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

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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

At Wang Changling’s Retreat – Chang Jian

Here, beside a lake clear and deep
You live amidst clouds
Where softly through pine trees, the moon arrives
To become your pure-hearted friend.
Shaded by flowery blossoms underneath a thatch roof hut you rest
Calmed by herbs that flourish in their bed of moss
Let me thank you for the time
On Xishan mountain with phoenixes and cranes.

What the poem is about

Forgive me for feeling a bit of personal joy at the pure escapism of Chang Jian’s poem.

Chang takes us to Wang Changlin’s retreat beside a lake on Xishan Mountain (山西) . Unfortunately for the cartographer, Xishan Mountain may refer to several locations in China, and, as the lake is unidentified, we are left to wonder where exactly we are.

Wang Changling

Wang Changling, whose retreat Chang Jian is visiting, was a well-known poet who held several important imperial postings. It is said that Wang was originally from Shanxi Province (山西), and, therefore, one wonders if this is the Western Mountain Chang Jian refers to.

Forgive me, it is not the place but the feeling that matters. A lake clear and deep, a thatched hut high in the mountains, shaded by flowering trees and clouds during the day, and a moon that comes in the night, indeed a pure-hearted friend.

The phoenix and crane (鸞鶴)

Wife and husband, a happy marriage. Those from a Western culture may not be familiar with the poem’s last line reference to phoenixes and cranes.

In China, the phoenix does not refer to the bird reincarnating from the ashes. Rather, the phoenix represents a female figure and the god of the winds, joy and peace. The crane represents the male figure, along with longevity and wisdom, flying high on the wind.

Afterword

Wang Changling’s peaceful sojourn to his retreat in Xishan Mountain comes to an end with the An Lushan Rebellion that began in 755. He died within a year of the outbreak of the troubles and Chang Jian’s fate is unknown.

Chinese

清溪深不測
隱處唯孤雲
松際露微月
清光猶為君

茅亭宿花影
藥院滋苔紋
余亦謝時去
西山鸞鶴群

Pinyin

Qīng xī shēn bùcè
yǐn chù wéi gūyún
sōng jì lù wēi yuè
qīngguāng yóu wèi jūn

máo tíng sù huāyǐng
yào yuàn zī tái wén
yú yì xiè shí qù
xīshān luán hè qún

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, grass grows like the bluest silk thread
In Qin, mulberries hang low on branches of green
My Lord, why do you think of coming home?
Now, when I am heart-broken and sad
Oh Spring Breeze, that I do not know
Why part the silk curtains of my bed?

Translating Li Bai’s Spring Thoughts

” In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So said Lord Alfred Tennyson a thousand years after Li Bai. And anyone who has felt a gentle breeze in spring and felt the stirrings of love knows the feeling well.

Li Bai’s tells the story from the girl’s perspective. Alas, the rhyme does not translate into English.

Yan and Qin, 燕 and 秦

The story takes place in the ancient Chinese states of Yan and Qin, and dates to the time of the Warring States (somewhere around the 5th century BC). Yan, in northeastern coastal China, lies on the Bohai Sea. Qin lies to the south and west of Yan. Qin grew to be the strongest of the warring states.

Boy and girl, 君 and 妾

The relationship of our boy and girl is 君, lord (informally ‘you’) and 妾, concubine.

Concubine is not a term used in Western culture. In Chinese it means, a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife or wives. Mistress or lover is a better alternative. She may not be his wife, but she certainly has a claim on his heart.

Spring Breeze, 春風

Spring Breeze, 春風 , referred to in line five also has a sexual connotation, meaning sexual union.

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
dāng jūn huái guī rì shì
qiè duàncháng shí
chūnfēng bù xiāngshí
héshì rù luó wéi

Climbing Yueyang Tower – Du Fu

Often I have heard of Lake Dongting
And now I am climbing this tower
With Wu to the east, and Chu to the south
I can see heaven and earth floating

But no word reaches me of family or friends
Old and sick, I am alone in my boat
North of the wall are mountains and war
So, how with my hands on the rails can I not cry

The Poem

Others have date this poem to the year 768. If correct, then the An Lushan Rebellion is at an end, but the devastating troubles caused by eight years of strife still rock the land. Millions of lives have been lost, careers interrupted, families separated.

Du Fu is now 56 years old, suffering from ill health, and making his way down the Yangtze River to Luoyang, his birthplace. Along the way, he comes to Lake Dongting and Yueyang Tower, places he has heard of from his friends and fellow poets Li Bai and Meng Haoran.

Yueyang Tower

architecture China, wood roof

Yueyang Tower is at the western gate on the city wall of Yueyang overlooking Lake Dongting. Legend has it that the roof of the tower was built to commemorate Lu Su, a general of the ancient Wu State, thus Du Fu’s reference to the ancient states of Wu and Chu. At the top of the tower, Du Fu could take in quite a lot. To the north, where the capital lay, there was still the process of clearing up the troubles that rebellion and war had caused.

