Dispelling Sorrow – Du Mu

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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

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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

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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)

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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.

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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.