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

In a Bamboo Grove, 竹裏館

Sitting alone, somewhere in a bamboo grove
Plucking on a zither, whistling along
Deep in the forest, where I can’t be found
At least, not until the bright moon shines

bamboo grove, 篁, huáng
somewhere in a bamboo grove, 篁裏 , huáng lǐ,
known only to me and the bright moon, 明月, míng yuè,
Wang Wei, 王維, 699–759

I Want to be Alone

We’re social critters who need to be strongly connected with other people. But, as every poet knows, solitude can be just as important. Space, we need space, and social distancing, but more than that sometimes we want to be alone, as Greta Garbo famously said.

Alone, Li Bai sat and watched Mt. Jiangshan. Alone, Du Fu sat in a grassy grove on a warm summer’s day. Wang Wei wrote at least two poems about being alone, one on an autumn night. And this one in a secluded bamboo grove, plucking a zither, whistling alone except for the moonlight.

Around the year 747, Wang Wei’s mother died. Wang Wei was then 48 years old. As a good son, devout Buddhist, and follower of Taoism, he retired from public life for a period of mourning at his family estate in Lantian County, Shaanxi province. He put the time to good use writing a collection of poems with Pei Di (裴迪) called Wangchuan Ji, or in English, the Wang River Collection or Wheel River Collection.

Chinese and Pinyin

竹裏館

獨坐幽篁裏
彈琴復長嘯
深林人不知
明月來相照

Zhú Lǐ Guǎn

Dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
Dàn qín fù chángxiào
Shēn lín rén bù zhī
Míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Today

Is this poem relevant today?

Think of Wang Wei as an ancient Henry David Thoreau walking the woods on Walden Pond. Or Ansel Adams taking pictures in the High Sierras. Songs – those of you looking for a 21st century connection can find many. Perhaps none better than Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (1972). Prefer Chinese, try 王嘉爾 Jackson Wang, 一個人 Alone.

It’s a “Zenthing”

The poem is relatively straight forward, but I will give you my thoughts on translation as I differ in the last line with other translators.

From the title, Zhú Lǐ Guǎn, 竹裏館, we learn that Wang Wei has fashioned a secluded shelter in his bamboo grove. Guàn doing double-duty as a homophone for a Taoist place of worship. In line one, we find Wang sitting alone, 獨坐, Dú zuò. Where? Somewhere in a bamboo grove. 篁裏, huáng lǐ. acts here as an indistinct unit of measure, somewhere. In line two, we see and hear him plucking a zither, 琴, qín. No confusion there, a zither, the seven string Chinese Guqin. But 長嘯, chángxiào requires some explanation. Chángxiào is a Taoist transcendental whistling, a long-drawn out whistling that functions as a yogic exercise. A skillful whistler could, it is believed, summon animals or communicate with supernatural beings.

Perhaps, in Wang Wei’s case, he is whistling to his departed mother.

The real trickery is in the last line where Wang is hidden from all the world except for the all seeing bright moon. Only if one has walked in a deep dark forest does one know what Wang Wei means.

In other words, its a Zenthing.

Prior version from April 2018

Painting by Yu Zhiding 1647 – 1709

Yu Xuanji,

Married at 16, sent away at 19, became a courtesan and a plaything, then a Daoist nun, and a poet, executed at 28, allegedly for strangling her maidservant, but perhaps for her frankly honest poetry. This is Yu Xuanji, late Tang poet (魚玄機, Yú Xuánjī, c840–c868), who left behind a book of poetry that was lost, and is remembered thanks to poets of the Song dynasty who gathered up what remained.

Yu Xuanji, original image from McGill Digital Archives

Drinking Alone under the Moon


Li Bai
s oft repeated poem inspires much thought. Were I to accompany Li Bai under the moon and the Milky Way, these would be mine to share — Alone we enter the world, alone we leave, and in the middle we have the chance to share a drink and dance. There were three there then, the moon, my shadow, and I. It was dimly lit, and two said not a word. In my pocket I found a poem, Li Bai, it was yours.

[Previously translated, December 2016]

Drinking Alone Under the Moon
Li Bai

A jug of wine among the flowers,
I drink alone, I think.
I tip my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, my shadow, and I make three.
The moon does not care to drink.
My shadow only trails along.
Fleeting friends we three, the moon, my shadow and I.
Still, let us make merry ’til the end of Spring.
The moon swaying as I sing.
My shadow dancing in step along with me.
Sober, we happily honor the hour.
Drunk, we part.
Our meeting beyond the heavens,
Until we gather again, these two and I,
Beneath the Heavenly River

Li He, 李賀

Contemporaries accounts say he was small and sickly, with long fingernails. That he had a uni-brow can be seen in the 18th century image drawn by Shangguan Zhou.

Li He, as depicted in the 1743 book Wanxiaotang Zhuzhuang Huazhuan (晩笑堂竹荘畫傳), image wikipedia
Li He depicted by Shangguan Zhou, early 18th c.

