Li Bai‘s oft repeated poem inspires much thought. Were I to accompany Li Bai under the moon and the Milky Way, these would be mine to share — Alone we enter the world, alone we leave, and in the middle we have the chance to share a drink and dance.There were three there then, the moon, my shadow, and I. It was dimly lit, and two said not a word.In my pocket I found a poem, Li Bai, it was yours.
A jug of wine among the flowers, I drink alone, I think. I tip my cup to the bright moon. The moon, my shadow, and I make three. The moon does not care to drink. My shadow only trails along. Fleeting friends we three, the moon, my shadow and I. Still, let us make merry ’til the end of Spring. The moon swaying as I sing. My shadow dancing in step along with me. Sober, we happily honor the hour. Drunk, we part. Our meeting beyond the heavens, Until we gather again, these two and I, Beneath the Heavenly River
Contemporaries accounts say he was small and sickly, with long fingernails. That he had a uni-brow can be seen in the 18th century image drawn by Shangguan Zhou.
Other poets described him as a man of 鬼才, guicai, i.e. “ghostly talent”. Perhaps this was because of his precocity, he wrote his first poem at the age of seven; perhaps because of the dark subject matters of his poems. His branch of the Li family was far removed from that of the ruling Tang dynasty. Nor does it seem that he had a close connection to earlier poet Li Bai or the later Li Shangyin.
His courtesy name 長吉, Changji, Forever Lucky, does not fit him for failed the Imperial Examinations and died at the age of 26 or 27. Because of his early death, his poems are not found in the Anthology of 300 Tang Poems. His cousin, given the task of collecting his poems, threw most of them into the privy. Rather, it is due to the later poets Han Yu, Li Shangyin and Du Mu, that he is remembered, and to poets of the Song Dynasty who gathered what remained of Li He’s poetry into collections.
[Li He image from Wikipedia, drawn by Shangguan Zhou.]
Meng Haoran followed up his poem about mooring on the Blue River with a similar poem, Stay Overnight on the Tonglu River, Write to My Old Guangling Friends. Guangling in the title refers to a district in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.Weiyang, referred to in the second stanza is near the capital of Chang’an. Jiande is our familiar city on the river which is given the name Tonglu, rather than Xin’an, its name according to Google Maps. NOt that it matters, but Meng Haoran is likely giving the river the name of Tonglu County through which it flows, east of Jiande.
Mountains at dusk, melancholy monkeys howl Blue river, restlessly flows all night long. Wind rustling through the leaves on the riverbanks Moonlight shines on one solitary boat.
Jiande is not my home It’s Weiyang where I miss old friends. Both eyes still shedding tears In this distant western place.
The River is as Blue as the Sky
Who has not stood at a river bank in the evening and watch the heavens sink below the trees? The water is like a mirror reflecting the sky in all its changing colors. Then as the sun sets, the water turns a deep blue the color of the evening sky. When the full moon rises on the horizon, it is so close one can touch it, lile a close friend?
Meng Haoran has stopped for the evening at Jiande (Déjiāng, 德江) in Hangzhou, the western part of Zhejiang Province. Meng has moored his boat along the misty bank, several miles downstream from Qiandao Lake. Jiāngqīng, 江清, Blue River in the last line is a reference to the river’s sky blue color at the setting sun. Though not identified, Xin’an is the river’s name.
Moon River, the Moon is my Friend
Tang poets like Du Fu and Li Bai have written endearingly of the moon, but none so beautifully as the older affable Meng Haoran.
Li Bai drinking alone made friends with the moon and his shadow, Li Bai, his shadow, and the moon. So friendly was Li Bai with the moon, the story is told that he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River, fell off his boat, and drowned. Du Fu spoke about how a full moon scatters restless gold across the waves.
Modern artists write about the moon. Moon Over Miami, a film and song from 1941, is a classic example. Johnny Mercer’s 1961 lyrics to Moon River captures a similar image for me. “Moon river, wider than a mile / I’m crossing you in style someday…” Fly Me to the Moon, by Bart Howard, sung by Kaye Ballard in 1954, and Frank Sinatra in 1964 is another example.
In a thousand mountains, no bird flies On ten thousand trails, no human trace But one man in a grass raincoat and hat Fishes in the river and snow
In a thousand mountains, where no bird flies On ten thousand trails, where no man walks A single man in a grass coat and hat Fishes by himself on the river and in the falling snow
Why do so many poets, embrace the sport of fishing? Because it’s done alone.
