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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Beyond the Border – Wang Zhihuan

tibet mountain qiang

Beyond the Border

Where the Yellow River in the far white clouds is arising,
A walled fortress stands alone amidst the vast peaks abiding,
Under a willow tree, the Qiang flute is sighing,
That Spring never blows through the Yumen (Jade) Pass.

Understanding Wang Zhihuan’s poem

In 710, the young  Princess Jinching, adopted daughter to the Emperor Zhongzong, passed through Yumen Gate on her way to marry the Tibetan emperor. She would never return to her home in China. With this poem, Wang Zhihuan answers the emperor’s request for poems in her honor.

The princess is not named specifically in the poem, but her name appears phonetically in the last characters on the first two lines (Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān, yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān). We can speculate further that these two characters 间 (jiān) and 山 (shān), represent the ideas of separation and mountains.

More about Princess Jinching…

flute

Yumenguan

The setting for the poem is Yumenguan (玉门关, English, Jade Gate Pass), so named because of the jade caravans that passed through the opening in the wall.  The pass was located on the ancient Silk Road.

It represented the border between China and Tibet.

At home in China, Wang Zhihuan could see the distant clouds in west. He  understood that the Yellow River (黄河) was formed by the rain that fell on the high Tibetan Plateau, in the midst of ten-thousand foot mountains, before it coursed through China to the Yellow Sea and the currents of the Pacific Ocean.

The wall’s opening surely reminded Wang of the hole on a flute. The Qiang people who live in the area have a unique two-reeded flute that plays a sound that recalls the emotion of missing someone.

The Qiang People

During Tang dynasty (618–907), Chinese and Tibetan forces battled often. Between the two super-powers lay the ethnic Qiang people. During the border struggles, the Qiang went one way and then the other, subjects of Chinese or Tibetan control.

Like Wang Zhihuan, one can imagine a lonely flutist lamenting his misfortunes underneath a willow tree wondering why the winds of spring never reach his home.

The Qiang people make a unique flute made up of two bamboo pipes with two sets of holes. It is said that the sound of the flute is special, reminding one of the emotion of missing home. Popular Qiang songs include “Breaking off a Willow Branch” and “Missing You”. The third line of the poem begins with the characters 羌笛 – Qiāngdí, which clearly to me is Qiang flute. Nevertheless, some modern translations do not identify the Qiang flute, but generally of a flute played by a Tartar or Tibetan soldier. The verb in this line is 怨, literally, blame or complain, but lament or sigh sounds better to me. The willow tree – 杨柳 literally, willow tree / poplar and willow / or, a reference to the name of traditional tune that I cannot identify.

For a song that uses the willow tree as a metaphor see The Song of Everlasting (Unending) Sorrow, a long narrative poem by Bai Juyi (772 – 846). In the fifth scene, the imperial concubine is a little drunk. Her swaying figure resembles that of a willow branch dancing in the spring breeze.

The Title – 凉州词

The title also presents somewhat of a challenge. The original Chinese characters are 凉州词, literally Discouraging, Provincial, Word, or word from a cold province. Generally, modern translators use Beyond the Border, and so will I, but it would be more accurate to say, “At the Border” or “A Word from the Border,” or “word from a cold province”.

These alternate titles, however, lack the alliteration of “Beyond the Border”.

This is the second of two of Wang’s six existing poems published in the anthology of  300 Tang Poems. The other published poem is Ascending Stork Tower.

More about Wang Zhihuan (王之涣)

Original Chinese Characters

凉州词

  黄河远上白云间
一片孤城万仞山
羌笛何须怨杨柳
春风不度玉门关

Pinyin

Liáng zhōu cí

Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān
yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān
qiāngdí héxū yuàn yángliǔ
chūnfēng bù dù yùménguān

Ascending Stork Tower, Wang Zhihuan

On The Stork Tower
By Wang Zhihuan

To the furthest mountain, the bright sun shines
To the distant sea, the Yellow River flows
To get a better view
Climb another floor

stork tower found in Spain

Notes on the poem

Only six of Wang’s poems survive today, two are part of the 300 Tang Poems, including “Ascending Stork Tower for a better view”.

The poem symbolizes the pursuit of an ideal. The admonition is “Try harder!”

Translation

There are many variations of the poem, and one can substitute climbing for ascending if one wishes. I also like this visual image: “In the mountain’s distance mountains, the bright sun sinks, To the sea the Yellow River flows, If you wish to see a thousand miles, You should climb another floor.”

The poem’s third line is idiomatic. One could also say kick it up a notch. Or, try harder! A literal translation goes like this:

欲窮千里目,
yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,
[wanting] [furthest] [thousand] [mile] [eye]
If you want to see a thousand miles

Another version goes like this:

The sun in the distant mountains glows
The Yellow River seawards ever flows
You will find a grander sight
By climbing to a greater height

About Wang Zhihuan

Wang Zhihuan (王之涣, 688-742) was born in Shanxi province where the Stork Tower is located. Read more…

Original Chinese

登鹳雀楼

白日依山尽
黄河入海流
欲穷千里目
更上一层楼

Pinyin

Bái rì yī shān jǐn,
huánghé rù hǎiliú.
Yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,
gèng shàng yī céng lóu

Rhyme

Much of the rhyme, both internal and end, is lost in translation.

The second line is particular beautiful. The combination of the Yellow River (黄河, Huánghé) and the Ocean Current (海流, hǎiliú) is more suggestive than my simple use of “the sea”.

