A flower is no flower – Bai Juyi

A flower is no flower
mist no mist
that which comes at midnight
leaves at dawn,
arrives like a spring dream – for a while
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to be found

On the meaning of life

Perhaps because his mother died, caused by falling into a well while looking at some flowers, or because Bai overstepped himself as a palace official and was exiled to to Jiujiang (Xun Yang), Bai Juyi chose to write this lovely poem about the fleeting nature of life.
Poets and songwriters have long written about the ephemeral nature of life. No one has done it better than Bai Juyi, though one can try (and lose the poem’s simplicity and rhyme):

“Like the flower that fades and dies, like the morning mist, that which comes in the darkness of night, departs at first light, life that comes in spring like a dream, leaves like a morning cloud, and then is nowhere to be found.”


Not a cheery view, indeed. And perhaps contemptuous of the Tang dynasty, because in the last line, Bai’s makes an ambiguous reference to the imperial court, 朝 cháo, meaning morning, but also “dynasty”.

It has been said that man is a being in search of meaning.

What’s yours?

Original Chinese

花非花,霧非霧
夜半來,天明去
來如春夢, 不多時
去似朝雲, 無覓處

Pinyin

Huā fēi huā wù fēi wù
yèbàn lái tiānmíng qù
lái rú chūnmèng bù duō shí
qù shì cháo yún wú mì chù

Notes on translation

花 huā, flower. A flower is a symbol of beauty, perseverance, love, and most of all the transitory nature of life.
霧 wù, mist or fog.
天明 tiānmíng, dawn, first light, break of day.
春夢 chūnmèng, literally spring dream, figuratively a brief illusion.
朝雲 cháo yún, morning cloud, cháo can also be a subtle reference to the imperial court, since 朝, means “morning”, but also “imperial court”. This was the kind of language that got Bai Juyi in trouble.
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It’s cold, 已涼

Chinese woman in scarlet dress with fan

It’s Cold
Through her blue green door
Past the scarlet screen full of flowers and blossoms
Lies a brocaded quilt of an eight-foot dragon beard
It is cool but not yet cold

The poem’s meaning

It is autumn and that means falling leaves of red and gold, cold fronts and cool air. The first frost has not come, so that the flowers continue to bloom and the vegetables ripen. Remember when it was spring and love was new. Then summer and love was hot.

Now it is autumn, and our love has cooled (涼 yǐ ), but not yet cold (寒 hán). And we both know, it is time to say goodbye.

Dragon’s Beard

I could and will speculate on the dragon’s beard that Han Wo weaves into the bed spread. Surely, the beard of the dragon had some mythical property, now forgotten. It was also a popular candy confection, originating during the Han dynasty, similar to our cotton candy, and quite ephemeral, when the temperature was hot.

While I am at it, let’s talk numbers. Han Wo chose an eight-foot beard. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, similar to the word ‘Fa’, which means to make a fortune, so maybe, Han Wo was hoping to get lucky that night.

Han Wo (Han Wu)

Han Wo (韩偓 Han Wu, 842–844 – 923) survived the end of the Tang dynasty (907); and, so, represents a closing bookend to poetry of the Tang dynasty. His father was acquainted with poet Li Shangyin, and it is said that Li recognized Han Wo’s poetic gift at an early age.

Original Chinese

已涼

碧闌干外繡簾垂
猩色屏風畫折枝
八尺龍鬚方錦褥
已涼天氣未寒時

Pinyin

Yǐ liáng

Bìlán gān wài xiù lián chuí
xīng sè píngfēng huà zhézhī
bā chǐ lóng xū fāng jǐn rù
yǐ liáng tiānqì wèi hán shí

Autumn Air, Li Bai

moon, boat, water, Li Bai

The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright,
Leaves that have fallen gather and scatter,
Jackdaws roosts and start anew.
Yearning for each other, when shall we meet again?
It is hard to love this night

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Luò yè jù huán sàn,
Hán yā qī fù jīng.
Xiāng sī xiāng jiàn zhī hé rì?
Cĭ shí cĭ yè nán wéi qíng!

