Bamboo House – Wang Wei

Bamboo House

In quiet bamboo, I sit alone
Plucking the zither, repeating its song.
In the forest deep, quite unknown
The bright moon shines and comes

Original Chinese characters

竹 里 館
獨 坐 幽 篁 裡
彈 琴 復 長 嘯
深 林 人 不 知
明 月 來 相 照

Pinyin

Zhú lǐ guǎn
dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
tán qín fù cháng xiào
shēn lín rén bù zhī
míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was and is highly regarded as poet, painter and musician.

The 琴 referred to in line two is a Chinese zither, a stringed instrument that is plucked. The English/Chinese translation is more correctly “guzheng”.

Late in life, Wang became a devout Buddhist. His poems and this one in particular refer to emptiness and the lessons of silence. The poem was composed during the An Lushan Rebellion, when Wang’s fortunes with the Imperial Court fell and rose again. The poem was likely composed at his family estate near the Wang River in Shaanxi province.

The challenge with translation is to try and keep both the cadence and meaning of the poem intact. Wang composed his poem in four lines of five characters.

wang wei Scenery of Snow and Creek

Wang Wei, Scenery of Snow and Creek, wikiart

French translation

Seul dans le bambou tranquille, je suis assis
Tapoter de la cithare, répéter sa chanson
Dans la forêt profonde, tout à fait inconnu
Brille la lune brillante, va et vient

Alternate translation

Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo
I strum my zither, and whistle a tune
Deep in the woods, no one can hear
Still, the bright moon comes to shine on me

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A Wilderness View – Du Fu

china mountains snow

A Wilderness View

In the western mountains the snow is white where lies three forts
In the south, the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River
Oh, the wind and dust keep me from my brothers, and
The edge of heaven ends in tears, as I am so far away
And the future offers only many ills and the stay of the sunset
To the imperial court, I have less use than a speck of dust
Yet, astride my horse I sally forth to the open country
No man can endure the chaos of the world

Setting for Du Fu’s Wilderness View

In the far west, the Tang imperial forces are hard pressed to keep out the Tibetan army. The poet Du Fu, old in years, approaches the three forts that guard China from the invaders. Astride his horse he stops for a moment to gaze at the snow on the western mountains to compose this poem.

The Jin River (Jinjiang) begins in the western province of Sichuan, that boarders Tibet. I can not find a bridge named Wanli on the Jin River and it may be that Du Fu is using the two Chinese characters 萬 and 里, to mean a thousand miles, or a long bridge, rather than as a place name, wan meaning a thousand, and li being a unit of measurement often equated with a mile.

One Chinese frontier city was Songzhou (松州, in modern Sichuan). Phonetically this is similar to chéng shù of the first line, but this interpretation is a stretch. The characters also sound like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

Alternate translation of line 2: To the south it is clear to where the the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River. The similarity in structure of the two characters 浦 and 清 is obvious, but the significance is not.

Line four, edge of heaven is often translated in English as the end of the world.

The Style of Du Fu

Du Fu liked to write in a structured poetry of balancing couplets, a style called Lu Shi (律詩). This can be observed in the Pinyin translation below, particularly in the last two lines.


kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáo

Original Chinese and Pinyin

野 望

西 山 白 雪 三 城 戍
南 浦 清 江 萬 里 橋
海 內 風 塵 諸 弟 隔
天 涯 涕 淚 一 身 遙
唯 將 遲 暮 供 多 病
未 有 涓 埃 答 聖 朝
跨 馬 出 郊 時 極 目
不 堪 人 事 日 蕭 條

Yěwàng

Xīshān báixuě sān chéng shù
nánpǔ qīngjiāng wànlǐ qiáo
hǎinèi fēngchén zhū dì gé
tiānyá tìlèi yīshēn yáo
wéi jiāng chímù gōng duō bìng
wèi yǒu juān āi dá shèng cháo
kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáoDu Fu’s Laments from the South

History of Chinese Tibetan Warfare

The history of Chinese warfare with Tibet is beyond my understanding. One source is China’s Golden Age. Another translation of this poem with background material is found in Du Fu’s Laments from the South by David R. McCraw.

china mountains river

Deer Park

Deer Enclosure
Deep in the mountain forest, not a soul to be seen

Yet I hear a sound stirring, a voice
And as the setting sun looks back at the deep forest
Shining back at me reflecting off the green moss

Version Two

No one is seen in the empty mountains, and yet
A voice is heard, no more.
In these deep dark woods, setting sunlight
Shines on green moss, rising up at me.

Wang Wei

Wang Wei’s life spanned the years 699–759 AD.

He must be included in anyone’s list of superstar poets of the Tang Dynasty. He was also an accomplished painter and musician.