Other poets described him as a man of 鬼才, guicai, i.e. “ghostly talent”. Perhaps this was because of his precocity, he wrote his first poem at the age of seven; perhaps because of the dark subject matters of his poems. His branch of the Li family was far removed from that of the ruling Tang dynasty. Nor does it seem that he had a close connection to earlier poet Li Bai or the later Li Shangyin.

His courtesy name 長吉, Changji, Forever Lucky, does not fit him for failed the Imperial Examinations and died at the age of 26 or 27. Because of his early death, his poems are not found in the Anthology of 300 Tang Poems. His cousin, given the task of collecting his poems, threw most of them into the privy. Rather, it is due to the later poets Han Yu, Li Shangyin and Du Mu, that he is remembered, and to poets of the Song Dynasty who gathered what remained of Li He’s poetry into collections.

[Li He image from Wikipedia, drawn by Shangguan Zhou.]

Mooring on the River at Jiande

A rocking boat moored on a misty bank
The parting day brings new worries
In the distance the heavens droop behind the trees
The moon is a close friend
on Blue River

Sù jiàn déjiāng

Yí zhōu bó yān zhǔ
Rì mù kè chóu xīn
Yě kuàng tiān dī shù
Jiāngqīng yuè jìn rén

宿建德江

栘舟泊烟渚
日暮客愁新
野旷天低树
江清月近人

Stay Overnight on the Tonglu River

Meng Haoran followed up his poem about mooring on the Blue River with a similar poem, Stay Overnight on the Tonglu River, Write to My Old Guangling Friends. Guangling in the title refers to a district in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.Weiyang, referred to in the second stanza is near the capital of Chang’an. Jiande is our familiar city on the river which is given the name Tonglu, rather than Xin’an, its name according to Google Maps. NOt that it matters, but Meng Haoran is likely giving the river the name of Tonglu County through which it flows, east of Jiande.

Mountains at dusk, melancholy monkeys howl
Blue river, restlessly flows all night long.
Wind rustling through the leaves on the riverbanks
Moonlight shines on one solitary boat.

Jiande is not my home
It’s Weiyang where I miss old friends.
Both eyes still shedding tears
In this distant western place.

The River is as Blue as the Sky

Who has not stood at a river bank in the evening and watch the heavens sink below the trees? The water is like a mirror reflecting the sky in all its changing colors. Then as the sun sets, the water turns a deep blue the color of the evening sky. When the full moon rises on the horizon, it is so close one can touch it, lile a close friend?

Meng Haoran has stopped for the evening at Jiande (Déjiāng, 德江) in Hangzhou, the western part of Zhejiang Province. Meng has moored his boat along the misty bank, several miles downstream from Qiandao Lake. Jiāngqīng, 江清, Blue River in the last line is a reference to the river’s sky blue color at the setting sun. Though not identified, Xin’an is the river’s name.

Moon River, the Moon is my Friend

Tang poets like Du Fu and Li Bai have written endearingly of the moon, but none so beautifully as the older affable Meng Haoran.

Li Bai drinking alone made friends with the moon and his shadow, Li Bai, his shadow, and the moon. So friendly was Li Bai with the moon, the story is told that he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River, fell off his boat, and drowned. Du Fu spoke about how a full moon scatters restless gold across the waves.

Modern artists write about the moon. Moon Over Miami, a film and song from 1941, is a classic example. Johnny Mercer’s 1961 lyrics to Moon River captures a similar image for me. “Moon river, wider than a mile / I’m crossing you in style someday…” Fly Me to the Moon, by Bart Howard, sung by Kaye Ballard in 1954, and Frank Sinatra in 1964 is another example.

jiāng xuě, River Snow

In a thousand mountains, no bird flies
On ten thousand trails, no human trace
But one man in a grass raincoat and hat
Fishes in the river and  snow

In a thousand mountains, where no bird flies
On ten thousand trails, where no man walks
A single man in a grass coat and hat
Fishes by himself on the river and in the falling snow

Liu Zongyuan

Why do so many poets, embrace the sport of fishing? Because it’s done alone.

Liu Zongyuan (栁宗元, 773 – 819) wrote River and Snow , 江雪 while living in Yongzhou, Hunan province. The dates of his birth and death identify him as a late Tang poet. The poem is simple and direct in its message. The poet in his coat and hat of grass fishes for words to describe his loneliness surrounded by a thousand mountains and ten thousand trails where no bird flies and no man walks.

I have translated this poem before, and before that, but like my favorite snow covered path in the wintry woods where no man goes but me and the fleeting deer, it is one I like to come back to this time of year. It is different but still beautiful, perhaps that is why one likes to fish.

A poet is a fisherman
漁民, Yúmín
And a scholar
学者, Xuézhě
who fishes for words
with which to say
how beautiful is
this winter’s day;
in a thousand mountains
on ten thousand trails
alone, on the river

in the falling snow
fishing in coat and hat,
wine to keep him warm,
not catching
the words he needs to say
how beautiful

how wonderful is
the pure white snow,
Bái xuě ái ái,
and when at last
he’s had enough

of words and fish
he falls asleep

to dream of better days

Pinyin and Chinese

qiānshān niǎo fēi jué
wàn jìng rén zōng miè
gū zhōu suō lì wēng
dú diào hán jiāng xuě

千山鸟飞绝,万径人踪 灭。
孤舟蓑笠翁,独钓寒江雪

Reading Laozi, Bai Juyi

A speaker knows not, and he who knows speaks not
I heard this from the Old Man.
If the Old Man knows the Way,
Why five thousand words?

