Meeting Li Guinian at Jiangnan, (South of the River) – Du Fu

Meeting Li Guinian at Jiangnan

Often we met at Prince Qi’s Palace and
Many times I heard you at Lord Cui’s home and
Just now, at Jiangnan, when the earth is its finest
When blossoms are falling, we meet again, by chance

street-performer-guitar.jpg

Notes

Poetry, calligraphy, music and art all flourished in the Tang dynasty.

But then, glory and flame are fleeting. And chance plays a major part in whether we end up rich man or poor man, poet or recluse, court musician or street performer.

Du Fu was one of the Tang dynasty’s greatest poets. He was also a prominent civil servant who unfortunately found his star falling at the close of his life.

Li Guinian was a famous musician of the same time. Likewise, his fortunes, fell during the An Lushan Rebellion, and so he ended up as a street performer South of the Yangtze River, where the encounter described in the poem took place.

Title

A literal translation of the title is At Jiangnan Meeting Li Guinian. Jiangnan also translates as South of the River, but it is also a place name. Du Fu intended both meanings.

The poem’s date

A fateful event triggered a change in fortune. This was the An Lushan Rebellion, which began in 755 and ended 8 years alter.

The poem, therefore, can be dated after this and before Du Fu’s death in 770. It would not be too far a stretch to spot the time of the meeting between poet and musician to after 765, when Du Fu and his family sailed down the Yangtze, with the intention of making their way to Luoyang, Du Fu’s birthplace.

Prince Qi and Cui Jui

Prince Qi, named in the poem, likely refers to a brother of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong. Cui Jiu likely refers to a member of the Cui clan of Qinghe, and chancellor to the emperor. I confess to confusion in the translation of Cui Jui. Jui means 9th, but I doubt that Du Fu is referring to a 9th son. Rather, it is likely Cui Jui was a prominent person in the emperor’s entourage. Exactly who is a mystery. Other Tang poets like Pei Di have referred to Cui Jui, (see A Farewell to Cui Jiu), so one suspects there is more to the passing reference.

Jiangnan

Jiangnan (South of the River) is generally described as the to lands immediately to south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Most translations of Du Fu’s poem use the literal English South of the River, rather than the geographic place name, Jiangnan. There is an argument either way, Jiangnan is more sonorous, South of the River has a better implied connotation. Crossing the river and south of the river might both be metaphors for a tragic but happy or sad change in one’s fortunes.

Original Chinese

江 南 逢 李 龜 年
岐 王 宅 裡 尋 常 見
崔 九 堂 前 幾 度 聞
正 是 江 南 好 風 景
落 花 時 節 又 逢 君

Pinyin

Jiāngnán féng lǐ guī nián
qí wáng zhái lǐ xún chángjiàn
cuī jiǔ tángqián jǐdù wén
zhèng shì jiāngnán hǎo fēngjǐng
luòhuā shíjié yòu féng jūn

French

Li Guinian et moi, nous nous rencontrons
Au Palais du Prince Qi, souvent, nous nous sommes rencontrés
Chez le maître Cui, plusieurs fois, je vous ai entendu
Tout à l’heure, à Jiangnan, quand la terre est son meilleur
Quand la floraison tombe, on se retrouve, par chance

streets-guitar

Advertisements

Yearning – Wang Wei

Red berries born in the south

Whose branches are full in the Spring

A gentleman wishes you gather many

As a symbol of our love

Wang Wei

Wang Wei (王維, 699–759) is regarded as one of the three most admired poets of the Tang dynasty, the other two being Li Bai and Du Fu. But Wang has the distinction of also being a recognized painter and musician. Rising to the position of Chancellor of the Tang court, he fell in disfavor during the An Lushan rebellion.

What are we to make of this poem?

Surviving the rebellion, and grieving for the death of his wife and sister, he retired to the family estate along the Wang River. I think we may gather that this poem was written there, that it was an epitaph for his dearly beloved wife for whom he still longed.

The title of the poem, 相 思, Xiāngsī, is most often translated as yearning, but it is also the Chinese symbol for love-sickness. Wang fittingly concludes his poem with the same characters to emphasize the emotion. I simplified this to “love” in my translation.

adzuki beans

Red, red beans

For some reason Neil Diamond’s silly song Red, Red Wine comes to mind. Its repetitive lyrics are somehow relevant.

“Red, red wine, stay close to me
Don’t let me be alone
It’s tearing apart
My blue, blue heart”

Line one, 紅 豆, hóngdòu, the red berries that Wang refers to are Azuki beans, which make into a red paste commonly used in Chinese treats. Red is a symbol of joy and happiness, but also the color of ink for writing the names of the dead in China. I have found a reference to “red beans” as missing someone. This comes from an ancient story of a Chinese wife who missed her warrior husband. He never returned and she cried tears that watered the ground, hardened into red beans, and grew into vines that produced still more red beans, 紅 豆, hóngdòu.

