Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou – Du Fu

Lost, all is lost, I keep thinking. Still, life goes on, and yet…

Translators have given Du Fu’s poem the name Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou. Du Fu simply called it, 華 州 or Hua Zhou, the city in Shaanxi Province where Du Fu had taken a short-lived post as Commissioner of Education.

Lost, all is lost.

What is lost in the translation is the complexity and beauty of the rhyming pattern and the several allusions that make this poem mysterious and inviting.

The overall rhyme is aaaabaca. There is also a significant amount of internal rhyme that adds to the musicality of the words and emotions. For instance, in the first three lines we have these characters:

line one: 昔, xi, meaning past or former times.
line two: 西, xī, meaning West, referring to western regions
line three: 至, zhi, a verb, meaning to arrive

Now, relate these three sounds back to the poem’s title 華 州, Hua Zhou, and the poet’s name Du Fu.

Repetition, the key to meditation in Tao philosophy, and the very soul of poetry.

Alas, it is lost, lost in translation.

 

華 州

此 道 昔 歸 順
西 郊 胡 正 繁
至 今 殘 破 膽
應 有 未 招 魂
近 得 歸 京 邑
移 官 豈 至 尊
無 才 日 衰 老
駐 馬 望 千 門

Huazhou

That was the way I chose to flee
At the west of the city, a fool in the crowd
To this day, the memory of panic makes me sick
Should my soul not return
Now, the court has come back, the city is full
But the emperor sends me away again
Old and useless, my day is done, alas
For one last look at the thousand gates

Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was called the city of a million people and a thousand gates.

Du Fu’s official posting came late in life, from 758 to 759. This was in the midst of the An Lushan Rebellion. The rebels approached the capital from the west and the government fled. In 756, the capital fell, and panic, famine, and destruction followed. The success of the government forces against the rebels allowed a return, but Du Fu’s advice to the emperor was short-lived and in 758, Du Fu was made Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, a demotion which he resented. Soon, he moved on to Qinzhou, where he wrote approximately 60 poems, likely including this one. This stay was also short, six weeks.

There is an accompanying note to Du Fu’s poem:

In the second year of Zhide, I escaped from the capital through the Gate of Golden Light and went to Fengxiang. In the first year of Qianyuan, I was appointed as official to Huazhou from my former post of Censor. Friends and relatives gathered and saw me leave by the same gate. And I wrote this poem.

Zhide is reference to the honor shown him by the emperor, but it is also a play on words, a triple entendre.

值得
zhí de
to be worthy, deserving

只得
zhǐ dé
to have no alternative but to, obliged to

至德
zhì dé
splendid virtue, majestic moral character, great kindness

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Clearing Rain by Du Fu

In Kansas, half way though June. Summer is not yet here, but the day time temperatures already approach 100 degrees.

Last night a violent storm blew out of the west. The news reporters spoke of straight-line winds approaching 90 miles an hour. Tree limbs fell and cars and trucks were blown off the highway. But, it rained and the farmers are grateful; for a long rain means the knee-high corn will survive the coming summer season.

In another time and place, Chinese poet Du Fu watched a similar storm and wrote a poem the following day.

lightning-2

The rain clears
(One becomes less angry in autumn)

The rain fell and the autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind has blown ten thousand li.
The morning view is good and fine,
A long rain has not hurt the land.
The willow’s leaves are turning emerald green,
On a distant hill a pear tree blazes red.
Upstairs, a flute plays,
And outside, a goose flies in the sky.

Original Chinese

雨晴
(一作秋霁)

天水秋云薄
从西万里风
今朝好晴景
久雨不妨农
塞柳行疏翠
山梨结小红
胡笳楼上发
一雁入高空

Meaning of Du Fu’s Clearing Rain

In the summer of 759, Du Fu spent about six weeks in the city of Tianshui (天水) where he wrote this poem.

Du Fu had survived the worst of the rebellion. Captured by the rebels in 756, he escaped the following year and rejoined the emperor in the south. The emperor forces recaptured the capital Chang’an. Du Fu was accused of treason for remaining behind, but cleared of the charges. Back in the emperor’s good graces he received a post as Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, which was not to his liking. It was then, in the summer of 759, that he moved on to Tianshui where he spent a short six weeks and wrote over sixty poems.

The first two Chinese characters of Du Fu’s poem translate as “sky” and “water” or combined as “rain”. The two characters also name the city Tianshui where this poem was written.

Making sense of Du Fu’s poem:

It is now the autumn of my life.

