about here was was one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization, a tributary of the Yellow River, an obvious play on Chinese characters for the poet.

Wang Wei was well known for his shanshui, or mountains and rivers, poetry and his poems were often written to be presented with his art work.

The title, 渭 川 田 家, literally, Wei River farm house.

The penultimate line, 悵 然 吟 式 微, a play on word for Wang Wei’s capture in the capital Chang’an by the An Shi rebels. The first two characters, literally respectfully correct, by a homophone for Chang’an, the capital city that the rebels captured.

The last two charcters, 式微, shì wēi, the poetry of Wei or, to decline, again a play on word, which describes his trouble with the imperial court.

The conclusion, 又作至, literally, to do it again.

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Song of an Autumn Midnight

At the far western reach of the Tang Dynasty was the 玉 關, Jade Gate, though which the western caravans came wool, spices, gold, and silver in exchange for Chinese silks.

The Tang Dynasty was founded in 618 AD and ended in 907. It followed the Han Dynasty which existed from 206 BC until 220 AD. The Han succeeded in pacifying the western barbarian tribes and creating the gate or pass on the Silk Road connecting Central Asia and China. It was called the 玉 關, Jade Gate. The Tang emperor Taizong, and his military force defeated the Eastern Turks in 630, established peace with the Western Turks and vanquished Gaochang (Turpan), Yanqi (Qarashar) and Qiuci (now Kuche), all of whom were collectively called 胡 虜, barbarians or Hu Lu. In 646, the Mongolian Plateau came under the control of the Tang Dynasty the defeat of the Western Turks.

Chang’ An was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and the largest City on Earth, with a population exceeding one million. During the extended military campaigns the wives remained at home doing the wash, taking care of the children, and hoping for the day when their husbands would return.

moon-crescent

Midnight and an Autumn Song (秋歌)

Over Chang’an, shines a slice of moon and
Ten thousand wives can be heard washing clothes
An autumn wind blows without end
Carrying my heart to the Jade Gate
When will peace come to the Hu Lu
And my husband return from his long journey

Original Chinese text

秋歌

長 安 一 片 月
萬 戶 擣 衣 聲
秋 風 吹 不 盡
總 是 玉 關 情
何 日 平 胡 虜
良 人 罷 遠 征

Note:
Rhyme pattern:
Yuè, sheng, jìn, qíng, lǔ, zhēng
a, b, b, b, a, b

Li Bai (701–762) was a romantic poet influenced greatly by the northern An Shi Rebellion which began in 755 and lasted almost a decade. The catastrophic events included the capture of Chang’an by the rebels. Midnight Autumn Song poem should be read along with Li Bai’s Moon over the Mountain Pass.

li-bai-shadow

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762. He was one of the two leading figures of Chinese poetry.

Li Bai’s life was for the most part itinerant. In 742, he came to Chang’an, marveled at its splendor, hoping to be given an official position. No official post resulted, but he did meet other poets and shared a glass of wine or two, for which he was well-known. In the autumn of 744, he took to wanderings again.

Popular legend says that he drowned when, drunk in a boat, he leaned over and tried to seize the moon’s reflection in the water.

Moonlit night

When moonbeams light more than half my house
And the Big Dipper and Southern Star criss-cross
On such a night I sense and smell a warm spring
In a cricket’s sound passing by my green window screen

Geng shen yue se ban ren jia
Bei dou lan gan nan dou xia
Jin ye pian zhi chun qi nuan
Chong sheng xin tou lu chuang sha

月 夜
更 深 月 色 半 人 家
北 斗 闌 干 南 斗 斜
今 夜 偏 知 春 氣 暖
蟲 聲 新 透 綠 窗 沙

Liu Fangping 劉 方 平

Liu (c.742 in Luoyang – c.779) began an official career quite early, but he resigned from office in his thirties to live a hermit’s life. The poem Moonlit night expresses his oneness with nature. 蟲 聲, literally bug sound, but cricket works since the criss-crossing stars imitate the sound of the cricket’s song.

Alternate translation:

Moonlit Night

As moon colors half my house
And the North Star rises and the South Star sets
I can feel in the warm air the first moment of spring
In an insect singing at my green-silk screen

moonlight

Border Songs, 1 of 4, revisited

A poet plays over in his mind the words and images of his poem. So too, does the translator. Let us then revisit Lu Lun’s Border Songs beginning with number one of four.

