Thoughts on New Years Eve – Cui Tu

The end of the old year, the beginning of a new one, a new poet, Cui Tu. What will the new year bring?

The road to Ba is a long, long, long way
Still, I am making this fearful journey of ten thousand li
At night in the melting snow beneath the jagged mountains
A stranger alone in a strange land
Gradually growing more distant from family and friends
Becoming closer to my companions instead
How does one bear moving from place to place
When tomorrow will be the New Year?

The Chinese Lunar New Year will fall on Friday, February 16, 2018. So, I am ahead of myself if I am trying to keep pace with Cui Tu, but on track if one uses the Gregorian calendar.

State of Ba

Cui Tu’s destination was the state of Ba in eastern Sichuan, China. Ba borders the states of Pu, Chu, and Shu. Cui’s final destination is not given. He could have been traveling to the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the northern Daba Mountains, or the Yungui Plateau to the south, or, just as well, all three. Cui Tu loved to wander.

Chinese mile, Li

The li is a Chinese unit of distance, about 500 meters or 1640 feet.

Other translations

No translation is ever exact and I have taken a liberty or two. American poet Witter Bynner included Thoughts on New Year’s Eve in his translation of Tang poetry, Heng-tʻang-tʻui-shih, The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology (New York: Knopf, 1929.

Original Chinese text

除夜有懷

迢遞三巴路
羈危萬里身
亂山殘雪夜
孤獨異鄕人
漸與骨肉遠
轉於僮僕親
那堪止漂泊
明日歲華新

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Happiness 幸福

A song of pure happiness, I

I want to believe that
Her clothes are a cloud, her dress a flower that
I could hold in the palm of my hand, and
That the wind of Spring will brush away the dazzling dew
So, that I might see the peak of Jade Mountain
From the platform of a heavenly paradise

Happiness

I begin by asking myself if happiness exists.

There are few poems on the subject written by the Tang poets. I did come across a series of poems by the poet Li Bai, with the alluring description, A Song of Pure Happiness I, II, and III.

Happiness, most philosophers would say, is an illusive thing. And, the two Chinese characters in the poem’s title 清 平, are usually translated as “pure happiness,” but that is not entirely accurate.

平 is not even close to the Chinese character for happiness. That character is 雙喜. If one is referring to double happiness, then 喜喜, which is often inscribed on jars and vases.

Rather, 平 means peace or calm, but if the world is at peace, then I suppose I would be happy. I also suspect from a philosophical standpoint, and the philosophy here would be Buddhist or Taoist, happiness is not the goal in life. It is ephemeral like the cloud-like gown Li Bai imagines.

There is a little eroticism involved here. I picture Li Bai out for a prowl on the town, a couple of drinks under his woolen tunic, looking up at the balcony, seeing a beautiful girl in silk and becoming enamored.

Jade Mountain

Jade Mountain which Li Bai references is a place name, or rather a mythological place name that predates the Tang dynasty.  It is located in the west and it is home to the Queen Mother of the West, who dispensed eternal bliss and a good measure of happiness.

It is also likely that Li Bai’s mention of 會 向, is another place-name, Yáotái, but this will take a little more time to look into than I now have. I will say that tai references a high place from which all of the surroundings may be viewed.

Bliss

The character for bliss in Chinese is 福, the other half of the two characters that make up happiness, 幸福, literally, lucky to be blissful. One does observe the similarity in the two characters, 平 and 幸, peace and lucky, but that may be just coincidence.

One observes that the world is lucky if it is at peace.

Go figure.

Li Bai’s rhyme scheme is aaba. This and other internal rhymes are sadly lost in translation.

The original Chinese poem

平 調 之 一

雲 想 衣 裳 花 想 容
春 風 拂 檻 露 華 濃
若 非 群 玉 山 頭 見
會 向 瑤 臺 月下 逢

French translation

Voit-il des nuages, et pense à sa robe ; voit-il des fleurs.
Le vent du printemps souffle sur la balustrade embaumée ;
la rosée s’y forme abondamment.
Quand ce n’est pas au sommet du Yu-chan (montagne de jade) qu’il l’aperçoit,
C’est dans la tour Yao-taï qu’il la retrouve, sous les rayons de la lune.

The translation is not mine. It is from 唐 詩 Tang Shi 300 Tang poems. There is a remark in the footnotes that is interesting. Le mont Yu-chan et la tour Yao-taï étaient des lieux célèbres habités par les immortels.

moonlight

江雪 River-Snow, Liu Zongyuan

In a thousand mountains, not a bird takes flight
On a million paths, not a soul in sight, but
Alone in a boat, in his grass cape, sits a fisherman under a bamboo hat
Fishing, on the snow-covered river, despite the cold

Qianshan (千山, in the land of a thousand mountains)

clouds-mountain-dark

Pinyin and Original Chinese Characters, 江雪

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

千山鳥飛絕
萬徑人蹤滅
孤舟簑笠翁
獨釣寒江雪

Winter Returns

In an earlier post, I translated Liu Zongyuan’s River Snow.