秋 风 清
秋 月 明
落 叶 聚 还 散
寒 鸦 栖 复 惊
相 思 相 见 知 何 日
此 时 此 夜 难 为 情

The Sublime

I suppose that it is the purpose of all great poetry to express the sublime. By sublime is meant the grandeur of the moment, the ineffable expression of an emotion that defies expression. For Li Bai, the moment was a clear, bright autumn evening, perfect in every way, except for the pain felt when two lovers were parted.

And the ridiculous; or, alas, it is hard to translate Chinese

Li Bai’s poignant homage to two lovesick lovers, each one under a bright autumn moon, each feeling the clear autumn air, but separated, like fallen leaves briefly coming together and scattering again, like jackdaws, stealing moments together then parting.

Translating Chinese characters into English is a difficult problem. Grammar plays a part. Take for example, the first two lines. I will use pinyin to illustrate the point.

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Li Bai uses but three characters while English requires the use of ten, adding both articles and a verb to convey a complete sentence. I suppose, the translator could say, “Clear autumn air” and “Bright autumn moon” are not familiar English constructions.

I need not mention the obvious loss of rhyme and rhythm that naturally occurs in translations that retain the original meaning.

Like English combining one Chinese character with another often creates a unique meaning. In English, fire and house, means something quite different from firehouse. Like wise, in Chinese. Take the first tow characters in fifth line of Li Bai’s poem, 相 思, Xiāng sī. Literally, one gets cold crow, but the combined meaning is jackdaw, a bird that is known for its thieving habits in building a nest. Had the translator chosen crow or raven, the poem would lose the sense of two lovers stealing moments together.

Sometimes, the translator must abandon the literal Chinese to get the sense of the poem. The last line of Li Bai’s poem starts out with 此 时 , Cĭ shí , literally, at this time. It is followed by 此 夜 , cĭ yè, this night, and ending with 难 为 情, nán wéi qíng, which most translators interpret as hard or difficult. Li Bai’s rhyme and rhythm are nice, but in English it sounds better, and is closer to the poet’s intent to say, “It is hard to love this night.”

Li Bai, The Four Seasons, Ballads

Li Bai has created a series of four love ballads set to the four seasons. The subject is women, the theme is love, devotion, and longing.

12th c. copy of work by zhang xuan, detail
Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, Zhang Xuan (12th c. copy)

The Four Seasons

In Spring, the lovely Lo Fo of the western land of Chin plucks mulberry leaves by the blue waterside, her white arms gleam against the green boughs… In Summer, On Mirror Lake spread out for miles and miles, blossoming lotus lily flowers teem… In Autumn, a crescent moon hangs over Chang’an, and ten thousand wives are pounding clothes…In Winter, she’s told the courier departs next day, so she sews a warrior’s gown all night.

Spring

The ballad of Spring is an abbreviated version of an earlier Yuefu poem (樂府, folk song) “Mulberries along the field” (陌上桑). Li Bai pays homage to the chaste and loyal Lo Fo (Lo Fuo) of the Land of Chin (Qin) . “The land of Chin” in mid-western China is the ancient state and short-lived first imperial dynasty (221 to 206 B.C) from which Europeans created the name China.

Summer

Summer’s ballad, tells the tale of Xi Shi (西施), literally “(Lady) Shi of the West”, 506 BC – ?).

One of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China, Xi Shi became a pawn in a plan by King Goujian of Yue to seek revenge over King Fuchai of Wu. Fuchai had previously defeated Goujian and made him a prisoner before releasing him. Now free, King Fuchai offered Xi Shi as a gift to King Goujian. Her beauty bewitched the king and he neglected his duties. Eventually, King Goujian had his revenge and defeated Fuchai. After the fall of Wu, King Goujian’s minister Fan Li retired and, according to legend, lived in the misty waters of Lake Taihu.