It rained last night. The skies have cleared leaving behind only a few clouds. The western wind which once overpowered the east wind has blown ten thousand miles away. The long rain has not destroyed the country. The leaves of the willow trees, though sparse, are still green. On a distant hill the leaves of a pear tree blaze red. The wars though distant still consume lives. Somewhere in the house, a single flute plays its mournful tune and above a goose flies away.

To be continued…

Back in Kansas

The morning after the storm, a cup of coffee in hand, I go outside on my back porch and survey the damage. A few weak branches have fallen from the oak tree that towers above and green leaves are scattered about. The robins are busily gathering up worms.

Inside, on the television news reporters talk of nothing but tweets.

French translation

La pluie est tombée et les nuages d’automne sont peu,
Le vent de l’ouest a soufflé dix mille li.
La matin est bonne et bien,
Une longue pluie n’a pas blessé la terre.
Les feuilles du saut tournent vert émeraude
Sur une colline éloignée, une poire flambe rouge.
Une flûte joue en haut,
Et une oie flotte sur le vent.

Jetzt auf deutsch, German translation

Der Regen fiel und die Herbstwolken sind dünn,
Der westliche wind hat zehntausend li geblasen
Die Morgenansicht ist sehr gut,
Ein langer Regen hat das Land nicht verletzt.
Die Blätter der Weide machen Smaragdgrün,
Auf einem fernen Hügel bricht ein Birnbaum rot.
Eine Flöte spielt oben,
Und eine Gans fliegt in den Himmel.

Spring View, Du Fu

In December of the year 755, the An Lushan Rebellion began.

Thus, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are let loose on the Chinese Nation. Inappropriate allusion, but accurate since conquest, famine, war, and death swept the country.

Quickly, General An Lushan and his army swept down from the north and moving rapidly along the Grand Canal. Within a year later, rebel forces were at the gates of the capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an). The emperor decides to flee. Du Fu attempts to join him, but is caught by the rebels and taken back to Chang’an, where, it is said, this poem was written.

Du Fu’s view of the coming spring is conflicted. The 45-year-old Du Fu had removed his family to safety and a son was born. He certainly wanted to hear that they were safe. He was also fearful of his standing with the court in exile.

The beacon fires Du Fu speaks of were an ancient method of passing military information. In Europe, beacons were used by Romans and throughout the Napoleanic wars. The modern telegram rendered them obsolete.

fire

Spring View

A nation is broken by war, yet mountains and rivers exist
Spring comes to the city walls, where grass and trees still grow
This season it feels like blossoms are splashing like tears
I hate to depart, for the birds are scared in their hearts
Three months now, the beacon fires of war have burned
And one letter from home is worth ten thousand pieces of gold
While I scratch my white hair that has grown thin
Darken my desire not to be able to use a hairpin

Original Chinese

春望

國破山河在
城春草木深
感時花濺淚
恨別鳥驚心
烽火連三月
家書抵萬金
白頭搔更短
渾欲不勝簪

Poem explained

Du Fu had reason to fear the future. He was a married man with children to support. In 755 he received an appointment as Registrar of the Right Commandant’s Office of the Crown Prince’s Palace, a heady title but a minor post, but a start. The rebellion, the abdication of the emperor and his replacement, along with Du Fu’s capture was not a good omen. Though Du Fu was able to escape from the rebels, he was at first treated as a traitor. Though vindicated, he did not enjoy the new emperor’s full favor.

The hairpins in the last line of the poem are a metaphor for the union of two souls. Both men and women used hairpins and it was the custom in a Chinese marriage for husband and wife to exchange a hairpin.

Chang’an was taken by the rebel forces of An Lushan in 756 and much of it was destroyed. Tang forces retook it in 757. This dates Du Fu’s poem to the spring of 757, shortly before he left the city to rejoin the emperor.

French translation

Vue du printemps

Un pays brisée par la guerre, mais des montagnes et rivières existent
Le printemps arrive aux murs de la ville, et l’herbe et les arbres poussent encore
Cette saison, il semble que des fleurs éclaboussent comme des larmes
Je déteste partir, car les oiseaux ont peur dans leurs coeurs
Trois mois, les feux de guerre de la balise ont brûlé
Une lettre chez-soi vaut dix mille pièces d’or
Alors que je gratte mes cheveux blancs qui ont grossi
Obscurcir mon désir de ne pas pouvoir utiliser une épingle à cheveux

German translation

Frühlings-Ansicht
Eine Nation gebrochen, noch Berge und Flüsse existieren
Der Frühling zu den Stadtmauern kommt, wo Gras und Bäume noch wachsen
In dieser Saison es wie Blüten fühlt sich tummeln wie Tränen
Zu verlassen Ich hasse, denn die Vögel in ihren Herzen Angst haben
Drei Monate jetzt, das Feuer des Krieges verbrannt
Und ein Brief von zu Hause wert zehntausend Goldstücke
Während ich mein weißes Haar kratzen, die dünn ist gewachsen
Verdunkeln mein Wunsch, nicht in der Lage sein eine haarnadel verwenden

Du Fu

Du Fu

Spring Night Rain

Poem for a rainy day

It rained all last night here in Oz, it is raining now and will rain all day, and tomorrow. This is unusual. Here the rain falls occasionally and sometimes not at all, but when it falls it is always welcome.

