The Returning Thief is the Official, Yuan Jie

764

This poem was written in 764.

It is the second year of the reign of Emperor Daizong, 代宗. The rebel forces of General An Lushan Rebellion have been turned back, but now the armies of the Tang Dynasty face Tibetan forces on the west, about to invade China and capture the capital of Chang’an.

Yuan Jie (元結, 719–772) fought early during the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763). The year before this poem was written, he was appointed governor of Dao County (Daozhou), Hunan Province. There the people were reduced to eating grass roots and tree bark as a result war, pillaging, looting, and the excessive tax collections of rice and wheat.

The Tibetans threatened to invade, but so too did another evil force.

Yuan Jie explains:

In the year Guimao (the Year of the Rabbit), bandits (Tibetans) from their camp at Xiyuan entered Daozhou (Dao Prefecture 道州), setting fire, raiding, looting, and killing. The entire district was devastated. In the second year, the culprits attacked Yongzhou and occupied Shaozhou, but left Daozhou alone. Not because we were strong enough to defend ourselves, but because they pitied us. Now, how our own imperial commissioners bear to impose more taxes?

The Thief Who Returns is the Tax Collector

The old days were peaceful, twenty years in the mountains and forests.
A spring in my courtyard, a cave my front door.
Field taxes were fixed and light, in the twilight one could sleep.
Now, the world has changed, for years beneath bloody banners I fought.
Today, I am a county official, and western barbarians gather again.
Small time thieves do not slaughter, a poor man whose hurt should be pitied.

Surrounded by neighbors, this county was left intact.
But a tax collector is just like a thief?
Today’s conquerors compel one like oil on fire.
Can one who kills, in time achieve a virtuous life?
Thinking and hoping, with this verse, to push with a pole and prick the boat.
Let us then, return as before, to a land of rivers and lakes

Rivers and Lakes, 江湖边

Notes on Translation

Of course, Yuan Jie could not personally criticize Emperor Daizong for the people’s plight.

So, he titled his poem, 贼退示官吏, (Zéi tuì shì guān lì) which translates as “The returning thief is the official (tax collector)”. Yuan did indirectly get a jibe in at the emperor, quoting the Confucian dictum that a wise emperor “listens to his people and cares for his people.” Yuan uses the character 贤, xián, meaning virtuous, knowing that Emperor Daizong is familiar with Confucius’ dictum.

Although Yuan Jie was a contemporary of Li Bai and Du Fu, he is for the most part ignored by western translators. As the poem indicates, Yuan Jie served in the army fighting the rebellion for several years. When the capital of Chang’an was retaken from rebel forces, Yuan Jie was appointed governor of Daozhou. Yongzhou, Shaozhou, and Daozhou referenced are part of the Circuit of Western Jiangnan (江南西道).

Yuan did not know it when this poem was written, but, in 765, Tang forces would defeat the Tibetans at the Battle of Xiyuan.

Yuan Jie, and this poem in particular, is much admired in China. The idea of a dedicated official fighting corruption was a popular theme in Mao Zedong’s Communist China. Indeed, Mao himself was from Hunan. Mao’s other connection with Yuan Jie is that he too lived for a time in a Hunan cave.

Yuan Jie’s poem remains popular today.

In a companion poem, Song of Chongling (舂陵行), Yuan Jie described what starving people ate — “the morning meal is grass roots, supper tree bark” (朝餐是草根,暮食乃樹皮)

I admit that my translation is rusty, even questionable.

Original Chinese

贼退示官吏

昔岁逢太平,山林二十年
泉源在庭户,洞壑当门前
井税有常期,日晏犹得眠
忽然遭世变,数岁亲戎旃
今来典斯郡,山夷又纷然
城小贼不屠,人贫伤可怜

是以陷邻境,此州独见全
使臣将王命,岂不如贼焉
今彼征敛者,迫之如火煎
谁能绝人命,以作时世贤
思欲委符节,引竿自刺船
将家就鱼麦,归老江湖边

French

If I were to translate this poem to French, it would begin like this:

Les vieux jours étaient paisibles, vingt ans dans les montagnes et les bois.
Une source de montagne dans ma cour, une grotte ma porte.
Les impôts étaient peu, on pouvait dormir la nuit.
Mais le monde a changé, pendant des années je me suis battu.
Maintenant, je suis un fonctionnaire du comté, et les barbares se rassemblent à nouveau.
Les petits voleurs ne massacrent pas, un pauvre homme dont il faut se plaindre.