Hawk feathers flutter from his golden arrow
His woven silk flag waves like the tail like a swallow
One man rises to gives the order
Thousands follow as one, shouting, HU!

Lu Lun’s Border songs recount the exploits of General Li Guang (died 119 BC) .

From Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shǐjì 94 BC), General Li Guang was a man of great build, with long arms and good archery skills, who on one occasion, legend says, was able to shoot an arrow deeply into a stone which resembled the shape of a crouching tiger. To China’s northern enemy, a tribe called the Xiongnu (generally associated with the Mongols),  he was known as a determined opponent who would willingly face armies of superior numbers. He was haunted by bad luck in battle and committed suicide after a loss at the Battle of Mobei (Gobi Desert).

 

The English Translation

In writing this series of poems, Lu Lun was no doubt mindful of the Tang dynasty’s troubles during the An Lushan Rebellion. General An Lushan was from the northern tribes and fought for the Chinese emperor before rebelling. For an extended period of time, he and his armies wrecked havoc on the Tang dynasty. These troubles were the subject of many Tang poets. Lu Lun’s ancestral home was Fanyang, modern day Beijing, on the northern extreme of the Chinese Empire, where An Lushan began his rebellion.

First line, the characters for golden arrow are 金 僕 姑, literally golden servant girl. The pinyin translation of last two characters (servant girl) rhyme (pú and gū). In Chinese military history, armies relied heavily on archery and the general in command would carry a golden arrow with feathers to signify his authority.

Second line, the war flag of embroidered silk is woven, a metaphor for the army itself which is woven to together with individual soldiers. Like the swallows of the air they will then move to and fro in unison.

Third line, even in the flight of the swallow, one bird makes a movement and others follow. The general raises his arrow and gives the order to advance.

Fourth line, thousands raise their voice and shout. The Chinese character for shout is 呼 and also the sound of the wind. If you have ever stood in a field and heard the sound of a flock of swallow changing direction, you will have the sense of the imagery.

The rhyme scheme is aaba, gū, hú, lìng hū.

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

Original Chinese Characters

鷲翎金僕姑
燕尾繡蝥弧
獨立揚新令
千營共一呼

The Title

The title is almost always translated as Border Songs. For border, Lu Lun chooses the Chinese characters  塞 and 下, sāi and xià, literally beneath the pass. He picked these characters, no doubt, because they work together poetically.

French Translation

Des plumes faucon palpitent de sa flèche en d’or
Son drapeau soie ondule comme la queue hirondelle
Un homme se lève pour donner l’ordre
Des milliers suivent comme un, en criant, HU!

Border Songs, 4 of 4, Lu Lun

Let our victorious feast in camp begin
Let the Quiang, our friends, proclaim, the war is won
Let us drink to harmony, and in golden armor dance until the night is done
Let us thunder on the mountains and rivers with our drums

Literally, the the poem’s 20 characters go something like this: In our camp we feast, the Qiang Rong (a friendly tribe on China’s western border) praise the toil of our triumphant soldiers. Full of wine, we dance in golden armor, while drums thunder over the rivers (valleys) and mountains.

The rhyme scheme is aaba. There is also internal rhyme that is missing in this translation. For example, the poem ends with the characters 山 川 (Shān chuān), mountains and rivers. Sichuan (四川) Province in China’s southwest province includes the eastern plateau of Tibet.

野 幕 蔽 瓊 筵

羌 戎 賀 勞 旋

醉 和 金 甲 舞

雷 鼓 動 山 川

Pinyin (phonetic)

Yě mù bì qióng yán

Qiāng róng hè láo xuán

Zuì hé jīn jiǎ wǔ

Léi gǔ dòng shān chuān

Notes.

Shuo Wen Jie zi (Shuowen Jiezi), the 2nd century Chinese dictionary says: “Qiang are shepherds of the western tribes, hence, the character 羌 is developed from 羊 (sheep) and 人 (human) meaning they are shepherds.” The Rong were a branch of the Quiang. Early in the Tang dynasty, the Tubo, a poweful Tibetan tribe, made war against the Tang. The “enlightened” Tang Emperor Taizong defeated the Tibetans in 638. The Qiang had to handle pressure from both sides. Historical texts referred to the Qiang then as “two-faced Qiang”. Other texts suggest the Quiang merged with the Chinese people. Today, they are a minority people, recognized as such by Mao Zedong.