Autumn

Autumn ballad, takes us west to the Gate of Yumen, Yumenguan (玉門 關).

This dry and dusty pass at the far western frontier served as a strategic fort along the ancient Silk Road. It derives its name from the jade that passed through its walls. It came under control of the Han Dynasty (China’s second imperial dynasty, 206 BC – 220 AD, following the Qin Dynasty).

Winter

Winter’s ballad is finally here.

Perhaps, Li Bai has taken us to the present.

The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) has broken out. Northern tribes rebelled against the authority of the Tang Dynasty and invaded China. The rebels are advancing on the Tang capital of Chang’an.

A doting wife is told the courier departs next day for the north, so she sews a warrior’s gown all night.

zhou fang, ladies playing double sixes, freer gallery of art
Ladies playing double sixes, Zhou Fang

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Autumn

Chang’an is lit by a crescent moon and
From ten thousand homes comes the sound of cloth-pounding
While an autumn wind blows endlessly,
For those who guard the Gate at Yumenguan.
Who knows when peace will be made with the northern Hu?
So good men may return from long marches.

Yumenguan, Jade Gate

長安一片
萬戶搗衣聲
秋風吹不盡
總是玉關情
何日平胡虜
良人罷遠征


Cháng’ān yīpiàn yuè
wàn hù dǎo yī shēng
qiū fēngchuī bù jìn
zǒng shì yù guān qíng
hérìpíng hú lǔ
liáng rén bà yuǎnzhēng

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons

In Spring, the lovely Lo Foh picks mulberry leaves for her silk worms while she disarms the advances of a Prince. In Summer, Xi Shi, China’s Beauty gathers lotus blossoms in May. In Autumn, a sliver of a moon hangs high over Chang’an while soldiers guard Yumenguan Pass. In Winter, a loving wife can hardly hold her needle and thread while she stitches a warm cloak for her warrior husband.

These are the Four Seasons and the Four Ballads of Li Bai.

In this poem, Autumn, Li Bai returns to Chinese history, hearkening back to the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han dynasty who ruled from 131- 87, a record of 54 years, not surpassed for almost 1,800 years. Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion. At its height, extending the Empire’s borders north and west to Mongolia and modern Kyrgyzstan, Korea in the east, and Vietnam in the south.

In the North, Emperor Wu faced off against the northern “barbarians”, but this term did not exist in China. Instead, Li Bai refers to he Hu people 胡虜, Hu lu. This ancient people were also known as the Xiongnu. Wu used varying policies of appeasement, marriage, and ultimately war to fight them off.

Li Bai wrote this series of Ballads during the insurrection of General An Lushan, whose rebellion against the Tang dynasty began in 755 with disastrous consequences.

Yumenguan

Every Chinese reader of Li Bai’s poetry, then and now, was and is familiar with Yumenguan, 玉門關, the Jade Gate. This remote post marked the western extent of Chinese control. The name derives from the precious jade carried through its gate. 遠征, yuǎnzhēng, I translate as a long march, also an expedition, campaign would also fit.
Li Bai resting
Li Bai

Crescent Moon

Li Bai hangs a crescent moon, 一片月, Yīpiàn yuè, over Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty. One could have used the literal translation, a piece, or the poetically assonant “sliver” with shines, but I like the image of a crescent moon over Chang’an. It conveys the dire image that Chang’an and the Tang dynasty were hanging on by a thread during An Lushan’s rebellion.
crescent moon Chinese 一片月
Crescent moon, Chinese, 一片月

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Spring

Yang Guifei, painting by Hosoda Eishi, British Museum

Oh, the lovely Lo Fo from the Land of Chin
Picking green mulberry leaves by the riverside
Her red lips bright and fresh
Sir, she says, my silkworms must eat, so I must go
Prince, I pray
, tarry not with your coach and five.