Yuan Jie, 元結

As with many historic lives of the Tang dynasty, accounts differ.

It is said that Yuan Jie was a twelfth generation descendant of Emperor Tuoba Jun 拓拔濬 of the Northern Wei Dynasty. He was supposedly born in Luoyang or adjacent Lushan County, Henan Province. Some say Wuhan.

Generally, it is agreed that he lived form 719 to 772, a period that spanned the reigns of the emperors Xuanzong (712–756), Suzong (756–762), and Daizong (762–779), and included the turbulent period of the An Lushan Rebellion. He was a younger contemporary of the better known poets Du Fu and Li Bai, outliving Li Bai by a decade and Du Fu by two years.

Everyone agrees that in 753, at the age of 24 or 25, he obtained his jinshi degree.

When the An Lushan Rebellion began, some claim that he hid from the rebels in the caves of western Hubei. If so, it was for a short time. More likely is that he joined the army and was active in suppressing the revolt.

Du Fu and Li Bai suffered as a result of the rebellion. By contrast, in 763, Yuan Jie was appointed governor of Daozhou in Henan. There he wrote two poems (Ballad of Chongling and After the Raiders Have Withdrawn: To Clerks and Officials) critical of government officials who levied extortionate taxes on the peasants. Du Fu wrote a tribute to Yuan Jie, but the imperial court took a less sanguine view of the poems. And, by 768, Yuan was relocated to southern Rong Prefecture, Guangxi.

In 769, following his mother’s death, he resigned his post. He died three years later, still in his mourning period.

There exists a ten-volume, Ming-era collection of his poetry called the Yuan Cishan Ji (元次山集).

His courtesy name, Cishan, 次山, can mean “next mountain” or “below mountain”. Either interpretation suggests that Yuan Jie had a self-deprecating view of himself. Du Fu’s tribute portrays him as a dedicated administrator.

Still, no good poem goes unpunished. His criticism likely resulted in his move to remote southern Guanxi.

Such is the price of honesty.

On Being Stricken with Paralysis, Bai Juyi

Good friends,

Why waste your time in wailing

In sympathy for me?

Surely, in time,

I’ll be strong enough

To move about a bit.

To get about,

On land, there are carrying-chairs,

On water, boats.

So, if I can keep my courage,

And carry on,

What need have I of feet?

Keep Calm, image Wikipedia

Keep Calm and Carry On

The advice is timeless.

Keep Calm and Carry On was a British motivational poster widely distributed in Britain in 1939 in preparation for World War II.

The idea is keep on, keeping on. Buck up Buttercup. Just do it. Don’t Panic. Deal with it. Get up everyday with a smile on your face. Make lemonade from lemons, quilts from rags and scraps. Play the hand you are dealt. And as Kipling said, “Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

And a thousand other iterations.

Luoyang, 839

His poetry became his speech.

I could not find the original Chinese for Bai Juyi’s On Being Stricken, but I liked the poem so much I thought I would reproduce it anyway, changing a word or two. The paralysis that Bai Juyi speaks about came about in 839, at the age of 67 or so. Bai Juyi had, by this time, retired from government and taken up residence in a monastery, south of Luoyang in Henan province. Indeed, after the attack which cost him the use of one leg and affected his speech, he took to calling himself the “Hermit of Xianshang” after the name of the Buddhist monastery in which he took refuge.

One additional tragedy was to confront Bai Juyi in his declining years. In 841, the new Emperor Wuzong, a Taoist who began a persecution of Buddhism that would last until the emperor’s death in 846, and coincidentally, the year of Bai Juyi’s death.

