To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting – Meng Haoran

To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting

In August (the eighth lunar month), the lake is peaceful,
Boundless waters blend with the sky and
Over the Cloud-Dream Marsh a damp mist rises and
The waves are breaking against the walls of Yueyang City.

I wish to cross the lake, but there is no boat
For me to live an easy life, I would disgrace our brilliant master.
I sit watching the angler cast his line,
Envying him for fishing.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Meeting Meng Haoran for the first time

In our last poem, we heard from Meng as he was leaving political life.

Here we meet Meng at the beginning of his political career. He is arriving at Lake Dongting on his way to the city Yueyang where he will meet with minister Zhang Jiuling.

Meng’s stint in politics was brief, beginning at the ripe old age of 39 and ending within a year.  Although politics was not his forte, poetry was and Meng managed to make friendships with younger poets such as Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Bai. Indeed, the collection of Tang poems has two written by Li Bai addressed to Meng Haoran.

Meng’s poem gives us some insight into why his career was brief.

Lake Dongting

Lake Dongting (洞庭湖) in northeastern Hunan Province is well-known as a flood plain of the Yangtze River. In August, the lake water and blue sky combine in an airy mist. In the morning and in the evening, the sun shining on the watery crystals hanging in the air presents an other worldly view.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling (張丞相) was a minister to Emperor Xuanzong, and himself a noted poet. In line six, Meng explains that living an easy life would bring shame and disgrace on Zhang who is after all a brilliant master 聖明.

Literally the title of the poem is Gazing at Lake Dongting, a gift, 贈, to Prime Minster Zhang, 張丞相. The Pinyin translation reveals the rhyme of the characters (Zèng zhāng chéngxiàng).

Rhyme

aaba baba

Chinese

望洞庭湖贈張丞相

八月湖水平
涵虛混太清
氣蒸雲夢澤
波撼岳陽城

欲濟無舟楫
端居恥聖明
坐觀垂釣者
徒有羨魚情

Pinyin

Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng

yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

architecture China, wood roof

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Memories of Early Winter – Meng Haoran

Memories of Early Winter

The leaves are falling, the wild geese flying south
The water is cold here, the wind from the North.
I remember my home, where the Xiang River bends
Hidden by the clouds of Chu.

I weep for my village, ’til my tears are spent
I spy a lonely sail that stares at the sky
Indulge me, where is the delta ferry?
The lake is peaceful and boundless.

Meng Haoran

Death comes to us all. For poet Meng Haoran, it came at the age of 50. Meng was born in Xianyang, Hubei in the ancient Chinese state of Chu, living most of his life there. He received his only official posting three years before his death, but left after less than a year.

meng-same

China’s Superstar Poets

By date of birth, Meng Haoran preceded Li Bai and Du Fu by 10 and 20 years. These three along with Wang Wei made up the pantheon of poetry superstars of the Tang Dynasty.

Until the age of forty, Meng Haoran lived  in his native Hubei province. When he finally traveled to the capital to seek fame and fortune, his poetic talents  came to the attention of  contemporaries. These included the likes Wang Wei, as well as poet and minister Zhang Jiuling. Through their efforts, Meng was recommended directly to Emperor Xuanzong. Unfortunately for Meng, his penchant for wine, a disdain for pomp, and the fact that one of his poems included a sentiment that did not look kindly on official life, gave the emperor pause and he decided Meng would be best left to wander and write.

Place Names

The River Xiang flows into Lake Dongting from the south, where it joins with the flow of the Yangtze. Beginning in late summer, flood water from the Yangtze also flows into the lake, enlarging the lake’s surface area. Dreamy cloud formations result from the increase in moisture.

At a distance to the south and east of the lake, lies the southern Chinese state of 楚 (Chu). This ancient state encompasses most of present-day Hunan, as well as Hubei, where Meng was born and raised.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

早寒有懷

木落雁南渡
北風江上寒
我家襄水曲
遙隔楚雲端

鄉淚客中盡
孤帆天際看
迷津欲有問
平海夕漫漫

Rhyme: abab

Pinyin

Zǎo hán yǒu huái

mù luòyàn nán dù
běifēng jiāngshàng hán
wǒjiā xiāng shuǐ qū
yáo gé chǔ yúnduān

xiāng lèi kè zhōng jǐn
gū fān tiānjì kàn
míjīn yù yǒu wèn
píng hǎi xī mànmàn

china ferry boat willow tree lake

Resentment – Li Bai

fashion-chinese-girl-curtain

Resentment

A beauty appears through a curtain of pearls,
With a deep frown on her beautiful face,
I see the tracks of her tears on her beautiful face.
But not the man she hates

 

Resentment

The two characters of the title 怨 情 can be translated as Bitter Love, Resentment, or Lament. Separately, the characters convey the meaning of “resent” the “situation”. A well-known idiom uses the same two characters, 心甘情愿, I’d be delighted to help.