The title. The first three characters of the title, 塞 下 曲, literally translate as “at the strategic pass, song” from which comes the more popular rendition “border song.” Then, the character for the number four. This is followed by the remaining three characters, 首 之 四, thus we have “four of four.” Phonetically, the last four characters are full of sibilance, like a snake hissing – sì shǒu zhī sì.

Border Songs, 3 of 4, Lu Lun

Lu Lun Border Songs

Lu Lun Border Songs, 3 of 4

Three of four, border songs of the leader, by Lu Lun.

The title – 塞 下 曲 四 首 之 三

The first two Chinese characters, 塞 下, rhyme, sài and xià, denoting the critical juncture where civilization ends and one passes into foreign lands.

The poem falls in the genre of border songs or frontier songs. These poems take place at strategic passes, on the western border with Tibet or on the northern borders with Turkic tribes. The scene might be a mountain pass or underneath the wall built to keep out the invaders.

The third character is the Chinese equivalent of song, qū.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth characters are beautifully fricative assonants, sì, shǒu, zhī.

The poem –
月 黑 雁 飛 高
單 于 夜 遁 逃
欲 將 輕 騎 逐
大 雪 滿 弓 刀

Rhyme: Gāo, táo, zhú, dāo (aaba)

A dark moon, the wild geese fly high (gāo)
At night, the Mongol chieftain escapes and flees (dùn táo)
Wishing, willing, lightly clad, we hunt the enemy
In snow piled high to our bows and swords (dāo)

The battle is with the nomadic Xiongnu tribes to the north of China. Generally, they are identified as Mongols, sometimes Huns, sometimes Tukic tribes. The chieftain has fled and while the wild geese scatter underneath a dark moon, the enemy flees, hunted down by lightly clad Chinese cavalry. They carry bow and arrow and the dāo, a single-edged Chinese sword, convenient for slashing and chopping at close range.

French translation

La lune, c’est noire, les oies sauvages volent haut et loin
La nuit, les Turcs s’échappent et fuient
Souhaitant, désireux, légèrement vêtus, nous les chassons
Avec la neige jusqu’à nos arcs et couteaux

Lu Lun

Lu Lun, was a poet of the Middle Tang Dynasty, who was born circa 737 in Fanyang, and died circa 788. The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) affected his career path as it did many of the poets. Though the Tang Dynasty withdrew from Central Asia after the rebellion was put down, the interest in earlier military success on the frontier remained strong.  The frontier landscape was harsh, the mountains tall and desolate, the rivers cold, the desert dry and unforgiving, the garrison troops were, in the main, lonely and suffering, but by will and successful generalship, they overcame the Tibetans at the western frontiers and the Turkic nomads on the north.

More…

Border Songs, 1 of 4, Lu Lun

Within the benefit of time, further research, and thought, I will rewrite this poem.

It appears now that the poem is about the exploits of General Li Guang (Western Han dynasty) who fought against the northern Xiongnu tribe and died 119 BC.

 

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

General Zhang Yichao’s victory over the Tibetan Empire, 848. Wikipedia image

Border Songs, One of four

Eagle feathers hang from his golden arrow
His silk flag flutters like the tail of a swallow.
One man, arising, gives a new order and
A thousand battalions, with one shout, Hi-yo!

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

鷲 翎 金 僕
燕 尾 繡 蝥 弧
獨 立 揚 新 令
千 營 共 一 呼

Lu Lun was born around 748 in Shangxi Province. The one-character abbreviation for the province is 晋, Jin. This is also the fifth character in the title that precedes the poem. Thus, this may be a subtle reference to Lu’s home or to Lu Lun receiving his Jinshi degree.

The genre is called Frontier Poetry or Border Songs, which hearken back to happier times, when the Tang dynasty subjugated the Göktürks in the north or defeated the Tibetan armies in the west. China was at the height of its glory. The inclusion of the character 晋 (Jin) suggests that this is about a life or death struggle with the Göktürks.

This is the first in a series of four border songs by Lu Lun.

