Draft – simple thought, tough poem to tackle, let me come back and get it right.
In Yan, like blue silk threads, the grass grows
In Qin, it is said, mulberry leaves of emerald green hang low
Somewhere, a husband dreams of returning home
To his heartbroken wife who
Feels the spring breeze strange
As it slips unseen through her silk curtains
Yan and QinA soldier’s fate rests on the outcome of a battle; a nation’s fate rests on a war.
A soldier travels to Yan Province (present-day southwestern Shandong and eastern Henan), one of the nine provinces of the ancient Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Li Bai does not identify the battle. Perhaps, it was the Battle of Yan, or one of a series of battles that took place between 194 and 196. Back home in western province of Qin, a wife awaits news of the battle and the war.
Notes on translating Spring Thoughts
The title is 春 (spring) 思 (thought).
From the clues left behind in Li Bai’s poem, we can date the writing of the poem to the spring of 756. Symbolically, the ancient State of Yan was rising like the blue-green grass of spring. The ancient State of Qin hung low like the emerald-green leaves of the mulberry tree.
In the winter of 755, General An Lushan, of Turkic extraction from modern day Mongolia, launched a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong and the Tang dynasty. By the Lunar New Year in 756, An had captured the eastern Tang capital of Luoyang, establishing a new state of Yan.
Tang generals and their armies moved north to confront the rebellion. In line 1, Li Bai places our warrior husband in the the State of Yan (燕), in the midst of the blue green grasses.
燕 (Yan) 草 (grass) 如 (like) 碧 (bluish-green) 絲 (silk thread)
By 756, General An Lushan had captured the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an in the ancient state of Qin.) Silk is a symbol of Chinese culture and wealth. The metaphor of hanging low and the fortunes of the Tang dynasty speaks for itself.
Back home in Qin, the ancient Chinese homeland, a wife longs for her absent husband. Low hanging mulberry leaves, upon which the silk worms feast, have recently unfolded in colors of emerald green, symbolizing sadness. A western wind slips though the wife’s silk curtains and she senses a strange emotion with the breeze that is felt but not seen.
In this short poem, Li Bai has managed to repeat the “shi” (homo-phone for poem) sound five times in six lines. Sadly, these homo-phonic puns do not translate well into English. Now, add the additional rhymes of “bi”, “di”, “gui”, “ri”, “qie”, and “he”.
This sad bag of rhymes makes for a poem, whose meaning conveys, but whose beauty is obscured in translation:(
Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
Qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
Dāng jūn huái guī rì
Shì qiè duàn cháng shí
Chūn fēng bù xiāng shí
Hé shì rù luó wéi