The Complaint of the Jade Lute, Wen Tingyun

In a silver bed on an icy-cold mat, dreams never come

The blue sky is misting, the clouds at night are light

From Xiao-xiang comes the cry of a wild goose–

To a twelve-story building on a moonlit night

Stork Tower, a multi-storied building, but not Shí’èr lóu, 十二樓

From Xiao-Xiang, the far cry a wild goose

Wen Tingyun’s Complaint of the Jade Lute paints the picture of a lovely woman in a lonely silver bed suffering a sleepless night. A similar, but different thought — American singer, Cher, had a hit song, We All Sleep Alone, that goes:

“You got to be strong when you’re out on your own, ’cause sooner or later we all sleep alone.”

American children might picture the mouse in the animated movie, An American Tail, singing Somewhere Out there.

From far, far, faraway Xiao-Xiang, can you hear the cry of the wild goose? The unanswered question, is our goose coming or going?

Original Chinese

瑶瑟怨

冰簟銀床夢不成

碧天如水夜雲輕

雁聲遠過瀟湘去

十二樓中月自明

Notes on Translation

My unsatisfactory translation of Wen Tingyun’s poem leaves many unanswered questions.

This begins with the title Yáo sè yuàn, 瑶瑟怨, which has been variously translated as — She Sighs on Her Jade Lute, A Plaint on a Jade Zither, and Bemoaning of the Jade Lute. The alliterative Yáo sè yuàn can’t be beat, nor can it be translated easily.

Sè, 瑟 zither is a better translation, but lute is more familiar to the English ear. It has also described as a standing harp, so take your pick. The point is that the poet is plucking at our heart strings, whether it is on a lute, a zither, or a harp. Yáo, 瑶 is jade or mother of pearl, the later making more sense if one thinks of the materials going into the construction of the lute. The last character, Yuàn, 怨, means a complaint. This does not seem to me to express the grief of the girl over her absent lover. A “plea” might be better, “sigh” as suggested by another translation also captures the emotion.

First line. A cold or icy sleeping mat, a silver bed, (Yín chuáng, 銀床). an image of luxury and loneliness that long ago went out of style. A gilded bed, cold, cold silvery sheets, sleeping alone might be more familiar to western ears.

Second line. Bìtiān, 碧天 does not translate well into English. I am tempted to say “blue skies”. This only works if one think of blue skies becoming overcast and misty, and the night skies as cloudy. Moreover, Bì is that uniquely Chinese color that I seem to struggle with. It is emerald green? It is bluish-white jade-like?

Third line. In Chinese literature the wild goose represents love from afar. Du Fu also used the metaphor to refer to the absent Li Bai in his poem, Thinking of Li Bai at the End of the Sky. Xiao-xiang refers to the “lakes and rivers” along the Yangtze River in Hunan Province where Lake Dongting is located.

Fourth line. Shí’èr lóu, 十二樓 looks to be twelfth floor, but that is hard to believe. Lóu, 樓 refers to a multi-storied building or stories, so I am stuck with “twelfth floor”. And modern translations of the three characters give the same meaning.

Further Notes

Poet Li Shangyin, Wen’s contemporary, wrote an untitled poem that begins with 錦瑟無端五十弦, Jǐnsè wúduān wǔshí xián. The first two characters Jǐnsè, 錦瑟 referring to a lavishly decorated stringed instrument, again, the problem is whether it may be a zither, lute, or harp. Here we have a clue. The sentence comes out something like this —

The gorgeous harp, has no end with fifty strings.

This would put the many-stringed musical instrument in the category of a type of zither or harp.

How Tall is that Building?

I confess, after reading Andrew Wong’s illuminating translation of 瑶瑟怨, A Plaint on the Jade Zither, that 12 stories may well mean twelve (12) multi-storied buildings, and not the twelfth floor. It makes sense. There were many well-known towers in Tang China and they seemed to stop at the fifth to the seventh stories. The Wild Goose Pagoda, 大雁塔, for example, was built in 652 to a height of five stories. The Stork Tower, 鸛雀樓, pictured above was equally famous and had but three floors and four eaves. I only pause because of Qianxun Pagoda in Yunnan Province, completed in Wen’s lifetime, that has sixteen stories.

If Clothes Make the Man, So Does Color

Clothes make the man is an old saying whose origin is clouded in uncertainty. Color also plays a role. Anyone who studied Roman history knows that purple was worn by Roman magistrates. And later Byzantine emperors adopted purple as the royal color.