Laozi’s Contradiction

The Old Man is Laozi, 老子, Lao Tzu, Lao-Tze, Old Master, Chinese philosopher (6th c. BCE) and reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, 道德經, Dàodé Jīng, the philosophy of Tao, which teaches that to find The Way, we should become one with the rhythm of universe.

Laozi’s contradiction exists in the fact that being and teaching are not the same. One who speaks can not know. Happiness, wisdom and knowledge stem from Wúwéi, 無為, “not doing,” as a fish swims in the water, as a flower shaken from a tree by the wind, or a cloud that appears in the sky on a summer’s day, as seeing a loved one’s smile.

读老子

言者不如知者默
此语吾闻于老君
若道老君是知者
缘何自著五千文

dú lǎo zi

yán zhě bù zhī zhī zhě mò
cǐ yǔ wú wén yú lǎo jūn
ruò dào lǎo jūn shì zhī zhě
yuán hé zì ruò wǔ qiān wén

Farewell to Yuan on his Second Mission to Anxi

In Weicheng, the morning rain moistens the powdered dust
The green guesthouse is the color of new willow
Let me persuade you to drink another wine for
West of Yangguan Pass, there are no old friends to be found

In Weicheng, the morning rain wets the dust
The guesthouse is green, the color of new willow
Drink up! another cup
West of Yangguan, you’ll find nothing but deceased
friends
(tongue in cheek translation, see notes below)

Places

Line 1 – Weicheng, the city of Wei was in western Shaanxi province. Line 4 – Yangguan Pass, Yang Pass in the even more remote Gansu province that touches upon the arid Gobi Desert. Yuanguan, along with Yumen Pass, marks the entrance to the Silk Road, China’s link to the Cental Asia and the Middle East.

Place names trigger memories. The Beatles, a British rock band of the 1960s, wrote In My Life (There are Places I Remember, album Rubber Soul, 1965) whose lyrics begin: “There are places I’ll remember, All my life, though some have changed, Some forever, not for better, Some have gone, and some remain.”

Remarkably, many place names in China have remained, some have changed. Chang’an, the Tang capital is now called Xi’an. In my life, sometime after 1979, Peking, China’s present capital, became Beijing. Weicheng, city of Wei, present day Xianyang on the Wei River, a few miles upstream (west) of Chang’an (Xi’an).

People

Yuan of the Title – an old friend of Wang’s not otherwise identified. Perhaps a soldier, perhaps an administrator, for sure, a drinking companion who would find few trees to give shade and shelter and little wine to wet his lips and no old friends with which to share a drink.

[Some translators give the name as Yuan the Second. I suppose the confusion arises from whether the second describes the preceding or following character 元二使 in the title. As I understand Chinese grammar (and I am no expert) modifiers precede the thing they modify.]

Title

The Title – in the late Tang dynasty, the protectorate of Anxi (modern Xinjiang) consisted of four military garrisons whose purpose was to protect China from invading forces from Tibet and the Western Turkic Khaganate. By the time of the An Lushan Rebellion (beginning in 755), near the end of Wang Wei’s lifetime (699–759), Tibetan forces were stirring up trouble along with the rebel General An Lushan. Garrison forces in Anxi were withdrawn to help battle the rebel forces which had taken the Tang capital Chang’an in 762. Wang Wei was of course dead at the time all this was unfolding.

It would appear, therefore, that Wang Wei wrote this poem sometime prior to 755.

Chinese and Pinyin

送元二使安西

渭城朝雨浥輕塵
客舍青青柳色新
勸君更盡一杯酒
西出陽關無故人

sòngbai yuán èr shǐ ān xī

wèichéng zhāoyǔ yì qīngchén
kè shè qīng qīng liǔ sè xīn
quàn jūn gēng jìn yì bēi jiǔ
xī chū yángguān wú gù rén

Ezra Pound’s Translation

Light rain in the light dust.
Green willows around the courtyard
Going greener and greener,
But you, Sir, better take wine ere you depart,
For no friends will be about
When you come to the gates of Go.
I modified Ezra Pound, epigraph to “Four Poems of Departure”, in Cathay (1915)

Notes on Translation

Are you still with me? Then you are into minutiae, the trivialities of translation.

Almost universally, translators begin the title as “Farewell”. Farewell in Chinese more often appears as 送别, Sòngbié, which itself is mellifluous. Wang Wei has chosen to shorten this to , Sòng, which is kind of a “send off.” Not a big difference, probably not any difference at all.

Last line – One other interesting word choice is 故人 gù rén which means both “old friend” and “deceased friend”. To stretch a point, there are not “no friends,” but 無, Wú “nothing” but “deceased friends” in Anxi.