Part 2, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Yesterday, we left super-poet Li Bai alone on the porch, drunk, clutching a column, lying in a stupor after a night of revelry and wine. Morning breaks and he comes to his senses, or does he?

Yesterday’s verse

a yellow leaf warbler

Coming to my sense, I see the courtyard
In the midst of the flowers a bird sings
Is it time to ask this question,
In Spring, why does the warbler sing to the breeze?

Li Bai

Words matter

Li Bai, if words matter, and I am told they do, you are playing with us like a musician plays a zither, a sound may mean many things.  Imagine Li Bai plopped outside the door as morning comes, pear blossoms are dancing in the wind, a warbler sings.

What does he think?

Poets, like brightly colored prostitutes and whores, ply their trade. They dance and sing, and when the morning comes they rest in bed. Still, a lonely warbler sings, to whom and what?

Yesterday is far away, in fact its gone. Li Bai, our super-star, once the darling of the Imperial court, finds himself on the outside, staring in, singing to the breeze, surrounded by the flowers.

Notes on translation

庭, ting, courtyard
鸣, ming, cry or sing
春风 chūn fēng, as compound word, spring wind; singularly, in spring, the wind
时, shi, the season, or time; a homophone for poem or verse, 诗
莺, ying, a warbler, also possibly a golden oriole
柳莺, liǔyīng, willow warbler; leaf warbler, a colorful bird with yellow markings that nests in spring; literally a prostitute.

Chinese and pinyin

觉来眄庭, 一鸟花间鸣
借问此何时, 春风语流莺

Jué lái miǎn tíng, yī niǎo huā jiān míng
jièwèn cǐ hé shí, chūnfēng yǔ liú yīng


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

Zhang Jiuling – Thoughts I

high flying goose zhang jiuling thoughts

How the mighty have fallen

Zhang Jiuling experienced a fall from power. Once high counselor to the Emperor Xuanzong, possessing the honorific title of Count Wenxian of Shixing, he found himself the subject of palace intrigue, and, by 737, demoted and sent to distant Jingzhou (荆州), on the banks of the Yangtze River, in Hubei, China.

Zhang died three years later, but not before giving us his thoughts on his fall from his lofty perch.

Thoughts, First of Four
A lonely swan comes from the sea
Not daring to land on lake or pond
Looking aside, he spies a pair of kingfishers
Nesting on a three-pearled tree
Bravely resting at the tree’s summit
Have they no fear of slingshots?
Beautiful clothes invite pointing fingers
And, the high and wise face an evil god
For what is there for hunters to admire?

Original Chinese Characters

感遇四首之一

孤鴻海上來
池潢不敢顧
側見雙翠鳥
巢在三珠樹
矯矯珍木巔
得無金丸懼
美服患人指
高明逼神惡
弋者何所慕

Pinyin

Gǎn yù sì shǒu zhī yī

gū hónghǎi shànglái
chí huáng bù gǎn gù
cè jiàn shuāng cuì niǎo
cháo zài sān zhūshù
jiǎo jiǎo zhēn mù diān
dé wú jīnwán jù
měi fú huàn rén zhǐ
gāomíng bī shén è
yì zhě hé suǒ mù

Thoughts on Thoughts by Zhang Jiuling

Philosophers and poets imagine themselves as solitary swans (孤 鴻) flying high above the earth. They come from far away places, (海上來, coming from the sea) to serve the emperor. (Zhang himself was born in Guangdong, South China province, on the coast of the South China Sea.)

Having come from such a great body of water, how can the swan satisfy himself with a mere lake or pond?

The brightly colored kingfisher is common in China. Its colorful plumage makes it a popular subject of paintings, no doubt, looked at and admired greatly by an adoring public. The Three Pearl Tree (三珠樹) is a specific reference beyond my ability to identify. If I had to make an educated guess, it would be the Chinese Pearl-Bloom Tree with its beautiful white flowers.

The world is possessed of both good spirits and bad spirits. It is the bad spirits who admire (慕, admire, long for, desire) and hunt the high and the mighty (高明, literally those who are high and wise, clear-sighted). It is tempting to say “high and mighty” but that doesn’t quite express Zhang’s belief that one’s highest duty to the emperor is to behonest.

Note. A link to the Chinese Pearl-Blossom Tree.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling, (張九齡); Count Wenxian of Shixing (始興文獻伯), A Man of Much Substance (博物)

Thoughts 3 – Zhang Jiuling

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?

wild geese in a golden sky

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.

Original Chinese

幽人归独卧, 滞虑洗孤清

持此谢高鸟, 因之传远情

日夕怀空意, 人谁感至精

飞沈理自隔, 何所慰吾诚

Pinyin

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

Notes

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

Zhang Jiuling, (張九齡); Count Wenxian of Shixing (始興文獻伯), Tang Dynasty poet, and honest chancellor to Emperor Xuanzong