子夜四時歌春歌,
李白


秦地羅敷女
采桑綠水邊
紅妝白日鮮
蠶飢妾欲去
五馬莫留連

Zǐyè sì shí gē chūn gē,
Lǐ Bái


Qín de luó fū nǚ
Cǎi sāng lǜ shuǐ biān
Hóngzhuāng bái rì xiān
Cán jī qiè yù qù
Wǔ mǎ mò liúlián

mulberry leaves

The Story of Lo Foh

Li Bai’s poem is a retelling of the popular ballad of Lo Fo (Lo Foh), a story of a wife’s loyalty, devotion, and honor to her husband when approached by a high official. It is based on a much longer ballad that goes like this:

In the southeast, the sun rises where two walls meet.
And shines on the house of Master Chin.
Master Chin has a lovely daughter, Lo-foh her name.
Lo-foh feeds her silk-worms well.
She picks mulberry leaves south of the city.
Her basket is carried by a cord of blue silk,
And a hook fashioned from a laurel branch.
Her hair is dressed in pretty knots of Wa-doj
Sparkling moonstones hang from her ears.
Her petticoat is yellow silk, her jacket purple silk.

The Lord Governor comes from the south,
His five horse coach stops and stays.
The Lord Governor bids his men to ask.
And they ask: “Who art thou, little maid?”
“I am the fair daughter of Master Chin, “Lo-foh is my name.”
“How old art thou, Lo-foh?”
“Less than twenty.”
“But more than fifteen, yea, much more.”
The Lord Governor entreats Lo-foh,
“Wilt thou ride with me?”
Lo-foh sweetly replies: “My Lord Governor, how foolish, indeed! My Lord Governor, you have a lady of your own,
“And Lo-foh, she has a man of her own.”

The Land of Ch’in (Qin)

In this, Li Bai’s first ballad of spring, we return to the China’s first imperial dynasty. This is the Qin Dynasty, which we know better as Ch’in or Chin. The dynasty was short-lived, lasting only 15 years from 221 to 206 BC. Its importance, other than the fact that it was the first imperial dynasty, is that it is the source from which Europeans derived the name China.

In the ancient Warring States Period (475–221 BC), the Land of Qin lay to the west before conquering the other states.

Lo Fo, or Lo-Foh, is a legendary figure, a young girl who is either married or engaged to be so. Her bright red lipstick might indicate the later. She is picking fresh mulberry leaves for her silkworms when she is approached by a coach drawn by five horses, a sign of a high official, perhaps even the governor of Chin. Lo Fo quickly deflects his attention and remains chaste.

Making Silk

Li Bai’s Ballads Of Four Seasons: Summer

Li Bai, 夏歌

Ballads of Four Seasons: Summer, 子夜四時歌

For three hundred miles along the banks of Mirror Lake
Lovely lotus lilies blossoms flower.
In fifth moon, a smiling Xi Shi gathers them,
As lowly peasants look on from the bank at Yuoye Stream.
Her boat turns back without waiting for the moon to rise
To the Royal House of Yue to warmhearted sighs.

鏡湖三百里
菡萏發荷花
五月西施采
人看隘若耶
回舟不待月
歸去越王家

Jìng hú sānbǎi lǐ
hàn dàn fā héhuā
wǔ yuè xīshī cǎi
rén kàn ài ruò yé
huí zhōu bùdài yuè
guī qù yuè wángjiā

The Summer Period

This is the third of Li Bai’s four seasonal ballads.

Historically, we are at the tail end of the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 453 B.C.), immediately preceding the Warring States Period. Li Bai sets the poem in the fifth lunar month (which we designate as May) and the start of summer.

The poem picks up with the conclusion of the war between the Houses of Yue and Wu, omitting the fall and rise of King Goujian (勾踐, 496–465 BC). Instead, the poem tells of the aftermath and the fate of the lovely Xi Shi.