We see but do not know. We can only feel, but not know why.

Perhaps, our poet has been out on the town, and now returning home he spies a beautiful woman (蛾眉, éméi) at the window of her apartment as she unfurls her pearl curtains (珠 簾, pearl or pearl-like, beaded). Li Bai sees the troubled face, but can only imagine the hate in her heart (心 恨 誰).

Yang Guifei

Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor Xuanzong’s beautiful and beloved royal consort, Yang Guifei. This could not be one of those without exposing Li Bai to her wrath.

Original Chinese

怨 情

美 人 捲 珠 簾

深 坐 蹙 蛾 眉

但 見 淚 痕 濕

不 知 心 恨 誰

Pinyin

Yuàn qíng

měirén juǎn zhū lián

shēn zuò cù éméi

dàn jiàn lèihén shī

bùzhī xīn hèn shuí

Pearls of Wisdom

The pearly curtain hints at a rich and well-kept woman, a courtesan, an occupation which, in Li Bai’s time, was an honored profession, but not without drawbacks. The pearl may also symbolize the moon, itself a lonely object of beauty and contemplation.

painting in Gu Lang Yu museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China
early 19th c. painting of Li Bai in Gu Lang Yu museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China

Zhang Jiuling – Thoughts I

high flying goose zhang jiuling thoughts

How the mighty have fallen

Zhang Jiuling experienced a fall from power. Once high counselor to the Emperor Xuanzong, possessing the honorific title of Count Wenxian of Shixing, he found himself the subject of palace intrigue, and, by 737, demoted and sent to distant Jingzhou (荆州), on the banks of the Yangtze River, in Hubei, China.

Zhang died three years later, but not before giving us his thoughts on his fall from his lofty perch.

Thoughts, First of Four
A lonely swan comes from the sea
Not daring to land on lake or pond
Looking aside, he spies a pair of kingfishers
Nesting on a three-pearled tree
Bravely resting at the tree’s summit
Have they no fear of slingshots?
Beautiful clothes invite pointing fingers
And, the high and wise face an evil god
For what is there for hunters to admire?

Original Chinese Characters

感遇四首之一

孤鴻海上來
池潢不敢顧
側見雙翠鳥
巢在三珠樹
矯矯珍木巔
得無金丸懼
美服患人指
高明逼神惡
弋者何所慕

Pinyin

Gǎn yù sì shǒu zhī yī

gū hónghǎi shànglái
chí huáng bù gǎn gù
cè jiàn shuāng cuì niǎo
cháo zài sān zhūshù
jiǎo jiǎo zhēn mù diān
dé wú jīnwán jù
měi fú huàn rén zhǐ
gāomíng bī shén è
yì zhě hé suǒ mù

Thoughts on Thoughts by Zhang Jiuling

Philosophers and poets imagine themselves as solitary swans (孤 鴻) flying high above the earth. They come from far away places, (海上來, coming from the sea) to serve the emperor. (Zhang himself was born in Guangdong, South China province, on the coast of the South China Sea.)

Having come from such a great body of water, how can the swan satisfy himself with a mere lake or pond?

The brightly colored kingfisher is common in China. Its colorful plumage makes it a popular subject of paintings, no doubt, looked at and admired greatly by an adoring public. The Three Pearl Tree (三珠樹) is a specific reference beyond my ability to identify. If I had to make an educated guess, it would be the Chinese Pearl-Bloom Tree with its beautiful white flowers.

The world is possessed of both good spirits and bad spirits. It is the bad spirits who admire (慕, admire, long for, desire) and hunt the high and the mighty (高明, literally those who are high and wise, clear-sighted). It is tempting to say “high and mighty” but that doesn’t quite express Zhang’s belief that one’s highest duty to the emperor is to behonest.

Note. A link to the Chinese Pearl-Blossom Tree.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling, (張九齡); Count Wenxian of Shixing (始興文獻伯), A Man of Much Substance (博物)