Stork Tower

The Stork Tower in Puzhou Town, Yongji, Shanxi, Wang’s home province.

In China, the stork (鹳, include the heron and crane) is a symbol of longevity because it lives a long life, and its white feathers represent old age. In the Chinese imperial hierarchy, the stork is “a bird of the first rank.” Flying cranes symbolize one’s hope for a higher position.

There is a useful idiom that explains the significance of the stork.

鹤立鸡群
Hè lì jī qún
A crane standing amid a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different, Standing head and shoulders above others.

Alas, the Stork Tower was ravaged by the flooding Yellow River, but it has been rebuilt.

bell-tower-stork-close

Border Songs, 3 of 4, Lu Lun

Lu Lun Border Songs

Lu Lun Border Songs, 3 of 4

Three of four, border songs of the leader, by Lu Lun.

The title – 塞 下 曲 四 首 之 三

The first two Chinese characters, 塞 下, rhyme, sài and xià, denoting the critical juncture where civilization ends and one passes into foreign lands.

The poem falls in the genre of border songs or frontier songs. These poems take place at strategic passes, on the western border with Tibet or on the northern borders with Turkic tribes. The scene might be a mountain pass or underneath the wall built to keep out the invaders.

The third character is the Chinese equivalent of song, qū.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth characters are beautifully fricative assonants, sì, shǒu, zhī.

The poem –
月 黑 雁 飛 高
單 于 夜 遁 逃
欲 將 輕 騎 逐
大 雪 滿 弓 刀

Rhyme: Gāo, táo, zhú, dāo (aaba)

A dark moon, the wild geese fly high (gāo)
At night, the Mongol chieftain escapes and flees (dùn táo)
Wishing, willing, lightly clad, we hunt the enemy
In snow piled high to our bows and swords (dāo)

The battle is with the nomadic Xiongnu tribes to the north of China. Generally, they are identified as Mongols, sometimes Huns, sometimes Tukic tribes. The chieftain has fled and while the wild geese scatter underneath a dark moon, the enemy flees, hunted down by lightly clad Chinese cavalry. They carry bow and arrow and the dāo, a single-edged Chinese sword, convenient for slashing and chopping at close range.

French translation

La lune, c’est noire, les oies sauvages volent haut et loin
La nuit, les Turcs s’échappent et fuient
Souhaitant, désireux, légèrement vêtus, nous les chassons
Avec la neige jusqu’à nos arcs et couteaux

Lu Lun

Lu Lun, was a poet of the Middle Tang Dynasty, who was born circa 737 in Fanyang, and died circa 788. The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) affected his career path as it did many of the poets. Though the Tang Dynasty withdrew from Central Asia after the rebellion was put down, the interest in earlier military success on the frontier remained strong.  The frontier landscape was harsh, the mountains tall and desolate, the rivers cold, the desert dry and unforgiving, the garrison troops were, in the main, lonely and suffering, but by will and successful generalship, they overcame the Tibetans at the western frontiers and the Turkic nomads on the north.

More…

Border Songs, 1 of 4, Lu Lun

Within the benefit of time, further research, and thought, I will rewrite this poem.

It appears now that the poem is about the exploits of General Li Guang (Western Han dynasty) who fought against the northern Xiongnu tribe and died 119 BC.

 

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

General Zhang Yichao’s victory over the Tibetan Empire, 848. Wikipedia image

Border Songs, One of four

Eagle feathers hang from his golden arrow
His silk flag flutters like the tail of a swallow.
One man, arising, gives a new order and
A thousand battalions, with one shout, Hi-yo!

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

鷲 翎 金 僕
燕 尾 繡 蝥 弧
獨 立 揚 新 令
千 營 共 一 呼

Lu Lun was born around 748 in Shangxi Province. The one-character abbreviation for the province is 晋, Jin. This is also the fifth character in the title that precedes the poem. Thus, this may be a subtle reference to Lu’s home or to Lu Lun receiving his Jinshi degree.

The genre is called Frontier Poetry or Border Songs, which hearken back to happier times, when the Tang dynasty subjugated the Göktürks in the north or defeated the Tibetan armies in the west. China was at the height of its glory. The inclusion of the character 晋 (Jin) suggests that this is about a life or death struggle with the Göktürks.

This is the first in a series of four border songs by Lu Lun.

The Title

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

I confess to being stymied by the title. It seems to begin with the two characters, 塞 下, meaning at the border, or underneath the border wall. Then, the next two characters, 曲 四, suggest the characters for song of four, which may be an allusion to an ancient Chinese board game and a life or death struggle. A simpler explanation is that there are four Beyond the Border Songs included in the Tang 300.

I do know that it ends with the two characters:

之 一, zhī yī, One out of a multitude.

Most anthologies of the Tang 300 poems give the title as “Border Songs” with the appellation of its number in the series. That seems unfair.

Lu Lun stresses the importance of one man out of a multitude.

An unnamed army general is mounted on his horse, and holds in his hand the golden arrow, the emblem of his authority from the emperor. Nearby, a servant holds the campaign flag. It flutters in the wind like the swallow tail. The two images – eagle and swallow – represent the general and his army.

The warriors wait expectantly. The general, gazing upon the enemy and then back at his warriors, gives his battle command, and thousands of warriors respond as one.

“Hi-yo. Go all out!”

The rhyming pattern of the poem is aaba (Gū hú lìng hū), but there is also a significant amount of internal rhyme. This is important to convey the poets meaning that an army must fight in unison.

Little is known of his career.

Lu Lu’s death is variously reported as circa 788 to 800.
More…