Wang Wei’s poem Deer Park  (Deer Enclosure, Deer Hermitage…) stands on its own as a poem of nature’s beauty, but it has an underlying story. Most scholars agree that 鹿柴, Lù Zhài, Lu Chai, is an allusion to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, where Buddha first preached.  Beneath the famous Bodhi Tree, Gautama Buddha became enlightened, an event that took place in the 6th century BC.

 

tree in a forest

Interpretation of Deer Park

Buddha taught the four noble truths: that we crave and cling to impermanent things, that these things are incapable of satisfying us, that this suffering ends with the freedom from these wants, that freedom is achieved through the right way.

Line 1, Wang Wei’s setting, 空山 translates literally as empty mountains, its literary meaning is serene mountains. 空 which is generally translated as empty may also mean: hollow, in vain, sky, air, or free, another allusion to Buddha’s teaching of the noble truths.

Line 4, the light of the sun that shines back at us is a mere glimmer of complete understanding. It is nevertheless, something, and like the will o’the wisp, as we approach it, it fades, ever receding from our grasp.

road-forest-fall

Original Chinese and Pinyin

空 山 不 見 人
Kōngshān bùjiàn rén
但 聞 人 語 響
Dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng
返 景 入 深 林
Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín
復 照 青 苔 上
fù zhào qīngtái shàng

French Translation of Deer Park by Wang Wei

Nul n’est vu dans les montagnes serenes, mais
Une voix est entendue, et pas plus.
Les bois sombres profonds, la lumière du soleil
Brille sur la mousse verte, se lève sur moi.

Notes

This poem is an endless source of study for scholars and translators. Here is one such study of thousands. Lichtung and Luchai, by Toming Jun Liu. Enjoy.

Du Fu – The Evening Council Chamber

A poem is never done, it is left unfinished or abandoned, but never done, and, what is more, never fully understood.

The Evening Council Chamber

While the winter curtails the daylight
At the end of the world the frost and snow swirl in the night
At the fifth-watch the drums and bugles sound their sad song
O’er the Three Gorges pours the Star River (Milky Way)
From a distance women wail of war and
At dawn fishermen and woodcutters go to work
Wolong and his Leaping Horse are the Yellow Earth
A man’s work makes a letter unfettered, sound lonesome and alone

Dating the Poem

During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), Du Fu (杜甫, 712-770) was captured by the rebels and then escaped, and he later sought refuge in the wilds of the Gorges. It is likely that he wrote this poem then. In particular the date of this poem may be placed between the spring of 766 and the autumn of 768, when Du Fu and his family stayed in nearby Kuizhou. Chapter One, Rising From a Placid Lake, China’s Three Gorges

Caveats

This poem is a translator’s nightmare.

Translation that are literal miss the mark because they do not take into account compound words, place names, and pseudonyms for famous Chinese figures. Modern translation also miss subtleties of language.

The Title

The English title of the poem seems to wander from Du Fu’s intention. I have seen the title both as From the Watch Tower and as Night in the Watch-tower. The first character translates directly as council-chamber, not watch tower. And the intent of the poem is discuss the affairs of the day among those who make war and cause death. The second character in the title is “night” but “evening” works as well.

The Poem

Line 1. Du Fu uses the characters 陰 and 陽, yin and yang, to represent the opposing forces in nature.

Line 2. 天 涯, Tian Ya, at the border of heaven, at the horizon.

Line 3. The Fifth Watch, from 3 to 5 am.

wang shimin landscapes inspired by dufu  qing dynasty 1665 wikipedia

Line 4. The line identifies the place as today’s scenic Three Gorges. In the heavens above shines a River of Stars which we know as the Milky Way.

Line 6. Wolong (臥龍) is an alternative name for Zhuge Liang, Chinese general, statesman and strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 -280), which began with the dissolution of the Han Empire. The kingdoms were separated by the natural boundaries of the Yangtze River and the central mountains where the Three Gorges are. Wolong, also called Sleeping Dragon,  was a general for the Shu Han. His death ended a strategic threat to the Chinese Kingdom.

Line 7. Begins with 人事, a man’s work, or human affairs, but also a homophone to 詩 or 诗, Shi, the Chinese word for all poetry generally.

Du Fu compares man’s work with a letter 書, Shu.

Du Fu had in mind the deaths of his good friends Li Bai and Yan Wu. What happens to poetry that is not collected? Will his story be different than Wolong?

There is a common belief in China that the dry dusty yellow earth (loess) of north China is made up of the remains of the millions of dead soldiers.

Original Chinese

閣 夜
歲 暮 陰 陽 催 短 景
天 涯 霜 雪 霽 寒 霄
五 更 鼓 角 聲 悲 壯
三 峽 星 河 影 動 搖
野 哭 千 家 聞 戰 伐
夷 歌 數 處 起 漁 樵
臥 龍 躍 馬 終 黃 土

This poem is unfinished… Recheck the last two lines.