Seeing Meng Haoran off to Guangling – Li Bai 李 白

“You left me, old friend of the West, at the Yellow Crane Tower,
In Spring, going to Yangzhou, in a cloud of flowers;
Your lonely sail, a speck against blue sky, disappearing
Until now I only see the Yangtze and the sky.”

yellow crane tower, wuhan, china
yellow crane tower, wuhan, china

In the third lunar month of the New Year (middle March by modern calendars), Meng Haoran took leave of his friend Li Bai to make a 400 mile journey down the Yangtze(長江, chángjiāng) to Guangling and Yangzhou.

The place of their parting was the Yellow Crane Tower (黃鶴樓, Huánghè Lóu) in Wuhan, Hubei Province. It is a sacred site of Daoism, considered to be one of the four great towers in China. The symmetrical eaves on each floor are said to resemble a yellow crane soaring in the sky and clouds, reflecting immortality and wisdom.

Meng Haoran was born in 689 in Xiangyang, far western Hubei. Li Bai, ten years junior to the older Meng, was born in Suyab, on the Silk Road. For this tenuous reason, Li Bai refers to Meng as his old friend of the West (西 Xi). In the second line of the poem, Li Bai uses a metaphor 煙花 (flower and mist, together “fireworks”)* to describe the peach and cherry trees then in full blossom. Flower (花, Huā) has many symbolic meanings, also conveying a sense of magnificence and splendor.

The poem may date to the years 730-733, when Meng Haoran failed the imperial examinations for a second time and took to traveling to assuage his disappointment.

Li Bai wrote a second homage to his friend Meng Haoran.

Chinese Characters

送孟浩然之廣陵

故人西辭黃鶴樓
煙花三月下揚州
孤帆遠影碧空盡
惟見長江天際流

Pinyin

Sòng mènghàorán zhī guǎnglíng

gùrén xī cí huáng hè lóu
yānhuā sān yuè xià yángzhōu
gū fān yuǎn yǐng bìkōng jǐn
wéi jiàn chángjiāng tiānjì liú

Notes

*The exact date of the invention of fireworks is unknown. Therefore, this may be only a combination of the characters for flower and cloud, Anyone who has walked along a path of cherry trees in full blossom will understand splendor and the airy cloud-like feeling.
Yangtze River
Yangtze River

Reading Laozi 读老子 – Bai Juyi

On Reading Laozi

He who speaks, does not know,
He who knows, does not talk.
Why then, did the way the old man knows,
Take five thousand words?

Laozi

Tongue in cheek, Bai Juyi identifies Laozi by name in the title, literally, Old Master, and as the old man ( 老君 , Laojun) in line three.

Laozi, literally “Old Master”, also Lao Tzu and Lao-Tze, was an ancient Chinese philosopher (6th or 4th century BC, as scholars disagree), founder of Taoism, the Way (道, Dào) and author of the Tao Te Ching, a text of some 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 chapters.

Because the fifty-sixth chapter of the Tao Te Ching says that “the knower does not speak, the speaker does not know”, so Bai Juyi presents the paradox question, if the old man knows why so many words? *

读老子

言者不如知者默
此语吾闻于老君
若道老君是知者
缘何自著五千文


Dú lǎozi

Yán zhě bùrú zhì zhě mò
cǐ yǔ wú wén yú lǎo jūn
ruò dào lǎo jūn shì zhì zhě
yuánhé zì zhe wǔqiān wén

* Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56
Those who know talk not,
Those who talk know not.
Blockading its exchanges,
Confining its ideals,
Moderating its ingenuity,
Unraveling its complexity,
Softening its intensity,
Is but merging into its ubiquity,
That is the intricacy of ubiquity…

Returning Late on Pingquan Road in Winter – Bai Juyi

The mountain road is hard going, now the daylight wanes
In a smoky hamlet crows land on frosted trees
Never mind that I don’t make it by nightfall
Three warm cups and I’ll feel at home

Bai Juyi

Our poet, Bai Juyi (772-846) was seemingly born fully-formed. When he arrived in the capital of Chang’an for his civil service examination, he presented his examiner with a book of poems. Opening the book, the examiner read the first line, 離離 (Li Li)原上草 一歲一枯榮, The grass spreads across the plain, it withers each year, then flourishes again.

