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.
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.
Original Chinese Characters
Liáng zhōu cí
Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān
yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān
qiāngdí héxū yuàn yángliǔ
chūnfēng bù dù yùménguān