The Title

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

I confess to being stymied by the title. It seems to begin with the two characters, 塞 下, meaning at the border, or underneath the border wall. Then, the next two characters, 曲 四, suggest the characters for song of four, which may be an allusion to an ancient Chinese board game and a life or death struggle. A simpler explanation is that there are four Beyond the Border Songs included in the Tang 300.

I do know that it ends with the two characters:

之 一, zhī yī, One out of a multitude.

Most anthologies of the Tang 300 poems give the title as “Border Songs” with the appellation of its number in the series. That seems unfair.

Lu Lun stresses the importance of one man out of a multitude.

An unnamed army general is mounted on his horse, and holds in his hand the golden arrow, the emblem of his authority from the emperor. Nearby, a servant holds the campaign flag. It flutters in the wind like the swallow tail. The two images – eagle and swallow – represent the general and his army.

The warriors wait expectantly. The general, gazing upon the enemy and then back at his warriors, gives his battle command, and thousands of warriors respond as one.

“Hi-yo. Go all out!”

The rhyming pattern of the poem is aaba (Gū hú lìng hū), but there is also a significant amount of internal rhyme. This is important to convey the poets meaning that an army must fight in unison.

Little is known of his career.

Lu Lu’s death is variously reported as circa 788 to 800.
More…

Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou – Du Fu

Lost, all is lost, and yet, life goes on…

The title of the poem is usually translated as, Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou. Du Fu simply calls it Huazhou (華 州), a city in Shaanxi Province, where Du Fu would take a short-lived post.

All is lost.

What is lost in the translation is the complexity and beauty of the rhyming pattern and the several allusions that make this poem mysterious and inviting.

The overall rhyme is aaaabaca. There is also a significant amount of internal rhyme that adds to the musicality of the words and emotions. For instance, in the first three lines we have these characters:

line one: 昔, xi, meaning past or former times.
line two: 西, xī, meaning West, referring to western regions
line three: 至, zhi, a verb, meaning to arrive

Now, relate these three sounds back to the poem’s title 華 州, Hua Zhou, and the poet’s name Du Fu.

Repetition, the key to meditation in Tao philosophy, and the very soul of poetry.

Alas, it is lost, lost in translation.

 

華 州

此 道 昔 歸 順
西 郊 胡 正 繁
至 今 殘 破 膽
應 有 未 招 魂
近 得 歸 京 邑
移 官 豈 至 尊
無 才 日 衰 老
駐 馬 望 千 門

Huazhou

That was the way I chose to flee
At the west of the city, a fool in the crowd
To this day, the memory of panic makes me sick
Should my soul not return
Now, the court has come back, the city is full
But the emperor sends me away again
Old and useless, my day is done, alas
For one last look at the thousand gates

Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was called the city of a million people and a thousand gates.

Du Fu’s official posting came late in life, from 758 to 759. This was in the midst of the An Lushan Rebellion. The rebels approached the capital from the west and the government fled. In 756, the capital fell, and panic, famine, and destruction followed. The success of the government forces against the rebels allowed a return, but Du Fu’s advice to the emperor was short-lived and in 758, Du Fu was made Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, a demotion which he resented. Soon, he moved on to Qinzhou, where he wrote approximately 60 poems, likely including this one. This stay was also short, six weeks.

There is an accompanying note to Du Fu’s poem:

In the second year of Zhide, I escaped from the capital through the Gate of Golden Light and went to Fengxiang. In the first year of Qianyuan, I was appointed as official to Huazhou from my former post of Censor. Friends and relatives gathered and saw me leave by the same gate. And I wrote this poem.

Zhide is reference to the honor shown him by the emperor, but it is also a play on words, a triple entendre.

值得
zhí de
to be worthy, deserving

只得
zhǐ dé
to have no alternative but to, obliged to

至德
zhì dé
splendid virtue, majestic moral character, great kindness

Meeting a Messenger on his Way to the Capital

Meeting a messenger headed east

I look down the road and I long for my home, far to the east,
The clock sounds and my sleeves are wet with tears
On horse we meet, but I have no paper, no pen
So, I rely on a gentleman’s word, tell them all is safe and calm

Or,

I long for the east, I have been gone for years,
The imperial bell sounds, I find my sleeves are wet with tears.
On horses we meet, and I no paper, nor brush.
So, I am relying on you, say, all is calm, have no fear.

horse

Original Chinese by Cen Can, 岑 參

Rhyme aaba.