Xi Shi by Zhou Wenju (AD 907-960)

Xi Shi

The well known story goes like this. The State of Yue, where Xi Shi and her family lived, was defeated in a war with its neighbor State of Wu and Goujian (520-465 BC), the king of the Yue was captured. Made prisoner, Goujian was made a servant of the king of Wu. Three years later, he was set free. Remembering the many humiliations he suffered, Goujian plotted his revenge. All the meanwhile, living simply as a peasant, eating their foods, and tasting the bile of an animal each day as memory of his suffering at the hands of the king of Wu.

The fair Xi Shi was one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China. She was recruited by Goujian and his minister Fan Li to go to King Fuchai of Wu and distract him from his duties of state. Bewitched by her beauty, King Fuchai killed his best advisor and then began a series of disastrous political moves that eventually resulted in the killing of the king’s son and the destruction of the kingdom. King Fuchai himself, committed suicide when King Goujian surrounded his capital and demanded his surrender.

Li Bai’s ballad picks up after the defeat of Wu.

The victorious King Goujian kills all the scholars of Wu. King Goujian’s advisor Fan Li, seeing Goujian’s paranoia and taste for revenge, retires. In the legend recounted by Li Bai, Fan Li and Xi Shi live on a fishing boat, roaming like phantoms on the misty mirror-like waters of Lake Taihu, rarely seen.

Li Bai’s choice of the lotus blossom for Xi Shi is intentional. Because the flower rises from the mud and blooms in exquisite beauty, it symbolizes perfection and purity of heart and mind. It also represents long life and honor.

Return to Furong Mountain 归人 山主人

Seeking Shelter During a Snowstorm on Furong Mountain

“Day turns twilight and the dark green mountains are behind me
The cold thatched cottage is needy
I knock on the wicket gate, a dog barks
Everyone sleeps at night in a snowstorm”

Return to Furong Mountain 归 人 山主人

I have been here before, to be exact, March 6, 1019, not too long ago, when I first translated Liu Changqing’s poem.

The title has changed, it is more more alliterative. For the better, I think. One could also translate the title as “Lodging on Furong Mountain During a Snowstorm”, and that would work. One could substitute Hibiscus for Furong (for that is the meaning of 芙蓉, furong), and that would please some, not me.

As I said, I have been here before. Here is Furong Mountain.

In summer, the green mountains are covered with lovely hibiscus flowers. There is much to see – Furong Waterfall, which dazzles the eye with its droplets reflecting in the sunlight, the ancient streets of the city filled with shops of the Tujia people, Tusi Palace, Xizhou Bronze Pillar and Tujia Cave Ancestors’ Relics.

Ah, but it is winter, there is a snowstorm, everyone sleeps. Everyone, but one, the host who rises to greet his guest.

Question?

It remains for to ask why Liu Changqing is traveling to Furong Mountain in winter. Furong is far to the south in the province of Hunan. Therefore it is neither close to Suizhou, where Liu served as governor for spell, nor northern Hebei Province, Liu’s ancestral home.

One hint as to the reason for his trip comes from another poem, Looking for the Taoist monk Chang of the Southern stream. Southern stream often meant the Yangtze, and poets like Liu often made pilgrimages to the southern mountainous regions to obtain deep insight, a spiritual experience. Liu might have been seeking the monk Chang or following in the footsteps Wang Wei to whom he wrote a farewell poem on the occasion of his exile to the south.

It is important to note that the journey is the goal, not the destination. Along the way many experiences happen and a transformation begins. Perhaps Liu has been this way before, perhaps not.

Either way, we are constantly seeking a truth which is elusive, and therefore certainly worth a return trip.