In China today, red beans still symbolize love and fidelity. So, a husband would be happy and lucky for his loving wife to serve a steaming bowl of red pinto beans.

French

Baies rouges nées dans le sud
Au printemps, les branches sont pleines
Un monsieur, vous souhaite glaner de plus
Symbole de notre amour

Original Chinese

相 思
紅 豆 生 南 國
春 來 發 幾 枝
願 君 多 采 擷
此 物 最 相 思

Pinyin

Xiāngsī
hóngdòu shēng nánguó
chūn lái fā jǐzhī
yuàn jūn duō cǎixié
cǐ wù zuì xiāngsī

The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl, Meng Jiao

The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl

As Wutong-trees, live life as one
As Mandarin ducks, mate til death
As a virtuous woman loves only her husband
I swear in life, to be faithful forever
For a billowing wave cannot stir
A water-like-spirit in a timeless well

concentric waves

Original Chinese

烈 女 操

梧 桐 相 待 老
鴛 鴦 會 雙 死
貞 婦 貴 殉 夫
捨 生 亦 如 此
波 瀾 誓 不 起
妾 心 井 中 水

Pinyin

Wú tóng xiāng dài lǎo
yuān\yāng huì shuāng sǐ
zhēnfù guì xùn fū
shě shēng yì rúcǐ
bōlán shì bù qǐ
qiè xīn jǐngzhōng shuǐ

Meng Jiao

May I introduce you to Master Meng, the latest poet in my list of Tang poets.

One could say that Meng Jiao had both the good and bad fortune to be born in interesting times. Meng Jiao was born in 751 in the Chinese province of Huzhou. Soon after his birth, the Tang dynasty experienced major military defeats on its western and southern borders. Shortly thereafter followed the An Lushan Rebellion, which laid waste to the Chinese population and economy. Floods followed further devastating the land and population.

Meng Jiao lived out much of these times as a Zen Buddhist recluse and poet in the south. Then at the age of forty, his wandering ways ceased and he settled in Luoyang, which was considered the “Eastern Capital” of the Tang Dynasty, with a population that approached one million, second only to Chang’an, the capital,which, at the time, was the largest city in the world.

Meng Jiao settled in as an impoverished and unemployed poet. Unwillinbg at first to take the imperial examinations, he eventually did at the urging of his mother, and at the age of 50 passed the test, after which he received a minor post.

After Meng’s death, the poet Han Yu wrote an epitaph saying:

“He had no sons. His wife, a woman of the Cheng family, informed me. I went out and stood weeping, and then I summoned Chang Chi to mourn with me…

As for his poetry, it pierces one’s eye and impales one’s heart. It cuts to the point like a thread parting at the touch of a knife. His barbed words and thorny sentences tear at one’s guts. His writing ability is spirit-like or like that of a ghost, glimpsed in between and over and over again. He cared only for writing and cared not what the world thought.”

The poet’s meaning

The title, 烈 女 操, one could replace “chaste” or “virtuous” for the words pure-hearted, but why, a pure heart employs better imagery. A modern day translation might be “an exemplary woman”.

The poem places a value on the fidelity and loyalty of a wife to her husband, and, can one assume, the reverse? So, perhaps Han Yu is too harsh in his assessment of Meng Jiao’s complete detachment from the world.

Line one, 梧 桐, (Firmiana simplex) the Chinese Parasol tree, a flowering tree whose wood was used for soundboards in Chinese musical instruments like the guqin and guzheng.

Line two, 鴛 鴦, Mandarin ducks yuan and yang, male and female, which mate for life.

The meaning of the poem lies in its final two lines – a billowing wave cannot stir the water like spirit in the deepest well. Han Yu elsewhere has given us an understanding of the effects of nature’s interactions with man, “Trees have no sound but cry when the wind stirs them, water has no sound but sounds forth when the wind roils it, and thus the heavens move men to speak when their spirits are troubled.” Master Meng is suggesting jut the opposite here, the steadfastness of the devotion of a pure-hearted wife.

There is a complementary Latin phrase that “still waters run deep” meaning that a quiet exterior may hide a passionate heart.

Let me leave you with Lao Tzu’s observation that “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.” Master Meng would say the same is true of love, which is soft and yielding, but firm in its devotion over time and tragedy.

Shall I return and translate this poem into French? Time will tell.

mandarin ducks pair