Perhaps, like the poet Li Bai, Du Fu took in the beauty of the scene, “the water and sky merging into one color and the boundless wonders of its natural beauty.” Or, like Meng Haoran, he experienced “the waters of Lake Dongting covered in steam” sensing “the rolling waves crashing against the wall of Yueyang”.

The Title

Although translations often give the title as 今上 plus the three characters 岳 阳 楼, as “Climbing” or “Ascending” Yueyang Tower, 今上 better translates as, “Now, I am on”. Elsewhere the title appears as 登 plus 岳阳楼 in which case the first character 登 does translate as “climbing” or “ascending”.

Original Chinese Characters

登岳阳楼

昔闻洞庭水
今上岳阳楼
吴楚东南坼
乾坤日夜浮
亲朋无一字
老病有孤舟
戎马关山北
凭轩涕泗流

Bai Juyi – Night Snow

Confused that my pillow and covers are cold as ice
I turn to see the window and door are bright.
It was then that I knew a deep snow had come in the night
When I suddenly hear the bamboo crack

Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi (772–846) lived in the aftermath of the An Lushan Rebellion, living though the reign of eight or nine emperors. He occasionally found himself in trouble because of his criticisms of things he believed were wrong. Nevertheless, he managed to walk the tightrope of imperial politics and he held important positions as head of several prefects. In 832, at the age of 60, he retired to a Buddhist monastery and worked on collecting his numerous poems. He died in 846.

More…

Making sense of Night Snow

What are we to make of this short poem?

It conveys the sense of a moment when suddenly (讶, surprised) our poet is awoken from sleep and, finding his covers cold and the room bright, realizes that a deep snow has come in the night because he hears the bamboo crack (竹 声, the sound of bamboo) under the weight of the snow.

Stuffier poets like Du Mu (803–852) criticized Bai Juyi’s simple sensual style, observing that the common people write them on walls as graffiti, and mothers and fathers teach them to their children.

Bai Juyi’s style greatly influenced Japanese poetry, especially 17th century poet Matsuo Bashō. Indeed, the poem of reminiscent of Basho’s “The Sound of Water”.

Original Chinese and Pinyin

夜 雪

已 讶 衾 枕 冰

复 见 窗 户 明

夜 深 知 雪 重

时 闻 折 竹 声

Ye Xue

Yi ya qin zhen bing

Fu jian chuang hu ming.

Ye shen zhi xue chong

Shi wen she zhu sheng.

Gao Shi – To Vice-prefects Li and Wang, Disgraced and Banished to Xiazhong and Changsha

What are you thinking as we part,
Reign in your horse, drink from this cup while we speak of disgrace
When Wu Gorge howls and the monkeys weep,
Will the wildgoose return to Hengyang with a royal decree?….
In autumn, the green maples on the river are fading away,
In Baidi, it rains and the trees are few
But a New Year is bound to bless us with the dew of His heavenly favor
Take heart, we’ll soon be together again!

Let me get this quick draft out and I shall return. This poem should be read along with Li Bai’s poem “Setting off from Baidi”…

What will the New Year bring

What will the new year bring is a familiar refrain to all of us.

Tang poet Gao Shi (ca. 704–765) reflects on the disgrace shared by Vice-prefects Li and Wang (his friends and fellow poets, Li Bai and Wang Wei). Gao Shi could have written the lyrics for Donna Fargo’s song, “What will the New Year bring?”

“This past year was good to us the one before just a little rough
The one before that was an awful thing what will the new year bring.”

755

The year 755 was a rough one in China. The An Lushan Rebellion began, lasting for eight years before General An Lushan was assassinated and the rebellion ended. A year after the rebellion began, the capital at Chang’an fell to the rebels, the emperor fled to Sichuan, then abdicated in favor of his son.

Things did not go well for poets Li Bai and Wang Wei.

758

In the summer of 758, Li Bai was banished to Yelang (near Hengyang and Xiazhong); before arriving, he benefited from a general amnesty. Wang Wei was captured by the rebels and forced to work for them. When the Tang forces freed him he was charged with treason, but saved by his brother a Tang official. Wang was banished for about four years in Qizhou (Guizhou, near Hengyang, near Changsha, Hunan province).

Baidi

Baidi refers to the grounds and Baidi Temple, which sits at the top of a hill, and is reached after a climb of a thousand steps. It is located at near the Qutang and Wu Gorges, north of the Yangtze River.

It was a frequent visiting place for poets and philosophers. (The image is not Baidi, but another temple.)