Chinese Characters and Pinyin

雪夜宿芙蓉山主人

日 暮 苍 山 远,
天 寒 白 屋 贫
柴 门 闻 犬 吠
风 雪 夜 归 人

Xuě yè sù fúróng shān zhǔrén

rìmù cāngshān yuǎn
tiān hán bái wū pín
cháimén wén quǎnfèi
fēng xuě yè guī rén

Searching Nanxi for the Reclusive Changshan Taoist, 尋南溪常山道人隱居

Searching Southern Creek (Nanxi) for the Taoist priest
Along the way, I find a footprint in the moss
A while cloud lies low upon the lake
Spring grass grows freely at the door
A heavy rain has the color of the pine trees
A mountain brook gushes from its source
And, mingling with its flowers is a truth
I have forgotten

Alternate title, Looking for the Taoist monk Chang of the Southern stream.

In Discovering a Truth, I have forgotten the Words

“Poems cannot convey the meaning of words accurately, and words cannot accurately convey thoughts.” This is the subtext of the ancient The Classic of Changes, (the I Ching). A fundamental tenet of Daoism also holds that people cannot express and access the Way (Dao) by language. And if Zhuangzi is correct, “then the purpose of the words is to express an idea, and if we get the idea we can forget the words”.

Liu Changqing (劉長卿 709–785) served the Emperor Dezong as governor of Suizhou Province.

Liu captures the essence of nature and the spirit of the Dao in his beautifully expressive mood piece of eight lines with five characters per line. The name of the monk he seeks and the place he goes to are of no substance.

A footprint in the moss marks the way, then Liu discovers that he needs nothing more than the this simple path beset by a heavy rain that obscures the forest. For the truth mingles with the flowers alongside the rushing mountain brook.

Chinese

尋南溪常山道人隱居
一路經行處,
莓苔見履痕,
白雲依靜渚,
春草閉閒門。
過雨看松色,
隨山到水源,
溪花與禪意,
相對亦忘言

Pinyin

Xún nán xī cháng shān dàoren yǐnjū

Yī lùshàng jīngguò dì dìfāng, qīngtái xiǎodào liú xià xié hén.
Báiyún yīwēi ānjìng shāzhōu, chūncǎo huánrào dào yuàn xián mén.
Xīn yǔ guòhòu sōng sè qīngcuì, xúnzhe shānlù lái dào shuǐyuán.


who, where, and why?

Parting

Dismount my friend, let me offer some wine
May I ask, where are you going?
Friend, you say, I have no purpose
To the Southern Mountains I depart
So, ask no more for
White clouds drift forever

送別

下馬飲君酒 問君何所之?
君言不得意 歸臥南山陲
但去莫復聞 白雲無盡時。

Sòngbié

Xiàmǎ yǐn jūn jiǔ, wèn jūn hé suǒ zhī?
Jūn yán bù déyì, guī wò nánshān chuí.
Dàn qù mò fù wén, báiyún wújìn shí.

白雲 báiyún, White Clouds



We are like the Clouds 云 yún, forever forming, then disappearing. 云 yún sounds the same as 运 yùn ‘luck, fortune, fate’. 時 Shí, time, endless, sounds like 诗 poem.

Please come down from your horse to have one last drink, dare I ask where you go? You said, because you have no purpose, no meaning in life, you will retire to the Nanshan Mountains. So go, I’ll ask no more, good poems, like white clouds are timeless.

The where and why are the easiest questions to answer:
歸臥南山陲 guī wò nánshān chuí, banished to (retiring to) the Southern Mountains’ frontier.

Who?

君 jūn, friend or colleague.

Perhaps, it is best to leave at that, an unnamed friend. One could guess Li Bai 李白 ( the banished immortal and well-known tippler). In 759, Li Bai was exiled by the emperor to Yelang in what is now Guizhou, a mountains region in southern China. In no hurry to reach Yelang, Li wandered much and wrote poetry, delaying so much that a pardon reached him before he arrived in far-off, frontier Yelang.

Wang Wei was likewise found in disgrace by the troubles of the An Lushan rebellion. His brother, a high imperial official, came to his defense, and Wang made his way into retirement.

Tang poet Li Bai on a Summer’s Day (19th c.), Gu Lang Yu Museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China