New Years Eve – Cui Tu

[This is a revision of an earlier translation in December of 2017.]

Increasingly remote are the three roads to ancient Ba
Dangerous and strange for one who has traveled ten thousand li.
At night, in the midst of the jagged snowy mountains,
A lonely man is isolated and faraway from kin.

(A lonely man so different from the Xiang people)
Gradually, grows distant from his blood relations;
Time and time again, growing closer to his servants.
How, I dread to drift so far when
Tomorrow, the new year comes.

Cui Tu

Little is known of the Chinese poet Cui Tu other than his date of birth – 854, and the fact that only two of his poems are included in the Anthology of 300 Tang Poems, a book which was first compiled in 1763.

We do know that the Tang dynasty collapsed in 907. We are also aware of a rebellion lasting a decade (874–884) that resulted in the sacking of both capitals at Chang’an and Luoyang.

Needless to say, the times were turbulent. Cui Tu was possibly fleeing for his life to the relative security of mountainous Sichuan. Something, the imperial court did in times of danger. The mention of Ba in the first line, and the prefix of three, (Sanba 三巴 ) is throwback to the ancient State of Ba, which was located in eastern Sichuan. The literal meaning of ba is to cling, which describes the position of the dynasty at that time in history.

I have given an alternate translation to line four since Xiang may also refer to the Xiang people.

Piāobó, in line seven is interesting as it suggests that Cui Tu will take on the life of a wanderer, drifting from here to there.

What will the New Year Bring?

Good question. Since the Tang dynasty was on its last legs, the answer is likely, not much.

New Year’s Eve is all about ringing out the old and ringing in the new, or, if you like, bringing in the new, throwing out the old. Old friends die, we make new friends, and Cui Tu must of found himself clinging to his servants not only to survive, but for comfort.

Original Chinese and Pinyin

Tiáo dì sān bā lù,
jī wēi wànlǐ shēn
luàn shān cánxuě yè

gūdú yì xiāng rén
jiàn yǔ gǔròu yuǎn
zhuǎn yú tóngpú qīn
nà kān zhǐ piāobó
míngrì suì huá xīn

迢遞三巴路
羈危萬里身
亂山殘雪夜
孤獨異鄕人
漸與骨肉遠
轉於僮僕親
那堪止漂泊
明日歲華新

Qiang Village 2 – Du Fu

An old man marking time,
Returning home, his joys are few.
My darling son clutches my knee,
Dreading that I will leave again.
I remember when we sought out cool spots,
And walked among the trees beside the pool.
Now, the North Wind’s whistling is strong,
And I’ve a hundred different worries.
At least, I know, the wheat harvest goes well,
Already, I catch the drip of the mash-press
For now, there is enough to fill my cup,
Comfort for one near the end.

china mountains river

May you live in interesting times

There is an apocryphal quote attributed to the ancient Chinese that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The quote was intended as a curse, predicting and hoping that one’s wish for excitement will be of the worst kind.

This curse explains the life of Du Fu at the time of Tang China’s An Lushan Rebellion.

For a period of eight years beginning in 755, China experienced the horror of war and famine the likes of which it had not experienced before on such a massive scale. Barbarians invaded from the north, the emperor fled, the capital fell, the dynasty teetered on the edge of collapse, the peasant caught in the middle of the conflict starved or was impressed into the war, the outcome was always in doubt. If we take the census records as an accounting of the damage done, then China lost more than half its population in the span of these terrible 8 years.

Du Fu in a time of war

Du Fu was an accomplished poet and mediocre civil servant, as his head-strong ways often rubbed administrators and the emperor the wrong way. Nevertheless he was tolerated for his great poetic abilities. When the capital of Chang’an fell, Du Fu had been away. Asa precaution, he took his family to a Qiang village where his newborn son died, then attempted to join the court of the new emperor, but he was captured by the rebels and taken to Chang’an. He escaped after several months and made his way to the court in exile in Sichuan.

That fall the Imperial Court gave him leave to visit his family, which is the source of the three poems entitled Qiang Village.

If the first poem was about the surprise of one finding his way home and the joy felt at homecoming, then the second is about the fleeting nature of that joy. We enjoy what little comfort we can find while living in such interesting times.

At the end of his life, Du Fu was the proverbial peripatetic poet. He died in 768, five years after the rebellion was put down. At the time he was living in Hunan Province. He was survived by his wife and two remaining sons.

Pinyin and Chinese

qiāng cūn ( èr)

wǎn suì pò tōu shēng
huán jiā shǎo huān qù
jiāo ér bù lí xī
wèi wǒ fù què qù
yì xī hǎo zhuī liáng
gù rào chí biān shù
xiāo xiāo běi fēng jìn
fǔ shì jiān bǎi lǜ
lài zhī hé shǔ shōu
yǐ jué zāo chuáng zhù
rú jīn zú zhēn zhuó
qiě yòng wèi chí mù

羌村 (二)

晚岁迫偷生
还家少欢趣
娇儿不离膝
畏我复却去
忆昔好追凉
故绕池边树
萧萧北风劲
抚事煎百虑
赖知禾黍收
已觉糟床注
如今足斟酌
且用慰迟暮