Reading Laozi 读老子 – Bai Juyi

On Reading Laozi

He who speaks, does not know,
He who knows, does not talk.
Why then, did the way the old man knows,
Take five thousand words?

Laozi

Tongue in cheek, Bai Juyi identifies Laozi by name in the title, literally, Old Master, and as the old man ( 老君 , Laojun) in line three.

Laozi, literally “Old Master”, also Lao Tzu and Lao-Tze, was an ancient Chinese philosopher (6th or 4th century BC, as scholars disagree), founder of Taoism, the Way (道, Dào) and author of the Tao Te Ching, a text of some 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 chapters.

Because the fifty-sixth chapter of the Tao Te Ching says that “the knower does not speak, the speaker does not know”, so Bai Juyi presents the paradox question, if the old man knows why so many words? *

读老子

言者不如知者默
此语吾闻于老君
若道老君是知者
缘何自著五千文


Dú lǎozi

Yán zhě bùrú zhì zhě mò
cǐ yǔ wú wén yú lǎo jūn
ruò dào lǎo jūn shì zhì zhě
yuánhé zì zhe wǔqiān wén

* Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56
Those who know talk not,
Those who talk know not.
Blockading its exchanges,
Confining its ideals,
Moderating its ingenuity,
Unraveling its complexity,
Softening its intensity,
Is but merging into its ubiquity,
That is the intricacy of ubiquity…

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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

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

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.

Song of Everlasting Sorrow – Bai Juyi

Song of Everlasting Sorrow  (長 恨 歌)

A Chinese Emperor longed for a beauty to match his kingdom
Looking ever looking, without finding, until
In the Yang family, a young girl, growing and maturing
Well-hidden and unknown, yet one
Naturally beautiful, one cannot hide such beauty, thus
One day she met the emperor and
Returned his look with a smile,
So beginning one hundred beautiful lives,

As the girls of six hundred houses lost their luster

There are many additional verses.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret) (長 恨 歌) by Bai Juyi (772-846) retells the love story of the beautiful Yang Guifei (719-756) and Emperor Xuanzong, and the cause of the An Lushan Rebellion that began in December of 755.

Yang Guifei mounting a horse

Yang Guifei

Yang Guifei is said to have had “a face that put all flowers to shame”.

The story is told:

Locked in the palace, Yang Guifel lamented to the peony and the rose, “Flower, flower, full of bloom, when shall I see the light of day?”

Seeing her plight, the flowers and leaves, drooped in sorrow and shame as she passed.

Yang Guifei would meet a tragic end during the An Lushan Rebellion.

There are over 100 verses, and so I must come back from time to time to complete the translation.

Yes, there are many, many translations.

Original Chinese

長 恨 歌

漢皇重色思傾國
御宇多年求不得
天生麗質難自棄
一朝選在君王側
回眸一笑百媚生
六宮粉黛無顏色

Grass 草 – Bai Juyi

Prairie Grass once covered all of the Midwest and the state Kansas where I live. So,it is appropriate that I tackle the Bai Juyi’s Grass (草) .

Grass

From year to year, the withered grass
In all its glory flourishes on the plain
Wildfires burn but do not exhaust as
Spring wind blows and once more it’s green

A distant fragrance travels the ancient road
And like a bright emerald joins the city wall
Dear friend, once again you are gone
And the lush grass is full of farewell

French

Les Herbes

Année après année,  l’herbe fanée
Dans toute sa splendeur se reste sur la plaine
Furieux les feux brûlent mais n’épuisent pas
Le vent du printemps souffle et une fois de plus en vert

Un parfum lointain parcourt l’ancienne route
Et comme une émeraude brillante rejoint le mur de ville
Cher ami, encore une fois vous êtes parti
Et l’herbe luxuriante est pleine d’adieux

Chinese

离离原上草 一岁一枯荣

野火烧不尽 春风吹又生

远芳侵古道 晴翠接荒城

又送王孙去 萋萋满别情

Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi (白 居 易, 772 – 846) described himself as a self made man, one who studied hard to pass the imperial exams, honor his parents, serve the imperial family, and care for his wife and child.

During his long career, he was the governor of three Chinese provinces. His postings included governor of Zhongzhou (818), Hangzhou (822), and, later, Suzhou. In 829 he was appointed mayor of Luoyang, the eastern capital, retiring in 842.

His insightful observations include this one: “If a Fleeting World is but a long, long dream, it matters not whether one is old or young.” At the end of spring.

Notes

I translate wangsun (王孙), the Chinese characters from the last line of the poem as dear friend. Much time could be spent interpreting these characters. They also represent a surname, a plant that tastes somewhat bitter, and literally, sun king, or grandson of the king.

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