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
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Gao Shi – To Vice-prefects Li and Wang, Disgraced and Banished to Xiazhong and Changsha

What are you thinking as we part,
Reign in your horse, drink from this cup while we speak of disgrace
When Wu Gorge howls and the monkeys weep,
Will the wildgoose return to Hengyang with a royal decree?….
In autumn, the green maples on the river are fading away,
In Baidi, it rains and the trees are few
But a New Year is bound to bless us with the dew of His heavenly favor
Take heart, we’ll soon be together again!

Let me get this quick draft out and I shall return. This poem should be read along with Li Bai’s poem “Setting off from Baidi”…

What will the New Year bring

What will the new year bring is a familiar refrain to all of us.

Tang poet Gao Shi (ca. 704–765) reflects on the disgrace shared by Vice-prefects Li and Wang (his friends and fellow poets, Li Bai and Wang Wei). Gao Shi could have written the lyrics for Donna Fargo’s song, “What will the New Year bring?”

“This past year was good to us the one before just a little rough
The one before that was an awful thing what will the new year bring.”

755

The year 755 was a rough one in China. The An Lushan Rebellion began, lasting for eight years before General An Lushan was assassinated and the rebellion ended. A year after the rebellion began, the capital at Chang’an fell to the rebels, the emperor fled to Sichuan, then abdicated in favor of his son.

Things did not go well for poets Li Bai and Wang Wei.

758

In the summer of 758, Li Bai was banished to Yelang (near Hengyang and Xiazhong); before arriving, he benefited from a general amnesty. Wang Wei was captured by the rebels and forced to work for them. When the Tang forces freed him he was charged with treason, but saved by his brother a Tang official. Wang was banished for about four years in Qizhou (Guizhou, near Hengyang, near Changsha, Hunan province).

Baidi

Baidi refers to the grounds and Baidi Temple, which sits at the top of a hill, and is reached after a climb of a thousand steps. It is located at near the Qutang and Wu Gorges, north of the Yangtze River.

It was a frequent visiting place for poets and philosophers. (The image is not Baidi, but another temple.)

Original Chinese

嗟君此別意何如
駐馬銜杯問謫居
巫峽啼猿數行淚
衡陽歸雁幾封書
青楓江上秋帆遠
白帝城邊古木疏
聖代即今多雨露

Pinyin

Jiē jūn cǐ bié yì hérú zhù
mǎxián bēi wèn zhéjū
wū xiá tí yuán shù háng lèi
héngyáng guī yàn jǐ fēngshū
qīngfēng jiāngshàng qiūfān yuǎn
bái dì chéng biān gǔmù shū
shèngdài jíjīn duō yǔlù

Notes on the Chinese

Lines 1 and 2. Gao Shi is taking leave of his friends Li Bai and Wang Wei. All three were known to like to drink.
Line 3. 巫峽 Wu Gorge, the second of three gorges along the Yangtze River. Monkeys live along the river banks.
Line 4. 雁 wildgoose is the emperor. 衡陽 Hengyang, a prefecture size city in Hunan Province.
Line 5. Baidi, a famous temple complex at the top of a thousand stairs frequented bu poets.

Farewell Poem 送別 詩

Wang Wei died in 759, and thus did not outlast the devastating events of the An Lushan Rebellion (755–759).

In 756, the capital of Chang’an, causing great loss of life. Wang was captured by rebel forces and held as a prisoner but managed to escape. For this, he suffered a fall from the emperor’s grace. Grieving over the earlier deaths of his wife and mother, Wang retired to his home on the Wang River to study Buddhism, play musical instruments, paint and write poems.

The question – to whom is Wang Wei saying farewell?

Farewell Poem
Here in the hills, we bid farewell
The twilight fades as I close my twig door
Should the grass be green again next spring
Grandson, shall I see you once more

王維
Wang Wei
送別 詩
Farewell Poem

山中相送罷
日暮掩柴扉
春草明年綠
王孫歸不歸

Sòngbié
Shānzhōng xiāng sòng bà
rìmù yǎn cháifēi
chūncǎo míngnián lǜ
wángsūn guī bù guī

Notes on Wang Wei’s Farewell

Andrew W.F. Wong has given us a fine translation of two of Wang Wei’s Farewell Poems including this one. As it is short and straightforward, I thought I would give it a try. But then nothing good is ever straightforward.

Sòngbié, sòng bà

Sadly, rhyme and alliteration is often lost in translations.

The twist, if there is one, comes in line four. 王孫歸不歸, wángsūn guī bù guī, ends with a form Shakespeare would later adopt, to be or not to be, to come back or not. The question I ask is whether 王孫  wángsūn (王 wang, 孫grandson ) refers to a noble of the emperor’s house, as it is often translated, or to Wang’s grandson?

One other possibility exists. Wang Wei is obliquely addressing his younger brother 王縉, Wang Jin, one of the emperor’s chancellors.

In looking back, I notice that this translation is quite different from my earlier effort.

fuchun Chinese landscape pen and ink

Farewell – Wang Wei

At the suggestion of a comment, I have rewritten this poem. The rewrite is considerably different from the original translation, proving that I am a bad translator, was in a hurry, that translations are difficult, or all three. One of the many pitfalls of translations is to translate phonetically similar words on the basis of sound and not meaning. This problem occurs in all languages, including English, my dear (deer). Consider, we must polish the Polish furniture.

Also, in looking further into the matter, I discovered that Wang Wei wrote several farewells or adieus to friends. This poem is one of the shorter farewells. I hope to get around to the others in time.

Wang_Wei_left

Farewell

On the mountain slope, we stop and bid farewell
Until the dusk descends, and I close my wooden gate
In Spring, the grass will again turn green
But will you my friend return?

Notes

First line, one has to appreciate the musical sound of the title, Sòng bié, and the end of the first line, sòng bà.

Second line ends with 柴 扉. I translate this as a wooden door, and to be more specific a door with one leaf, suggesting how poor the hut is that Wang Wei lives in.

Last line, Wang Wei ends the poem with the three characters 歸 不 歸, literally return or not return. Sounds like Shakespeare’s to be or not to be. The second character 孫 is Wang, the poet’s family name, and also “king”. 孫 (sun, phonetically) is Chinese for grandson. Wang Sun is a mystery. Perhaps a proper name or a reference to a nobleman or one of Wang Wei’s relatives.

Original Chinese

送 別

山 中 相 送 罷
日 暮 掩 柴 扉
春 草 明 年 綠
王 孫 歸 不 歸

Pinyin

Sòngbié

Shānzhōng xiāng sòng bà
rìmù yǎn cháifēi
chūncǎo míngnián lǜ
wáng sūn guī bù guī

Wang Wei, 王維

Wang Wei was a Tang dynasty Chinese poet, musician, painter, and statesman. One could say he was a “man for all seasons” having enjoyed the imperial court’s favor, he was equally happy when that favor left him and he departed for the seclusion of his Lantian estate, as a sometimes Buddhist hermit.

winding-river