逢 入 京 使
故 園 東 望 路 漫 漫
雙 袖 龍 鐘 淚 不 乾
馬 上 相 逢 無 紙 筆
憑 君 傳 語 報 平 安

Notes on Can Cen

Translation is an imprecise and uncertain task.

Line one contains the characters for garden  and east (園 東), for which most translations  substitute the word homeland. In line two, the characters for imperial clock (龍 鐘) are often ignored. Line three is straight forward, “We meet by chance on horse, but I have no pen no paper.” Line four is also clear, “I rely on a gentleman to announce that all is calm and at peace.”

Can we come up with a better sense of Can Cen poem?

Far, far out at the western edge of the imperial empire, the morning sun rises in the east, the imperial clock sounds, signalling all is still well, though the poet knows trouble to be stirring.

Mounted on his horse and busy making his rounds, the poet chances to meet a messenger heading towards the capital. The poet has been shedding tears, whether for fear or longing, we do not know.

Having no pen, no paper, he asks that that the messenger say all is calm and peaceful.

Cen Can held a military assignment in the Northwest Territories. For this reason, perhaps he is speaking of the Tibetan threat. But it is also possible he is speaking of a threat from the north. During the revolt of General An Lushan and the An Shi Rebellion (755 through 763), Cen Can remained a loyalist throughout almost decade long rebellion, the capture of the capital, its recapture, and the defeat of the rebels.

Cen Can was friend to Gao Shi and Du Fu, both of whom he mentions in separate poems; as well as Li Bai, who mentions Cen Can in one of his poems.

French translation, Meeting with a messenger headed east, by Can Cen

Rencontrer un messager dirigé vers l’est 

Loin d’ici, dans l’est j’aimerais soit,
La cloche impériale sonne, mes manches sont mouillé de larmes
Chez les chevaux, nous nous rencontrons,
Et je n’ai pas de papier ni de pinceau.
Je compte sur vous, pour dire, tout est calme, ne craint pas.

Deer Park

Wang_Shimin-After_Wang_Wei's_Snow_Over_Rivers_and_Mountains_detail

 

Deer Park

A lonely mountain keeps its secrets
Yet, I hear someone speaking softly
Where light shines in the forest deep
And the sun delights in seeking green moss

鹿 柴

空 山 不 見 人
但 聞 人 語 響
返 景 入 深 林
復 照 青 苔 上

Rhyme: abab

Words fail me. Trying to capture the meaning and sound of the poem Deer Park by Wang Wei (王維 699–761) is an impossible task. Better to stand alone in the forest and listen to the silence.

Twenty characters in a rhyming pattern – abab. In the dark forest, the silence is profound. The poet is alone, and yet he hears a voice. Streaming through the pine trees is a ray of sunlight shining on a mossy grove where a deer has slept the night before.

The muse of poetry speaks.

Wang Wei is a Tang poet who is equally well known for his painting and calligraphy. This particular poem is part of the Lantian collection, written after the An-Shi Rebellion (variously spelled, Anshi or An Lushan, 755–759) and Wang Wei’s fall from grace. Wang Wei then retired to his ancestral home in Lantian County in the province of Shangxi.

The title of the poem 鹿 柴 (Lu chai) translates best as Deer Park. The second character literally translates “to fence; to surround and protect with a wooden fence,” so sometimes the poem is called Deer Enclosure.

Wang Wei was a student of Buddhism. Therefore, he may be alluding to Deer Park in Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh India, the site of the sacred Bodhi Tree where Gautama Buddha received his enlightenment and preached his first sermon.

French translation

Une montagne solitaire garde ses secrets
Seulement et doucement, un parle, j’entends
Et le soleil recherche la mousse verte
Où la lumière brille dans la forêt profond

German translation

Ein einsamer Berg behält seine Geheimnisse
Allein man spricht, etwas höre ich
Wo die Sonne sucht nach grünem Moos
Wo das Licht im tiefen Wald leuchtet

Wang_Shimin-After_Wang_Wei's_Snow_Over_Rivers_and_Mountainsa

Deer Park