Bai Juyi was, no doubt, fully aware of his choice of language. The first character ( 離 Li) alludes to the surname of the Tang emperors and the most common Chinese surname. The repetition of the characters 離離 suggesting longevity of the dynasty and the Chinese people.

Pinquan 平泉

Pingquan is seven miles south of Luoyang, the eastern capital of the Tang dynasty. In 755, an event that predates our poem, Luoyang was captured by northern rebels during the An Lushan Rebellion.

Pingquan has been known as one of the Eight Scenic Spots of Luoyang What put this mountainous place on the cultural map was a villa built there by Li Deyu (787–850), an important political figures of late Tang dynasty. Other high officials built villas there as well, and Bai Juyi spent much time traveling to and from there. Scholarly articles have been written about Bai Juyi’s connection to the spot.

Original Chinese Characters

冬日平泉路晚歸

山路難行日易斜
烟村霜樹欲棲鴉
夜歸不到應閑事
熱飲三杯即是家

白鹭 White Egrets – Bai Juyi

White Egrets

Forty years and not yet completely in decline,
Nothing more to worry about than a few fine white hairs.
Why then, at the river side, does a pair of white egrets
Worry not, when they have nothing more than a dangling thread on their heads?

Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi seems to have made it through life without too many worries. In addition to his many Imperial postings, he was a prolific poet with more than 2,800 poems to his credit. Bai Juyi copied and distributed his poems widely, and did not hesitate to rewrite a poem if it came to his attention that a servant found the writing confusing.

If as Bai Juy writes, he was 40 years of age when he wrote this poem, he was slightly precipitous in his “what me worry” attitude. Or spot on, if one assumes he had a foreshadowing of trouble. Beginning in 815, Bai Juyi was exiled for a period of three years, after he criticized the greed of some court officials. He returned and completed a long successful career.

In 832, Bai Juyi suffered a paralytic attack and lost the use of his left leg. He partially recovered and spent the remaining 14 years of his life collecting his poetic works at the Xiangshan Monastery, near Luoyang.

The last line of Bai Juyi’s poem is of some interest. 无 (No) 愁 (worry) 头 (head) 上 (on) 亦 (also) 垂 (drooping) 丝 (silk thread). One has to picture the dangling white feathery threads on the head of an egret to get the metaphor for an aging poet.

白鹭

人生四十未全衰
我为愁多白发垂
何故水边双白鹭
无愁头上亦垂丝

dangling thread upon a head

Behind a Buddhist Retreat – Chang Jian

At break of day in the old temple,
When sunlight first climbs over the tree-tops,
My winding path has come to this still place
Of flowers and trees and a Zen retreat.

Here the birds come alive in the sunlit mountain,
And the mind finds peace in a pool of fish
When no other sound can be heard
But the piercing tone of the temple-bell.
Chang Jian: On Broken Mountain Zen Retreat

Thoughts on Chang Jian’s poem

题破山寺后禅院, the title translates literally as “Subject, Po Mountain (Broken Mountain), behind the temple of a Buddhist retreat. 破山, Po or Broken Mountain can not be identified as a place name. Neither is the 禅院, Chányuàn, Buddhist retreat named.

Our poet, Chan Jian, has found his way at first light through a winding wooded path to a 禅房 chánfáng, meditation abode, Zen retreat. As the sun rises over the trees, he stops to reflect on the scene. The birds are illuminated by the sunlight. The fish stir in the pool. Suddenly, the sound of a bell is heard and all is still, but for the all encompassing sound of the bell.

Among other things, in Zen and Buddhism, bells are a meditation enhancer, focusing attention for the practitioner on the present moment. The sound of the meditation bell instills a sense of peace and calmness.

An alternate translation

In the pureness of morning, near the old temple,

Where the first sunlight tops the trees,

My winding path, through a sheltered hollow

Of boughs and flowers, brings me to a Buddhist retreat.

Here, birds come alive in the mountain light,

And the mind of man finds peace in a pool of fish,

And a thousand sounds are stilled

By the sound of the temple-bell.

Original Chinese characters

题破山寺后禅院

清晨入古寺
初日照高林
曲径通幽处
禅房花木深

山光悦鸟性
潭影空人心
万籁此俱寂
惟余钟磬音