Gazing at the Mountain

Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pocket.” I like that. It takes hard work, one rung at a time, and sometimes, one needs to grab the foot that is just ahead and give it a yank.

 

A young Chinese scholar is about to take his imperial examinations. The future depends on it and he is jittery. Success is not a sure. In some years no students were passed, and Du Fu was in this group.

Wang Yue, “Gazing at the Mountain,” is one of Du Fu’s earliest poems.

It was written in 735 or 736 close in time to when Du Fu took his Jinshu examinations. As part of the examination, the candidate submitted a poem. There is no evidence for it, but this might have been the poem submitted by Du Fu. To “gaze at the mountain” is a metaphor for the challenge that stood before Du Fu. Success the goal and from the summit he could look down upon the thousands of others waiting their turn.

Is it optimism he expresses or the bravado of youth? Or is it the Greek quality of hubris that inevitably lead to defeat and downfall? Du Fu would fail his examination and his claim as one of finest poets of the Tang dynasties would take time.

Mount Tai or Tai’shen is a sacred mountain and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The long winding stairway to the summit and the Temple to the God of Taishan and from the Azure Cloud Temple is a famous pathway.

mt-tai-poster

Mt Tai

Gazing at the mountain

Preparing to climb Mt. Tai

Zhao and Jiang all around me a distant blue

The God of Time bestows Good fortune  and

Yin and Yang are balanced as the light of dawn

I bare my breast at the layers of clouds

From the corner of my eye to catch the sight of flying birds

On my struggle to reach the top

And see all the small hills in one glance?

There are other translations. There always are. Often they differ in word and meaning, revealing our difficulties in understanding the voice of another human being from different culture and time.

Daniel Hsieh of Purdue University has given us his interpretation. Another one by All Poetry perhaps, better catches the poet’s meaning. I repeat it, for educational purposes.

For all this, what is the mountain god like?
An unending green of lands north and south:
From ethereal beauty Creation distills
There, yin and yang split dusk and dawn.

Swelling clouds sweep by. Returning birds
Ruin my eyes vanishing. One day soon,
At the summit, the other mountains will be
Small enough to hold, all in a single glance.

望 岳

岱 宗 夫 如 何

齐 鲁 青 未 了

造 化 钟 神 秀

阴 阳 割 昏 晓

荡 胸 生 层 云

决 眦 入 归 鸟

会 当 凌 绝 顶

一 览 众 山 小

fuchun

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Life’s illusion

the-three-gorges-2

Lost in Translation

Beware of translations. They often miss the meaning of the words. But the greater sorrow is that they do they convey the sense of rhyme and meter. So too with this poem by poet Du Mu, which is often translated as Dispelling Sorrow, but whose literal meaning is The Awakening.

The Awakening

What little we know here is that an older Du Mu (遣 怀) is recalling his heavenly days with the girls of Chu in Yangzhou. Ten years later he awakes to these thoughts with a bottle of wine and little else to show.

杜牧 The Awakening
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

Down on my luck, wine in hand…

Oh, those slim girls of Chu,

So tiny they could dance in the my palm of my hand.

Ten years later and I waken from a dream of Yangzhou,

among the corteseans, I was capricious.

 

Yangzhou

Yangzhou (扬 州), which lies on the north side of the Yangtze, was one of the wealthiest cities in China, famous for its merchants, poets, beautiful women, and scholars. During the An Lushan Rebellion, it was the scene of a massacre of foreign merchants.

Dispelling Sorrow

遣怀

These two characters are usually translated as “dispelling sorrow”. Literally, the letters translate as waking up. Other translations include, My lament and My confession. I suppose any of them work. The author is after all a Rip Van Winkle character, awaking from a dream with only a memory and a sorry reputation. So, with that in mind I give it the title, Life’s Illusion.

Courtesans in China

I refer to a Chinese house of prostitution as a “blue” house. 青 is the Chinese character and may mean blue or green, or bluish green. 青楼 is a greenish-blue house. I suspect, without certainty, that Du Mu is referencing “nature’s color” along with “youth” and “passion”.

“Prostitute” is not an accurate translation, “courtesan” is closer to the mark.

One should be mindful that a Tang prostitute was often held in high regard.  This is not a brothel as we understand it.  Living quarters contained spacious halls with exquisite furnishings, and grounds with artificial hills and ponds.  Therefore, a young man might consider himself as being in paradise.

Why, there were even Tang poets who were courtesans.

it is easier to find the rarest treasure
than to love for our own pleasure
by day, we weep our secret tears
among the flowers, we hide our breaking hearts
and if we can have great poets for friends
should we also long for handsome lovers?
Yu Xuan Ji

Note. I will come back to this poem a month from now. The meaning will in all likelihood be entirely different. This is not a comment on the finality of poetry, but rather its ephemeral nature, and beauty.

Garden of the Golden Valley of Shi Chong

 

 

The Golden Valley near Lyoung, was where Emperor Wu’s wealthy offical, Shi Chong had his luxurious villa in the midst of “clear springs and verdant woods”. Life is impermanent, and political disaster descended upon Shi Chong’s paradise. Green Pearl, his favorite concubine, threw herself from a tower.

Du Mu wrote this quatrain 500 years later.

 

winding-river

金谷园
The Garden of the Golden Valley

杜牧
Du Mu

繁华事散逐香尘,
流水无情草自春

日暮东风怨啼鸟,
落花犹似坠楼人

A. C. Graham has given us the sense of Du Mu’s poem set in paradise – a tragic death, love lost, time passing, and beauty fading into dust. I repeat his words here with a few changes:

Scattered pomp has turned to scented dust
Streaming waters know no care, grass spreads and claims spring as its own
At sunset, an East Wind carries the sound of crying birds
Petals on the ground are her likeness still, beneath the tower where she fell

Original translation by A. C. Graham

Others have given different interpretations, suggesting that it is glory that fades, or prosperity that does not last, or sweet love too soon turned to dust.

The Chinese characters 繁华 suggest a sense of bustling prosperity and Shi Chong was certainly one of the most prosperous men of his time who took pleasure in displaying his wealth to others. This in time is scattered 散 like fragrant dust, 香尘. Metaphors make for powerful images. The character 香 may be translated as a joss stick, and 尘 as dust. So we have the image of something sweet and beautiful now become perfumed ashes.

Life continues on.

The rivers flow to the sea, the grasses reclaim what was once a garden. At twilight 日暮 an East Wind 东风 blows. The symbolism of the East Wind is not lost on Du Mu. It is the harbinger of spring, but it is also the idea of something that is perfect in all aspects but for one thing. Du Mu’s perfect garden was lost because of his political association and the enemies he made along the way.

On his way to execution, Shi Chong remarked that it was his wealth others sought, not his love of Green Pearl. He was then asked, if knowing this, why had he not given away his wealth?

The most powerful metaphor remains, the beautiful Green Pearl lying beneath the tower wall, like the fallen petals of a flower 落花.