The color of the clothing in imperial Tang China also indicated rank. In the Tang dynasty, the emperor would often wear purple. Why not, it was the color of the magnificent iris, the harbinger of Spring, the sign of a glorious Summer.

Emperor Taizong, ruling 626 to 649.

During Emperor Gaozong’s reign (649-683) it was decreed that only the emperor could wear Imperial Yellow, the reddish-yellow color of the sun, for as Confucius said:

“There cannot be two suns in the sky, nor two emperors on the earth.”

Color Makes the Man

Purple was used by officials above the third grade, crimson for officials above the fifth grade; dark green to the sixth grade, light green to the seventh grade; dark cyan to the eighth grade, and light cyan officals of the lowly ninth grade.

The common people and peasants wore dark clothing or simply left it uncolored.

The Song of the Pipa Player

All of this became relevant to me as I was reading the last two lines of Bai Juyi’s hauntingly beautiful poem, The Song of the Pipa Player. At first, it is the story of two friends parting. It then takes a turn, when the music of a Pipa, a stringed instrument, is overheard. The player is a girl, both mysterious and beautiful. Bai and his parting friend are mesmerized by the notes:

Like tinkling pearls poured on a jade plate,

Like a nightingale’s song hidden amongst the flowers,

Like a brook babbling along the bank.

Their parting is delayed, the wine flows on, as does the mournful music until that is left is silence. A silence that speaks that her heart is empty.

The poem closes with this couplet.

Who cries the loudest? In Sima, Jiangzhou, look to the wet green shirt.

座中泣下誰最多 江州司馬青衫濕

Zuò zhōng qì xià shuí zuìduō, jiāngzhōu sīmǎ qīng shān shī.

Spoiler alert. The man in Sima Town in Jiangzhou was Bai Juyi himself.

Much Ado About Color

The year was 815.

Bai Juyi had recently ended his mourning period after the death of his mother. He returned to the imperial court in Chang’an as a low level assistant to the tutor of one of the imperial princes. Then a few intemperate remarks sent him packing to Sima Town in Jiangzhou, today’s Jiujiang in Jiangxi province.

Lest you think I am going on too long about color, consider this. Bai Juyi learned his place, pale green never talks about purple.

Bai Juyi would, in time go on to become governor of three Chinese provinces and wear purple. Remembering his humble origins, he would eventually retire to Xiangshan, write and meditate in the Buddhist tradition, and take the name, the Hermit of Xiangshan.

He died in 846, at the age of three score and four.

Spring Night, Happy Rain

Good rain knows the right time
To fall when spring comes

And follows the wind in the night
Silently, moistening every thing

A wild path black and cloudy
A riverboat fire alone and bright
Dawn has the look that is red and wet
In Brocade City, Guancheng*

Spring Night, Happy Rain by Du Fu, written in Chengdu, 759 – 763, during the An Lushan Rebellion.

*Chengdu is known as Brocade City. Guancheng’s meaning is less clear, but probably references the fact that Chengdu is the the provincial (official) capital of Sichuan.

After the rain, at dawn, 夜晚雨春天黎明

After the Rain

Let it rain, let it rain, but only after sundown. Like Eric Clapton’s Let it Rain, and the Broadway musical Camelot where “The rain may never fall till after sundown,” these are ideas we associate with rain — the rain that nourishes life, and washes away our troubles.

After a sleepless night, after the rain, Du Fu arose before dawn, went for a walk in the dark, spied a riverboat with it lantern, and then, as the dawn broke over Chengdu, composed this poem.

I confess I like the first half of Du Fu’s poem, Spring Night, Happy Rain, over the second half.

The rain knows its time, it comes like a thief in the dark, quietly falling on everything. Well, not like a thief, to steal, but to give life. That is a pretty thought.

Next, Du Fu walks along a wild path next to the river, dark and cloudy, a single light on a river boat, in the distance the dawn is red and wet, in Chengdu City. Beginning in the winter of 759, in the midst of the An Lushan Rebellion, Du Fu and his family made a home here. He stayed for almost four years and wrote over 240 poems including Happy Rain.

His thatched cottage was located near a brook known as Huanhua. Today it is a popular tourist spot.