Liu Zongyuan （栁宗元, 773 – 819) wrote River and Snow , 江雪 while living in Yongzhou, Hunan province. The dates of his birth and death identify him as a late Tang poet. The poem is simple and direct in its message. The poet in his coat and hat of grass fishes for words to describe his loneliness surrounded by a thousand mountains and ten thousand trails where no bird flies and no man walks.
I have translated this poem before, and before that, but like my favorite snow covered path in the wintry woods where no man goes but me and the fleeting deer, it is one I like to come back to this time of year. It is different but still beautiful, perhaps that is why one likes to fish.
A poet is a fisherman 漁民, Yúmín And a scholar 学者, Xuézhě who fishes for words with which to say how beautiful is this winter’s day; in a thousand mountains on ten thousand trails alone, on the river in the falling snow fishing in coat and hat, wine to keep him warm, not catching the words he needs to say how beautiful how wonderful is the pure white snow, Bái xuě ái ái, and when at last he’s had enough of words and fish he falls asleep to dream of better days
A speaker knows not, and he who knows speaks not I heard this from the Old Man. If the Old Man knows the Way, Why five thousand words?
The Old Man is Laozi, 老子, Lao Tzu, Lao-Tze, Old Master, Chinese philosopher (6th c. BCE) and reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, 道德經, Dàodé Jīng, the philosophy of Tao, which teaches that to find The Way, we should become one with the rhythm of universe.
Laozi’s contradiction exists in the fact that being and teaching are not the same. One who speaks can not know. Happiness, wisdom and knowledge stem from Wúwéi, 無為, “not doing,” as a fish swims in the water, as a flower shaken from a tree by the wind, or a cloud that appears in the sky on a summer’s day, as seeing a loved one’s smile.
In Weicheng, the morning rain moistens the powdered dust The green guesthouse is the color of new willow Let me persuade you to drink another wine for West of Yangguan Pass, there are no old friends to be found
In Weicheng, the morning rain wets the dust The guesthouse is green, the color of new willow Drink up! another cup West of Yangguan, you’ll find nothing but deceasedfriends (tongue in cheek translation, see notes below)
Line 1 – Weicheng, the city of Wei was in western Shaanxi province. Line 4 – Yangguan Pass, Yang Pass in the even more remote Gansu province that touches upon the arid Gobi Desert. Yuanguan, along with Yumen Pass, marks the entrance to the Silk Road, China’s link to the Cental Asia and the Middle East.
Place names trigger memories. The Beatles, a British rock band of the 1960s, wrote In My Life (There are Places I Remember, album Rubber Soul, 1965) whose lyrics begin: “There are places I’ll remember, All my life, though some have changed, Some forever, not for better, Some have gone, and some remain.”
Remarkably, many place names in China have remained, some have changed. Chang’an, the Tang capital is now called Xi’an. In my life, sometime after 1979, Peking, China’s present capital, became Beijing. Weicheng, city of Wei, present day Xianyang on the Wei River, a few miles upstream (west) of Chang’an (Xi’an).
Yuan of the Title – an old friend of Wang’s not otherwise identified. Perhaps a soldier, perhaps an administrator, for sure, a drinking companion who would find few trees to give shade and shelter and little wine to wet his lips and no old friends with which to share a drink.
[Some translators give the name as Yuan the Second. I suppose the confusion arises from whether the second describes the preceding or following character 元二使 in the title. As I understand Chinese grammar (and I am no expert) modifiers precede the thing they modify.]
The Title – in the late Tang dynasty, the protectorate of Anxi (modern Xinjiang) consisted of four military garrisons whose purpose was to protect China from invading forces from Tibet and the Western Turkic Khaganate. By the time of the An Lushan Rebellion (beginning in 755), near the end of Wang Wei’s lifetime (699–759), Tibetan forces were stirring up trouble along with the rebel General An Lushan. Garrison forces in Anxi were withdrawn to help battle the rebel forces which had taken the Tang capital Chang’an in 762. Wang Wei was of course dead at the time all this was unfolding.
It would appear, therefore, that Wang Wei wrote this poem sometime prior to 755.
Light rain in the light dust. Green willows around the courtyard Going greener and greener, But you, Sir, better take wine ere you depart, For no friends will be about When you come to the gates of Go. I modified Ezra Pound, epigraph to “Four Poems of Departure”, in Cathay (1915)
Notes on Translation
Are you still with me? Then you are into minutiae, the trivialities of translation.
Almost universally, translators begin the title as “Farewell”. Farewell in Chinese more often appears as 送别, Sòngbié, which itself is mellifluous. Wang Wei has chosen to shorten this to 送, Sòng, which is kind of a “send off.” Not a big difference, probably not any difference at all.
