Early Autumn in Shaanxi – Li Bai

Early Autumn in (Taiyuan) Shaanxi

Year’s end, the flowers now rest
The season of the fleeting Fire Star
On the Frontier, the mighty frost is early and
Autumn’s colorful clouds have crossed the River
Dreams circle the city’s walls
In autumn my heart flies homeward
My thoughts returning south, like the Fen River
Everyday, all day long

My thoughts return homeward

Li Bai’s poem, Early Autumn in Shaanxi, might have special meaning for China’s President Xi Jinping. Xi’s father was from Shaanxi Province and one of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Government. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Xi’s father was purged from the Communist Party. Red Guards ransacked the family home, a sister died, and his mother was forced to publicly denounce her husband. Fifteen year old Xi was sent to Shaanxi to work the farms. For nearly seven years, Xi’s home was a cave, a worn quilt spread on bricks his bed, a bucket his toilet.

The stars his only companions.

Li Bai was destined to spend most of his life wandering from place to place. He also married four times. His first marriage was in 727, in Anlu, Hubei Province, to the granddaughter of a former government minister. Autumn in the year 735 finds him in northern Taiyun, the capital of Hedong Province (present day Shanxi)* wishing he was home.

*It is possible but speculative that Li Bai was visiting the politically powerful Pei Clan in hopes of an Imperial appointment.

Notes on Translation

Shaanxi, Shanxi, Taiyuan

English translations often use Shaanxi in the title for the sake of convenience. But Li Bai’s title is 太 原 早 秋 and 太 原 refers to Tàiyuán. This is in fact the capital of Shanxi province, which is today sometimes interchangeably confused with the similar contiguous province of Shaanxi. In Li Bai’s time, Shanxi was known as Hedong, meaning east of the Yellow River.

The character for Autumn, Qiu 秋, appears in the title and twice in the poem. The season is a transition from summer to winter, from joy to melancholy.

The Fire Star, my guess is that this refers to the Perseid Meteor Showers which peak in autumn. A second possibility is the red planet, Mars (Short for 火星, Huǒxīng), hence the name Fire Star. The star is fleeting because its lop-sided orbit causes the planet’s glow to wax and wane. There is also a legendary tale of the Yan Emperors from this region who used the titles “flame emperors”.

Hé 河, in line 4, refers to the Yellow River.

Fén shuǐ 汾水, seventh line. Fen River runs north to south through Shanxi Province, eventually joining the Yellow River.

Chinese and Pinyin

太 原 早 秋

岁 落 众 芳 歇
时 当 大 火 流
霜 威 出 塞 早
云 色 渡 河 秋
梦 绕 边 城 月
心 飞 故 国 秋
思 归 若 汾 水
无 日 不 悠 悠

Taiyuan Zao Qiu

Sui man zhong fang xie
Shi dang da huo liu.
Shuang wei qu sai zao
Yun se du he qiu.
Meng rao bian cheng yue
Xin fei gu guo qiu.
Si gui ruo fenshui
Wu ri bu you you.

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