Du Fu’s poem, 春夜喜雨, is variously translated as Spring Night Rain, or Welcome Rain on a Spring Night, or Delight taken in a Spring Night Rain. The simple thought is  – at night the spring rain is delightful, the sound soothing, the smell redolent of earth and life. The poem’s words remind me of Lerner and Lowe’s description of King Arthur’s Camelot where “the rains may never fall till after sundown,” but the circumstances in Du Fu’s poem not so lovely, as I will explain later.

 

rain-boat-crop

Zha Shibiao, Man on a boat in rain, detail (1615–1698)

English translation

Spring Night Rain

A good rain knows, it is spring
When wind-borne, it steals silently in the night
And wets all things, yet
Wild is the way the dark black clouds
Leave the river boat fires lit
And, at dawn reveal
Chengdu blossoming splendidly

du-fu

Du Fu

Note. 花重 Chegndu, literally the official city and capital of Sichuan province, where the emperor fled to during the An Lushan Rebellion (In China, An-Shi Rebellion).

Du Fu was captured by rebel forces, and after a year behind rebel lines, managed to make his escape and join the emperor in Chengdu. For the remainder of the rebellion, Du Fu lived there and wrote poetry in a thatched cottage next to the Flower Rinsing Creek.

Francais

Au printemps, il pleut plus à la nuit

Une bonne pluie connaît la saison
Quand le printemps arrive
À vent, il vole silencieusement dans la nuit
Et mouille tout, encore
Furieux la façon que les nuages noirs et sombres
Laissez les feux de bateaux de la rivière brûler
Et à l’aube révèle
La ville s’épanouir splendidement

German

Ein guter regen kennt die Saison
Wenn der Frühling stattfindet
Wenn der Nachtwind kommt, stiehlt er leise
Und benutze alle Dinge, noch
Wild ist die Art und Weise,
Wie die dunklen schwarzen Wolken
Lassen die Flussboot Feuer verbrennen
Und in der Morgendämmerung offenbart
Chengdu zu blühen herrlich und wunderbar

Chinese

好雨知时节
当春乃发生
随风潜入夜
润物细无声
野径云俱黑
江船火独明
晓看红湿处
花重锦官城

rain-boat

Zha Shibiao, Man on a boat in rain (1615–1698)

Gazing at the Mountain

Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pocket.” I like that. It takes hard work, one rung at a time, and sometimes, one needs to grab the foot that is just ahead and give it a yank.

 

A young Chinese scholar is about to take his imperial examinations. The future depends on it and he is jittery. Success is not a sure. In some years no students were passed, and Du Fu was in this group.

Wang Yue, “Gazing at the Mountain,” is one of Du Fu’s earliest poems.

It was written in 735 or 736 close in time to when Du Fu took his Jinshu examinations. As part of the examination, the candidate submitted a poem. There is no evidence for it, but this might have been the poem submitted by Du Fu. To “gaze at the mountain” is a metaphor for the challenge that stood before Du Fu. Success the goal and from the summit he could look down upon the thousands of others waiting their turn.

Is it optimism he expresses or the bravado of youth? Or is it the Greek quality of hubris that inevitably lead to defeat and downfall? Du Fu would fail his examination and his claim as one of finest poets of the Tang dynasties would take time.

Mount Tai or Tai’shen is a sacred mountain and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The long winding stairway to the summit and the Temple to the God of Taishan and from the Azure Cloud Temple is a famous pathway.

mt-tai-poster

Mt Tai

Gazing at the mountain

Preparing to climb Mt. Tai

Zhao and Jiang all around me a distant blue

The God of Time bestows Good fortune  and

Yin and Yang are balanced as the light of dawn

I bare my breast at the layers of clouds

From the corner of my eye to catch the sight of flying birds

On my struggle to reach the top

And see all the small hills in one glance?

There are other translations. There always are. Often they differ in word and meaning, revealing our difficulties in understanding the voice of another human being from different culture and time.

Daniel Hsieh of Purdue University has given us his interpretation. Another one by All Poetry perhaps, better catches the poet’s meaning. I repeat it, for educational purposes.