Original Chinese

嗟君此別意何如
駐馬銜杯問謫居
巫峽啼猿數行淚
衡陽歸雁幾封書
青楓江上秋帆遠
白帝城邊古木疏
聖代即今多雨露

Pinyin

Jiē jūn cǐ bié yì hérú zhù
mǎxián bēi wèn zhéjū
wū xiá tí yuán shù háng lèi
héngyáng guī yàn jǐ fēngshū
qīngfēng jiāngshàng qiūfān yuǎn
bái dì chéng biān gǔmù shū
shèngdài jíjīn duō yǔlù

Notes on the Chinese

Lines 1 and 2. Gao Shi is taking leave of his friends Li Bai and Wang Wei. All three were known to like to drink.
Line 3. 巫峽 Wu Gorge, the second of three gorges along the Yangtze River. Monkeys live along the river banks.
Line 4. 雁 wildgoose is the emperor. 衡陽 Hengyang, a prefecture size city in Hunan Province.
Line 5. Baidi, a famous temple complex at the top of a thousand stairs frequented bu poets.

Li Bai – Ballad of Four Seasons: Winter

“The messenger rides, she’s told, at first light
So, she sews a warrior’s cloak throughout the night
Her fingers tired, the needle cold
How can one hold the scissors tight?
Now the coat is done, she sends it away, and says,
‘How many days to Lintao?’ “

The poem explained

In the fourth and last of Li Bai’s seasonal ballads, the poet places us in a woman’s chamber in Chang’an, the Tang capital. The woman is sewing a warm cloak (征袍) for her warrior husband. He is serving with General Geshu Han in mountainous Lintao County (臨洮) on the Tibetan border. The messenger leaves at first light ( 明朝 ), so she must hurry to complete her task in spite of the cold.

Li Bai manages to capture the three emotions of love, devotion, and worry in this simple poem.

The original Chinese poem, as seen by the Pinyin translation, is more poetic, that is rhythmic and rhyming, than the English translation.

Enjoy!

Original Chinese and Pinyin

明朝驛使發
素手抽針冷
一夜絮征袍
那堪把剪刀
裁縫寄遠道
幾日到臨洮

Pinyin

Míng cháo yì shǐ fā
yīyè xù zhēng páo
sùshǒu chōu zhēn lěng
nà kān bǎ jiǎndāo
cáiféng jì yuǎndào
jǐ rì dào líntáo

General Geshu Han

General Geshu Han was of Turkic descent. He is famous for two events.

In 747, he achieved fame in western Lintao near Qinghai Lake, suppressing Tibetan raids on wheat farms and defeating Tibetan armies, and so restoring order to the western frontier of the Tang Empire.

The second event occurred during the An Lushan Rebellion that began in 755. General Geshu Han was sent to the strategic Tong Pass (Tongguan) to guard against the invading rebel forces. Though outnumbered, he followed orders and engaged the rebels, suffering a devastating defeat that led to his capture and the fall of the Tang capital at Chang’an.

General Geshu Han refused to cooperate with the rebels and was later executed.

Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762.

Li is a common surname in Chinese and means plum. The personal name Bai means white. Li Bai (701–762) was one of the superstar poets of the Tang dynasty. His career took a decided turn for the worse during the An Lushan Rebellion. He was captured by the rebels and held captive in the capital of Chang’an, but managed to escape a year later.

He died in 762, shortly before the rebellion was put down. Legend has it that he drank and drowned after falling from a boat, attempting to catch the moon’s reflection in a river.

My Gift to Wanglun – Li Bai

My Gift to Wanglun

As I, Li Bai, board the boat about to leave
Ashore, I hear the sound of song and dance
Though a thousand feet deep, Peach Blossom Spring may be,
It compares not to Wang’s kinship to me.

china ferry boat willow tree lake

Original Chinese Characters

赠汪伦

李白乘舟将欲行
忽闻岸上踏歌声
桃花潭水深千尺
不及汪伦送我行

Pinyin

lǐ bái chéng zhōu jiāngyù xíng
hū wén ànshàng tà gēshēng
táohuātán shuǐshēn qiān chǐ
bùjí wānglún sòng wǒ xíng

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Peach Blossom Spring

Li Bai’s reference to Peach Blossom Spring (桃花潭, Táohuātán) draws on an earlier legend of The Peach Blossom Land, written by Tao Yuanming (circa 421 AD).

The story is about the chance discovery of a perfect utopia where people live in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. A fisherman accidentally stumbles on the beautiful spot, stays for a week, and then leaves marking the way with signs. All attempts to rediscover this Shangri-la are futile.

Wang Lun

Who, pray tell, is the friend Wang Lun (汪伦)?

My guess is Wang Wei, a close colleague with whom he shared many nights of revelry. The Chinese character 伦, Lun in Pinyin, translates to relationship, kinship, or peer. Thus, the phrase is my peer, my kin, my friend Wang.

There is an often repeated story that Li Bai, who was fond of drinking to exess and talking to the moon, drowned after falling from his boat in the Yangtze River when he tried to embrace a reflection of the moon in the water.

Wang Wei’s Farewell to Li Bai

Wang Wei , The Farewell (ca. 750 CE)

Dismounting, I offer my friend a cup of wine,
I ask what place he is headed to.
He says he has not achieved his aims,
Is retiring to the southern hills.
Now go, and ask me nothing more,
White clouds will drift on for all time.