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, hear the Qiang flute sighing,
That spring never blows through the Yumen (Jade) Pass.

Understanding Wang Zhihuan’s poem

In the woeful tune of a Qiang two piped flute, Wang Zhihuan hears the human emotion of missing home at a distant fortress wall.
flute

The Yellow River

The Yellow River (黄河) is formed from the rain that fall on the Plateau of Tibet in the midst of towering ten thousand foot mountains, then crossing seven provinces and two autonomous regions in its course to the Yellow Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Out there in the distant Tibetan Plateau is Yumenguan (玉门关, English, Jade Gate Pass) which once served as a strategic fort along the ancient Silk Road. Having seen the opening in the wall which reminds Wang of the hole on a flute and hearing a Qiang flute play its sad tune, Wang is inspired.

Chinese Tibetan Relations

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. 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” with Tibet.

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

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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

Song of the Spring Palace – Wang Changling

Princess Pingyang of Tang Dynasty

Princess Pingyang, Lady Warrior of the Tang Dynasty

Song of the Spring Palace
Last night,
The first peach blossoms were revealed by a warm wind
And the moon shone high above old Weiyang palace
Where Princess Pingyang danced and sang
Then asked for a silk gown for a cold spring

春 宮 曲

昨 夜 風 開 露 井 桃
未 央 前 殿 月 輪 高
平 陽 歌 舞 新 承 寵
簾 外 春 寒 賜 錦 袍

Chūngōng qū

zuóyè fēng kāi lù jǐng táo
wèiyāng qián diàn yuè lún gāo
píngyáng gēwǔ xīn chéng chǒng
lián wài chūnhán cì jǐn páo

Princess Pingyang, Lady Warrior

Princess Pingying (598-623), daughter of Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, raised an army of women, to help overthrow the Sui Dynasty and capture its capital Chang’an. She died in childbirth at the age of 23, celebrated as warrior, dutiful daughter, and devoted wife.

Line two, 未央, Weiyang Palace, literally, endless or never ending, the palace at Chang’an, called the “Endless Place” because of its size.

Wang Changling

During the catastrophic An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), Wang Changling (698–756),  was  minister of Jiangning County, which included the important city of Nanjing on the Yangtze River. His death in 756 is not explained.

The Title 春 宮 曲

The title is straight forward, 春 spring, 宮 palace, 曲 song.

Poetical Paradox

Arthur Koestler, in his book The Act of Creation, observed that new ideas are the juxtaposition of paradoxical concepts.

Peach blossoms and warm winds signify the spring season, the renewal of life. In China, the peach is a symbol of immortality. Yet, the beautiful and young Princess Pingyang will soon die. In line three of the poem, the princess sings and dances, 歌 舞, then receives as a favor, 承 寵, chéng chǒng, a silk gown, which we know know, could not fend off the cold touch of death.

The rhyming association of the princess Pingyang and the palace Weiyang is more than coincidental. The transitory beauty of the immortal peach tree and its beautiful blossoms, the forever Weiyang Palace, and our heroine Princess Pingying, all symbolize the fragility of beauty and life itself.

In real time, rebel forces were destroying the Tang capital at Chang’an along with its many palaces including Weiyang.

Wang Changling did not know it, but spring would return to the Tang dynasty. The rebel forces would eventually be defeated, the rule of the Tang Dynasty would continue, but not forever.

Wang Changling by Kanō Tsunenobu (1636-1713)

 

Happiness 幸福

A song of pure happiness, I

I want to believe that
Her clothes are a cloud, her dress a flower that
I could hold in the palm of my hand, and
That the wind of Spring will brush away the dazzling dew
So, that I might see the peak of Jade Mountain
From the platform of a heavenly paradise

Happiness

I begin by asking myself if happiness exists.

There are few poems on the subject written by the Tang poets. I did come across a series of poems by the poet Li Bai, with the alluring description, A Song of Pure Happiness I, II, and III.

Happiness, most philosophers would say, is an illusive thing. And, the two Chinese characters in the poem’s title 清 平, are usually translated as “pure happiness,” but that is not entirely accurate.

平 is not even close to the Chinese character for happiness. That character is 雙喜. If one is referring to double happiness, then 喜喜, which is often inscribed on jars and vases.

Rather, 平 means peace or calm, but if the world is at peace, then I suppose I would be happy. I also suspect from a philosophical standpoint, and the philosophy here would be Buddhist or Taoist, happiness is not the goal in life. It is ephemeral like the cloud-like gown Li Bai imagines.

There is a little eroticism involved here. I picture Li Bai out for a prowl on the town, a couple of drinks under his woolen tunic, looking up at the balcony, seeing a beautiful girl in silk and becoming enamored.

Jade Mountain

Jade Mountain which Li Bai references is a place name, or rather a mythological place name that predates the Tang dynasty.  It is located in the west and it is home to the Queen Mother of the West, who dispensed eternal bliss and a good measure of happiness.

It is also likely that Li Bai’s mention of 會 向, is another place-name, Yáotái, but this will take a little more time to look into than I now have. I will say that tai references a high place from which all of the surroundings may be viewed.

Bliss

The character for bliss in Chinese is 福, the other half of the two characters that make up happiness, 幸福, literally, lucky to be blissful. One does observe the similarity in the two characters, 平 and 幸, peace and lucky, but that may be just coincidence.

One observes that the world is lucky if it is at peace.

Go figure.

Li Bai’s rhyme scheme is aaba. This and other internal rhymes are sadly lost in translation.

The original Chinese poem

平 調 之 一

雲 想 衣 裳 花 想 容
春 風 拂 檻 露 華 濃
若 非 群 玉 山 頭 見
會 向 瑤 臺 月下 逢

French translation

Voit-il des nuages, et pense à sa robe ; voit-il des fleurs.
Le vent du printemps souffle sur la balustrade embaumée ;
la rosée s’y forme abondamment.
Quand ce n’est pas au sommet du Yu-chan (montagne de jade) qu’il l’aperçoit,
C’est dans la tour Yao-taï qu’il la retrouve, sous les rayons de la lune.

The translation is not mine. It is from 唐 詩 Tang Shi 300 Tang poems. There is a remark in the footnotes that is interesting. Le mont Yu-chan et la tour Yao-taï étaient des lieux célèbres habités par les immortels.

moonlight