Coming Home

He Zhizhang (659-744) was a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty who had the good fortune to die before the An Lushan Rebellion began.

heZhizhang

He Zhizhang

It is said – I have not confirmed it – that he was both politician and poet who retired in the year 743, at age eighty-five, to become a Daoist hermit near Lake Jinghu in Zhejiang Province, his native province. If so, he returned to a place near where he was born. He (pun intended) was unlikely to have found any living relatives or friends, and so would be unrecognized by those living there. The children, finding a stranger speaking their native tongue would be curious.

Likely, this inspired his poem whose Chinese characters are:

回 鄉 偶 書

, variously translated as:

Coming Home or On Returning Home.

Small and young I left my home, big and old, I now return
Speaking in my village voice with hair grown thin
Children, seeing and hearing me, wonder, who is this man?
And smiling, ask, sir, why do you come?

Notes on the English translation.

The first two characters of the title 回 鄉 express Zhizhang’s emotion of coming home and are homophone (Huí xiāng) for his name. The first character 回 nicely expresses the idea of being a subset of a set, a part of a whole, and the temporal idea of returning to one’s place of origin. The character for native province 鄉 is coincidentally a homophone for Zuizhang’s native province of  Zhejiang.

The last two characters of the title 偶 書, often ignored in translation, contain the thought, I write.

French translation,

De retourner au pays
Petit et jeune, de ma village natale j’ai quitté , grande et ancienne je retourne
Parlant dans la voix de ma village avec des cheveux mûrs
Les enfants, me voyant, disent-ils, qui est cet homme?
Et souriant, demandez-moi, monsieur, pourquoi viens-tu?

German translation,

Rückkehr, Heimkommen
Kleine und junge mein Zuhause ich verließ, groß und alt komme ich zurück
Sprechen mit keinem Akzent, mit Haaren gewachsen dünn
Kinder, sehen mich, sagen, wer ist dieser Mann?
Und lächelnd, fragen Sie, Herr, warum kommen Sie?

Notes on the German translation

I will leave it to others to say whether Rückkehr or Heimkommen is the better choice for the title.

Spanish translation,

Not mine, someone else who has a better command of the Spanish language.

Original Chinese characters:

少小離家老大回
鄉音無改鬢毛衰
兒童相見不相識
笑問客從何處來

Clearing Rain by Du Fu

In Kansas, half way though June. Summer is not yet here, but the day time temperatures already approach 100 degrees.

Last night a violent storm blew out of the west. The news reporters spoke of straight-line winds approaching 90 miles an hour. Tree limbs fell and cars and trucks were blown off the highway. But, it rained and the farmers are grateful; for a long rain means the knee-high corn will survive the coming summer season.

In another time and place, Chinese poet Du Fu watched a similar storm and wrote a poem the following day.

lightning-2

The rain clears
(One becomes less angry in autumn)

The rain fell and the autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind has blown ten thousand li.
The morning view is good and fine,
A long rain has not hurt the land.
The willow’s leaves are turning emerald green,
On a distant hill a pear tree blazes red.
Upstairs, a flute plays,
And outside, a goose flies in the sky.

Original Chinese

雨晴
(一作秋霁)

天水秋云薄
从西万里风
今朝好晴景
久雨不妨农
塞柳行疏翠
山梨结小红
胡笳楼上发
一雁入高空

Meaning of Du Fu’s Clearing Rain

In the summer of 759, Du Fu spent about six weeks in the city of Tianshui (天水) where he wrote this poem.

Du Fu had survived the worst of the rebellion. Captured by the rebels in 756, he escaped the following year and rejoined the emperor in the south. The emperor forces recaptured the capital Chang’an. Du Fu was accused of treason for remaining behind, but cleared of the charges. Back in the emperor’s good graces he received a post as Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, which was not to his liking. It was then, in the summer of 759, that he moved on to Tianshui where he spent a short six weeks and wrote over sixty poems.

The first two Chinese characters of Du Fu’s poem translate as “sky” and “water” or combined as “rain”. The two characters also name the city Tianshui where this poem was written.

Making sense of Du Fu’s poem:

It is now the autumn of my life.

It rained last night. The skies have cleared leaving behind only a few clouds. The western wind which once overpowered the east wind has blown ten thousand miles away. The long rain has not destroyed the country. The leaves of the willow trees, though sparse, are still green. On a distant hill the leaves of a pear tree blaze red. The wars though distant still consume lives. Somewhere in the house, a single flute plays its mournful tune and above a goose flies away.

To be continued…

Back in Kansas

The morning after the storm, a cup of coffee in hand, I go outside on my back porch and survey the damage. A few weak branches have fallen from the oak tree that towers above and green leaves are scattered about. The robins are busily gathering up worms.

Inside, on the television news reporters talk of nothing but tweets.

French translation

La pluie est tombée et les nuages d’automne sont peu,
Le vent de l’ouest a soufflé dix mille li.
La matin est bonne et bien,
Une longue pluie n’a pas blessé la terre.
Les feuilles du saut tournent vert émeraude
Sur une colline éloignée, une poire flambe rouge.
Une flûte joue en haut,
Et une oie flotte sur le vent.

Jetzt auf deutsch, German translation

Der Regen fiel und die Herbstwolken sind dünn,
Der westliche wind hat zehntausend li geblasen
Die Morgenansicht ist sehr gut,
Ein langer Regen hat das Land nicht verletzt.
Die Blätter der Weide machen Smaragdgrün,
Auf einem fernen Hügel bricht ein Birnbaum rot.
Eine Flöte spielt oben,
Und eine Gans fliegt in den Himmel.

Not to be underestimated

Do not underestimate the little things in life is the simple message of this poem. To one who is weary and wet, a shack in the rain is more valuable than a palace far, far away, and coarse grain and diluted wine a feast.

shack-night

Not to Be Underestimated

Traveling, on foot with a broken-down horse
Hungry, eating food that is coarse
Thirsty, surviving on diluted wine
Famished, drinking soup that is thin
Walking, forever without a good sleep at night
Caught in the rain, catching sight of a broken-down shack

Li Shangyin’s lived (813-858) towards the end of the Tang dynasty, his life spanning the reign of five emperors. Eunuchs controlled the power of the emperors. They did not favor Li Shangyin with important appointments and he seemed to survive without great disappointment. His humble political appointments allowed him to write poems using imagery to convey his message.

Daming Palace

For over two hundred years, the Daming Palace, or Palace of ‘Great Brillance’, in the capital city of Chang’an was the glorious seat of government for the Tang Dynasty. The complex covers almost 2 square miles and has a total length of slightly under 5 miles. It contains 11 royal gates. Its principal bulding is Hanyuan Hall.

During excavations in 1957, archeologists uncovered a stone inscription commemorating the building of Hanyuan Hall in 831, an event with which Li Shangyin would have been certainly familiar.

Li_Shangyin

Li-Shangyin