Original Chinese

chūnyè xǐyǔ

hǎo yǔ zhī shí jié
dāng chūn nǎi fā shēng
suí fēng qián rù yè
rùn wù xì wú shēng

yě jìng yún jū hēi
jiāng chuán huǒ dú míng
xiǎo kàn hóng shī chù
huāzhòng jǐn guānchéng

春夜喜雨

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

Night Mooring at Maple Bridge, Zhang Ji

The moon sets, the crows cry, the air is full of frost
River Maples and fires on fishing boats are the answer to a worried sleep
In Gusu, the bells of Hanshan Temple ring
In the middle of the night, to welcome a guest on a boat

La lune se couche, les corbeaux caquetent, le ciel est plein de givre
Les érables argentés et les lanternes des pêcheurs répondent à un sommeil inquiet
À la périphérie de Gusu, près du temple Hanshan, au milieu de la nuit,
Le son des cloches arrive pour les invités sur un bateau

[prior post November 2019]

Zhang Zi at the Maple Bridge

Zhang Ji, (712-715 to 779) was born in Xiangyang County, Hubei Province. In the twelfth year of reign-title Tianbao (753), he successfully passed Jinshi, the highest imperial examination. Zhang Ji was then appointed Secretary, Second Class in the Board of Inspection of Schools and Temples at Hongzhou (present-day Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province).

His career was interrupted two years later by the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763) and little else of his life is known with certainty although he obviously made a trip from Hongzhou down the Yangtze by boat to visit Suzhou and the Hanshan Temple.

Maple Bridge, Fēngqiáo, that Zhang Ji writes about, is located in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. It is on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River just before Shanghai. Gusu, mentioned in the poem, is the Old City with its quaint waterways and gardens. At this spot, three canals intersect, one being the famous Grand Canal. Nearby is Hanshan Temple and its accompanying monastery. The bell ringing at the Temple on Chinese New Year’s eve is a major pilgrimage event.

Zhang’s poem is a familiar part of Chinese school curriculum. The Japanese calligrapher, Ike Taiga, frequently used Zhang Ji’s poems in his works. The poem’s first line is incorporated in the lyrics of a modern day song by Cui Yanguang, 崔岩光.

Zhang Ji’s Night Mooring at Maple Bridge, calligraphy by Ike Taiga, 1770, image credit, The Met

Original Chinese and Pinyin

 楓橋夜泊

月落烏啼霜滿天
江楓漁火對愁眠
姑蘇城外寒山寺
夜半鐘聲到客船

Fēngqiáo yè pō

Yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān,
jiāngfēng yúhuǒ duì chóumián,
gūsū chéng wài hánshānsì,
yèbàn zhōng shēng dào kèchuán

Zhang Ji at Maple Bridge, image wikipedia

Spring Morning,

It’s Spring, I lie awake as morning breaks.
While everywhere are birds who cry,
Who heard last night
the sound of rain and wind
So do you know how many flowers fell?

春晓

春眠不觉晓
处处闻啼鸟
夜来风雨声
花落知多少

peach trees in blossom

Meng Haoran, 孟浩然

I tossed in bed this morning, I could not sleep. I heard the birds cry. It rained, it howled last night, as the cherry blossoms fell.

Spring approaches. Before the branches and the leaves turn green, first come the fragrant plum, then the pretty peach and lovely cherry blossoms. But such beauty cannot last long, not even the immortal peach. Nature’s rain and howling winds must prepare the earth for spring. Meng Haoran (孟浩然) the author of this poem reminds us that life is as fragile as a cherry blossom. Meng was an older contemporary of Li Bai, Du Fu, and Wang Wei. He died in 740, more than a decade before the devastating An Lushan Rebellion that rained down from the North, consuming millions of Chinese lives until the storm abated.

Pinyin

Chūn mián bù jué xiǎo,
Chùchù wén tí niǎo.
Yèlái fēngyǔ shēng,
Huā luò zhī duōshǎo.

Notes

Line 2, Chùchù, everywhere. Line 3, fēngyǔ, wind and rain, but also trials and hardships. Compare the Chinese phrase — 落花流水 luò huā liú shuǐ, to be in a sorry state. Indeed, falling flowers in line 4, is a sorry state. Line 4, zhī, know, duōshǎo, how many, huā luò, flowers fell? The word order is changed to suit the English translation.