For all this, what is the mountain god like?
An unending green of lands north and south:
From ethereal beauty Creation distills
There, yin and yang split dusk and dawn.

Swelling clouds sweep by. Returning birds
Ruin my eyes vanishing. One day soon,
At the summit, the other mountains will be
Small enough to hold, all in a single glance.

望 岳

岱 宗 夫 如 何

齐 鲁 青 未 了

造 化 钟 神 秀

阴 阳 割 昏 晓

荡 胸 生 层 云

决 眦 入 归 鸟

会 当 凌 绝 顶

一 览 众 山 小

fuchun

Drinking Alone beneath the Moon

moon-2

li-bai-shadow

Li Bai*

Li Bai (701 – 762) was friends with Du Fu, but on this night when he composed this poem he was alone with a pot of wine; for companions he had the moon, his shadow and his thoughts.

There is a story, there always is, that Li Bai, glass of wine in hand, drowned in a river when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection. Some say the river was the Yangtze, the mother river of China. Some say he went to keep his appointment with the moon and the stars.

Some say Li Bai died at home in bed in Anlu (now in Hubei province).

月下獨酌

One could translate the title of Li Bai’s poem variously as Drinking alone beneath the Moon or Under the Moon Alone and Pouring Wine. The latter is a more literal translation. I say “more” literal in the sense that all translations are imperfect. The pouring and drinking of wine is also a deliberate act in which one considers and ponders the mysteries of the world.

Moon

Under

Alone

Pouring Wine  (“literally” wine pouring, drinking, considering, deliberating)

DRINKING ALONE BENEATH THE MOON

Between the flowers from a pot of spirits
I drink alone. There is no one with me
Till, I raise my cup inviting the moon
To bring my shadow and make us three.
The moon, alas, can not drink
So my shadow only drinks with me;
But still for a while I have these friends
Happy that it must be Spring
I sing while the moon wanders off.
I dance. My shadow becomes disorderly
Awake from time to time we bosom three
Until I get drunk, and so, we lose each other
And this never ending wandering passion
Expecting to meet them at a distant time in the Cloudy Stars.

I feel my translation trails off the path in the middle and is lost in the brush at the end.

Take for instance, the second to last line

永結無情遊,

The first three characters:

永結無

may translate as “never ending” or “neverending” if one treats it as an adjective modifying,

an emotion that extends from love to passion and borders on kindness

comes out as “tour” but one could also choose wander, travel, …

The cloudy stars could be the Milky Way, but that would not be true to the Chinese.

moon-lia-bai

  • image of Li Bai, Encyclopedia Britannica, original image of the moon, Pixabay

Traveling by Night

boat-wood

Traveling by Night

Slender grass, a faint breeze along the shore.
The tall mast of a solitary boat at night.
Far-flung stars hang o’er the flat-wide plain.
Moonbeams bounce on the Yangtze’s waves.
How does an old man with a pen gain fame?
When age and illness overcome his spirit, retire.
Drifting through this life – what have I become
Between heaven and earth, a seagull upon the wind.

Traveling by Night

Between the shores of slender grass at night, a slight breeze stirs to move the mast of this solitary boat. The wide-flung stars overhead seem to touch the wide-flat plains. The moon seems to swim upon the Yangtse waves.

What literary honors can I achieve? Old age and illness have overcome my spirit, let me retire. Drifting through this life – what have I become. Between heaven and earth, a lonely seagull upon the wind.

sea-gull

Notes on Du Fu and Thoughts while Traveling by Night, 旅 夜 書 懷

There are dozens of translations of Du Fu’s Thoughts while Traveling at Night. Even the title of the poem is variously given as – Written, Reflections, Thoughts, and so on. The exact words are not important. Literal translations ineffective in conveying the meaning of the writer. It is the image beheld and the emotion experienced that is important.

The poem is number 113 in the collection 300 Tang Poems. It is also known by its first line: 細草微風岸 (Xì Cǎo Wēi Fēng Àn), [slender] [grass] [tiny] [wind] [shore]. EastAsiaStudent.net gives the Chinese and a translation.

Du Fu has not given us the time of year. However, one senses the season must be advanced as the writers age and it is at least fall, if not winter. In speaking of the wide-flat plains, Du Fu is perhaps referencing the Sichuan Basin, famous for its rice cultivation and “slender grass”.

Du Fu is also known by the name Tu Fu. Having failed the Civil Service Examination, he mostly led an itinerant life, writing poetry about the famine, political unrest, loss of life and personal tragedy he witnessed and endured during and after the the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, a rebellion that spanned the reigns of three emperors. Eventually, he settled in Sichuan, where he lived in a cottage with his wife and children and wrote many poems describing a happier life.