Now that that winter returns, I wish to go back to that lonely fisherman as he sits in his grass cape and bamboo hat fishing on a frozen river. Look closely, and I am sure you will see something of yourself in fisherman.

Quinshan, China

Qianshan is a is a national park in Liaoning Province, China.

In line three, Li has placed our poor and solitary 孤 old man 翁 in a boat 舟, wearing nothing more than a grass cape 簑 and bamboo hat 笠, as if he is part of the natural setting.

River Snow

And what did Liu mean by river snow?

The poem ends in the three Chinese characters – 寒江雪, hán jiāng xuě.

Literally “cold river snow,”  the first character meaning, cold, poor, tremble, fear, or winter. It is also a homophone for the Han, the Chinese people.

Such a simple and beautiful poem, and so complex.

French translation River Snow

 

farmhouse on the Wei river

Farmhouse on the Wei

wang-wei

While fading light falls on the land
As the cattle and sheep trail down the country lane
An old man stands at the door of his thatched cottage
Leaning on a staff with thoughts of his son, the herd-boy, thinking
Of fluttering pheasants amongst sheaves of wheat
Of silk worms asleep, among half-eaten mulberry leaves
Of farmers returning with hoes hoisted on shoulders
Exchanging words of hello
Oh, how I long for the simple life
And sigh, as I sing the old song,
Oh, to be young again!

Wang Wei spent much of his adult life in seclusion. For a period of time he retreated retreat to the mountains, just south of the Tang capital, Chang-an. The Wei River that he writes about here was was one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization, a tributary of the Yellow River, an obvious play on Chinese characters for the poet.

Wang Wei was well known for his shanshui, or mountains and rivers, poetry and his poems were often written to be presented with his art work.

The title, 渭 川 田 家, literally, Wei River farm house.

The penultimate line, 悵 然 吟 式 微, a play on word for Wang Wei’s capture in the capital Chang’an by the An Shi rebels. The first two characters, literally respectfully correct, by a homophone for Chang’an, the capital city that the rebels captured.

The last two charcters, 式微, shì wēi, the poetry of Wei or, to decline, again a play on word, which describes his trouble with the imperial court.

The conclusion, 又作至, literally, to do it again.

Song of an Autumn Midnight

At the far western reach of the Tang Dynasty was the 玉 關, Jade Gate, though which the western caravans came wool, spices, gold, and silver in exchange for Chinese silks.

The Tang Dynasty was founded in 618 AD and ended in 907. It followed the Han Dynasty which existed from 206 BC until 220 AD. The Han succeeded in pacifying the western barbarian tribes and creating the gate or pass on the Silk Road connecting Central Asia and China. It was called the 玉 關, Jade Gate. The Tang emperor Taizong, and his military force defeated the Eastern Turks in 630, established peace with the Western Turks and vanquished Gaochang (Turpan), Yanqi (Qarashar) and Qiuci (now Kuche), all of whom were collectively called 胡 虜, barbarians or Hu Lu. In 646, the Mongolian Plateau came under the control of the Tang Dynasty the defeat of the Western Turks.

Chang’ An was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and the largest City on Earth, with a population exceeding one million. During the extended military campaigns the wives remained at home doing the wash, taking care of the children, and hoping for the day when their husbands would return.

moon-crescent

Midnight and an Autumn Song (秋歌)

Over Chang’an, shines a slice of moon and
Ten thousand wives can be heard washing clothes
An autumn wind blows without end
Carrying my heart to the Jade Gate
When will peace come to the Hu Lu
And my husband return from his long journey

Original Chinese text

秋歌

長 安 一 片 月
萬 戶 擣 衣 聲
秋 風 吹 不 盡
總 是 玉 關 情
何 日 平 胡 虜
良 人 罷 遠 征

Note:
Rhyme pattern:
Yuè, sheng, jìn, qíng, lǔ, zhēng
a, b, b, b, a, b

Li Bai (701–762) was a romantic poet influenced greatly by the northern An Shi Rebellion which began in 755 and lasted almost a decade. The catastrophic events included the capture of Chang’an by the rebels. Midnight Autumn Song poem should be read along with Li Bai’s Moon over the Mountain Pass.

li-bai-shadow

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762. He was one of the two leading figures of Chinese poetry.

Li Bai’s life was for the most part itinerant. In 742, he came to Chang’an, marveled at its splendor, hoping to be given an official position. No official post resulted, but he did meet other poets and shared a glass of wine or two, for which he was well-known. In the autumn of 744, he took to wanderings again.

Popular legend says that he drowned when, drunk in a boat, he leaned over and tried to seize the moon’s reflection in the water.