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

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8 thoughts on “Yearning – Wang Wei

  1. 紅 豆 here refers to the Abrus precatorius, known commonly as jequirity or love pea. As for the translation, most Chinese readers I think have a somewhat different understanding… but nevermind 🙂

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  2. I have made a search. The most explicitly defined probably is this one:
    楼主所说的相思豆,即相思子(Abrus precatorius),豆科相思子属植物,剧毒,一颗破裂的种子即可致人死亡,且食用和伤口接触都会造成中毒。古代表达相思的“红豆”基本上都指的是相思子,比如王维著名的“红豆生南国”说的就是它。但是考虑到它强大的毒性,建议不要再接触它了,以免造成危险。(https://www.guokr.com/question/498448/)

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      • Most online Chinese-(foreign language) dictionaries will probably only provide the current meaning of the Chinese word, let alone compound words or phrases. And when it comes to the classical meaning of words and phrases, they are hardly of any help. There is, however, one dictionary which might help: Pleco, which I use quite often for its convenience. It’s an App for Android or iOS. Perhaps you might want to give it a try.

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