Meng Haoran might have written this poem simply to reflect on the life’s fragility. He was, after all, a practicing Buddhist; and friend of Wang Wei, another practicing Buddhist.

He may also have meant to dedicate these lines to the flower of Chinese youth who fall each year in battle. This is a similar theme echoed by Bob Dylan in his song Blowin’ in the Wind, 1962. One can also recall the association in World War I between Red Poppies and the multitude of deaths on the battle fields.

We cannot know for certain what Meng intended, nor does it matter.

Here, I recall for you, the gentle reader, the wordless sermon Buddha gave to his disciples in holding up a white flower. No one understood the Flower Sermon except the disciple Mahākāśyapa, who smiled.

Facing the Snow

In the battle’s aftermath, many spirits cry,
Alone, an old man hums his worrisome chant.
Confusion sets in amid the clouds at dusk,
A violent snow dances in the swirling wind

There lies an abandoned ladle and an empty green jug,
But the stove still looks fiery red.
With bad news from many places
I sit in grief, but cannot read my books

Winter 757

Imagine, it is the winter of 757, Chang’an, Shanxi province, China in the age of the Tang dynasty..

General An Lushan and his rebel army, having begun a revolt against the Tang dynasty in December of 756, have, by now, taken Chang’an, the Tang capital. The defeated Emperor Xuanzong has fled to Sichuan. The poet Du Fu has taken his family to safety, but now, trying to reach Sichuan, he is captured by rebel forces, and taken back to Chang’an.

You are left behind in the devastated Tang capital of Chang’an. For months, the rebel forces have pillaged and looted. Long caravans are hauling away the loot to the North.

You are Chinese poet Du Fu, 45 years old, now left to face enemy and the snow alone. And in this cold and empty place, he cannot read his books.

Meanwhile, back in the USA

Here in the Midwest, we are facing a terrifically cold winter weather system. The blowing snow and bitter cold make for dangerous conditions. The weather has been unusually cold in February of 2021. Even Dallas, Texas has experienced 0 degree weather, along with rolling black outs as the demand for energy rises.

Perhaps not as cold as China’s Shaanxi province, where the Tang capital Chang’an was located. Nor as cold as the three Chinese states — Pinglu, Fanyang and Hedong, north of Chang’an, north of the Yangtze, bordering Mongolia, where General An Lushan was military commander.

Temperatures there,. in January and February, dip down below zero into double digits, which is what we are now experiencing. The wind too is unusually strong, and the falling snow when swirling is quite a sight.

Here in the Midwest, for two days, the clouds filled the sky. The wind whipped up the snow, not quite a blizzard but close. Not a creature stirred outside. Then, yesterday, the sun came back, there was no wind, and the squirrels scrambled down from their nest in the large oak tree outside my window to look for sunflower seeds that I had left for the birds.

My water pipes had burst and I had to resort to melting snow. My predicament lasted only a day.

Du Fu’s predicament reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode Time Enough to Last* (1959). This black and white episode starred Burgess Meredith as a much heckled bank teller and bookworm who couldn’t get enough time to read. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, he finds himself in a bank vault and the only one left on the planet.

Now he has time enough to read, but in a moment of happiness, he drops his glasses and steps on them, and is left bereft and full of grief.

Meanwhile, in 8th century Britain

The Roman empire collapsed in the 5th century and Britain, as well as most of Europe, entered the Dark Ages. Dark because there is little literature to explain what was going on and what people were thinking.

Take for example the life of King Offa who ruled from 757 until his death in 796. But nothing down of him, and little remains but a few coins and Offa’s Dyke.

We do have the works of the Venerable Bede, but most of his works are religious, and many of these are lost. Ballads were told in the Saxon Great Halls, but these were oral. Beowulf, a Norse tale, can be dated within a three hundred year span, from 700 AD to 1000 AD. Fortunately for us, it was then written down with some Christian add-ons. A century later King Alfred the Great caused the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to be written and history was saved.

This is not to say that those who lived in 8th century Britain did not experience emotions similar to Du Fu. Between the fussing and feuding, and barely surviving, they had good days and bad, experiencing both joy and grief. I would refer those interested to check out The Wanderer and The Ruin, whose writing predates the Norman Invasion, but by how much, is unknown.

