Zhang Jiuling composed 4 Thoughts that were incorporated in the Book of 300 Tang Poems. Gentle reader, I give you two translation of Zhang Jiuling’s Thoughts 3:
Thoughts 3 – Zhang Jiuling
Alone in his abode, a quiet man, cleansed of care, composes his thoughts,
And projects them to the soaring goose, because it will bear his feeling.
Day and night, I conceive this empty prayer
Flying and falling, it is comfort enough that I am honest
Or something more poetic …
One man alone
Composes his thoughts, cleansed of care,
Then he projects them to the highest goose
To his distant Lord to bear.
Who will be moved by my sincerity,
By my daily prayer?
What comfort for my loyalty and honesty
When birds and the vile low-life are compared?
Heed my warning, execute An Lushan
Some scholars reckon that this poem was written in 738 AD, two years before Zhang Jiuling died. If so, gentle reader, then these words have flown 1,280 years in time to you. Zhang could not have known that you would be reading his words. What poet does?
Alone in their rooms, alone with their thoughts, why do poets write?
When Zhang wrote these words, his career had soared high then crashed, flew then fell.
At the peak of his career, three years earlier, in 735, he was given the honorific title Jinzi Guanglu Daifu (金紫光祿大夫), the emperor’s close minister, and created the Count of Shixing. His nickname was Bowu (博物) meaning broadly knowledgeable and erudite. But nothing lasts forever, and success breeds jealousy and others plot.
One year before writing the poem, Zhang advised Emperor Xuanzong to execute General An Lushan for failing to follow orders. Zhang’s honesty cost him political favor, the Emperor disagreed, and Zhang was demoted and would die soon thereafter while visiting the tomb of his parents.
If the Emperor had only listened to the honest words of Zhang. General An Lushan, of course, is the one individual responsible for the devastating rebellion that would cover the years 755 to 763. Zhang’s foresight would have save the Tang dynasty form millions of deaths, famine and disorder.
In the midst of the rebellion, the emperor’s son, the new Emperor Suzong, would recall Zhang’s warning and issue an edict honoring his father’s old counselor.
Yōu rén guī dú wò, zhì lǜ xǐ gū qīng,
chí cǐ xiè gāo niǎo, yīn zhī chuán yuǎn qíng.
Rìxī huái kōng yì, rén shéi gǎn zhì jīng
fēi chén lǐ zì gé, hé suǒ wèi wú chéng
As always, I am the first to say that there may be errors in my translation. A broad understanding of language, history, and culture are necessary to achieve a modicum of success.
Line one, 幽人, is often translated as “hermit” but I think solitary man is more accurate. Clearly, Zhang is writing this poem, having been demoted for being honest, and expressing his personal feelings.
Line two, 高鸟, high bird, is sometimes translated as wild goose. Here, it is likely a metaphor for the emperor who soars high above his subjects. One could substitute a wild goose, but that matter, it could be an eagle or a crane, both of which achieve high altitudes in flight.
Line three, 日夕, day and night. “Always” works too.
Line three, second stanza, I admit taking some liberties with the Chinese characters. Google says, “People who feel the essence,” but that seems to me an interpretation lost in translation.
Line four, 飞沈, to fly and fall, is a bit confusing. 飞沈, Perhaps it is a simple as to rise and fall in one’s career. What compares to the thrill of the bird in flight, rising and falling? 飞沈理自隔， 何所慰吾诚,
I need to give this final thought more thought.
Zhang Jiuling, (張九齡); Count Wenxian of Shixing (始興文獻伯), Tang Dynasty poet, and honest chancellor to Emperor Xuanzong