Last line – One other interesting word choice is 故人 gù rén which means both “old friend” and “deceased friend”. To stretch a point, there are not “no friends,” but 無, Wú “nothing” but “deceased friends” in Anxi.
Why Bai Juyi (白居易, 772–846) was stuck in Handan (in modern Hebei province), on a Winter’s Solstice, I don’t know. It was the beginning of deep dark winter and a break from farming when the family gathers to share stories, and he wanted to be home. We’ve all found ourselves stuck somewhere on a holiday, feeling sorry for ourselves, wishing we were home, sharing a warm drink and a laugh or two.
I can think of a couple of recent American movies that loosely follow this theme and a favorite song from World War II.*
This is Bai Juyi’s turn, left alone in a cold dark postal station with a small stove for warmth and light, no companion other than his shadow, and his thoughts, which become this poem.
HandanHomesick on a Winter Solstice Night
It’s the Winter solstice, so here I am, stuck at Handan’s postal stop Grabbing my knees, before the fire, my shadow beside me, is all I got. Missing you, needing you, wanting to be home, sitting with you, late this night You too, should thinking of this faraway traveler.
邯郸驿里逢冬至， 抱膝灯前影伴身 想得家中夜深坐， 还应说着远行人
Two modern American movies come to mind: Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, trying to get home for Thanksgiving; and Home Alone 2, lost in New York, over Christmas; one could add An American Tail, a cartoon animation about a Jewish mouse’s separation from his family at Hanukkah. The 1943 song I’ll Be Home for Christmas, by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent also expresses the emotion beautifully.
Homesickness is of course a universal emotion. Missing one’s parents, one’s family, a love one, Bai Juyi’s expression “思家” thinking of family, says it simply and beautifully.
Whistling wind, in a driving autumn rain Clacking stones, stumbling on the shore Waves leaping, crashing into each other White egret startles, recovers, descends
Anyone who has experienced a transcendent moment in Nature understands that it is impossible to recreate it in words. Zen teaches us this. Still we try, we take a photograph, or as in this case, in words.
Wang Wei’s transcendental moment took place in autumn at the Luan Family Shallows during a driving rain, the kind that whistles and pounds the ground, filling the creeks, rivers, and lakes. Shallows (颯颯, Sàsà) here does double duty, describing the shallow area along the river bank where the egrets like to fish and the water breaks upon the rocks, but also serving as the sound of the whistling rain.
Wang Wei uses onomatopeia again in line 2 – 颯颯, Qiǎn qiǎn, the sound of water moving in the shallows. Here is an alternate translation:
swoosh swoosh, in the midst of the autumn rain glug glug, a stone slips and slides in the shallows jump, waves against each other, splashing white egret startled, returning, descends
Wang Wei (王維, 699–759) and Pei Di (裴迪, circa 714- unknown) collaborated in a series of poems that contained observations about the natural scenery on Wang Wei’s family estate on the Wang River, about 60 miles south of the Tang capital.
WangchuanJi is the Chinese name for the poems. In English the poems are known by either the Wang River Collection or the Wheel River Collection, sometimes as the Lantian poems, since the estate was in Lantian County. The confusion arises from the coincidence that Wangchuan (輞川) means Wang River, but uses a different character than Wang’s name (王). Wang (輞), as in Wang River, means the outside of a wheel, the rim.
I see that it has been almost four years since I last dined with Meng Haoran at Zhang Mingfu’s. Though it is now only November, this will be the fifth winter since we dined. A warm stove, fragrant ash, a cold feast on a cold evening, a glass or two too much of wine among friends, one last verse to share, her tender melody puts one to sleep til dawn.
Surprise, it is not winter but spring. In China, one says,
“A timely snow promises a good harvest.” 瑞雪兆丰年
A Cold Food Feast at Zhang Mingfu’s
A lucky first snow a full foot deep, Idling away the evening, a half an hour more. Mats aligned, we wine companions ask, Trim the wick-length to a verse’s measure.
Warmed by the stove’s fragrant ashes, Her delicate fingers pluck the lute strings clearly, And drunk at last, I feel the lure of sleep, Fast asleep, until the cock’s cry.
Hánshí, Cold Food, refers to Qingming a traditional Chinese festival that takes place in early April. In 732, Tang Emperor Xuanzong proclaimed that respect for one’s ancestors could only be made formally at their graves on the first day of the Qingming solar period.
Ruìxuě can be translated as an auspicious or lucky snow. Auspicious because of the Chinese proverb that says snow in Spring promises a good harvest (瑞雪兆丰年).