Notes on Translations

The title 对雪, duì xuě, in English becomes Facing the Snow, or Snowstorm. It is an obvious euphemism for facing one’s difficulties. The snow, a reference to General An Lushan, whose rebel forces came from the cold snowy North.

The early part of the rebellion went badly for the Tang forces. Defeat followed defeat, tens of thousands of soldiers died. Millions of citizens were displaced. Ghosts roamed the battlefields and an old man, Du Fu, made his worrisome chant. Du Fu followed Buddhism, but he must have felt confused and lost, trying to make his way between the competing forces. He was no more than a single snowflake caught up in the maelstrom, blown about, dancing in the wind.

Tang dynasty, 8th century AD, three-color green glaze wine vessel – exhibited in Matsuoka Museum of Art, image from Wikipedia

The fifth line,. 瓢弃尊无绿, piáo qì zūn wú lǜ, literally translates as “abandoned ladle, nothing in the green wine jug”. To abandon the ladle is to give up all sense of civilized behavior. Zun (尊) is the wine vessel. Its color is green lǜ, 绿 being the most highly prized color, a sign of status. By implication, the capital is empty of members of the royal court. Compare Du Fu’s line with the Chinese idiom, wú yōu wú lǜ, 无忧无虑 , without worries and care free, a French or Spanish, “Comme Ci, Comme Ça.” Compare lǜle lǜle, 绿了, 虑了, are you green are you worried? In Du Fu’s case, the well known imbiber of wine is not so worried that he must drink without a lad.e, but that the pot of wine is empty.

Line six, wait the fire is still going and seems to be red, hóng 红, a sign of joy and one to ward off evil demons.

Line seven, shù zhōu, 数州, literally, several states, referring to the several Chinese provinces fending for themselves against the rebel forces. One either gets the sense of “no news,” 消息, xiāo xī, or that the news is “decidedly bad,” 断, duàn, which implies that Du Fu is cut off from events elsewhere.

Du Fu’s coup de grâce

Du Fu’s ending twist, his coup de grâce, in that cold and empty place, is like that which befalls Burgess Meredith’s character, he cannot read his books!

Chinese and Pinyin

对雪

战哭多新鬼
愁吟独老翁
乱云低薄暮
急雪舞回风

瓢弃尊无绿
炉存火似红
数州消息断
愁坐正书空

duì xuě

zhàn kū duō xīn guǐ
chóu yín dú lǎo wēng
luàn yún dī bó mù
jí xuě wǔ huí fēng


piáo qì zūn wú lǜ
lú cún huǒ sì hóng
shù zhōu xiāo xī duàn
chóu zuò zhèng shū kōng

  • Adapted from a short story written by Lynn Venable in January 1953 for the science fiction magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction.

If the Beatles met Du Fu

A bird of prey in the sky soaring high
Two white gulls on the river walking by
The predator, ready to strike, floating on the wind,
The prey, mewing, lazily rocking to and fro

Why is the grass wet with dew?
Why is a spider web untouched?
Heaven’s mysteries remain unanswered?
And I, stand alone, with ten thousand worries

Standing alone, Du Fu, circa 758

Hello Du Fu

If the 20th century British pop group The Beatles met 8th century poet and Chinese superstar, Du Fu what song and what poem would they care to share with one another?

For the Beatles I have chosen Let It Be and for Du Fu, Standing Alone.

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be…

Let it be, The Beatles (1970)

Art is a shared experience. And a good song or poem is timeless. What words of wisdom do John, Paul, George and Ringo have for the deeply worried Du Fu? As you read along, ask yourself is Du Fu the seagull taken or left behind? (By 758, Du Fu’s career was descending.) Is John Lennon the Walrus? (A reference to the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour.) What am I, what are you? Is Du Fu the Confucian, seeking but never attaining perfection; are the Beatles disciples of Buddha, accepting?

Du Fu’s Original Chinese

獨立

空外一鷙鳥
河間雙白鷗
飄搖搏擊便
容易往來游

草露亦多濕
蛛絲仍未收
天機近人事
獨立萬端憂