A Summer Day in the Mountains, 夏日山中, Li Bai

Lazily waving my white feathered fan
Naked to the waist in the midst of the forest’s green trees
Hanging my cap on a rocky crag
Baring my head
To the wind that blows though the pines

 

li bai reclining on rocks

The poet Li Bai resting and wearing a headscarf called Fu Jin 幅巾

Must a poet always be a poet?

Yes, but the wind in the pines gets its due. Here, Li Bai tips his cap to Nature which is his muse and inspiration.

Far from the Imperial Court, Li Bai finds himself in the forest’s green trees on a summer’s day. He is hot and perspiring. He strips to the waist, then removes his his headscarf (掛石壁, guà shíbì). Removing his headscarf and hanging up his cap, “to be unrestrained” and “putting away his pen”.

Now it is Nature’s turn to poetically express itself which it does by the wind blowing through the pine trees. The “wind in the pines” (松風, sōngfēng) is a familiar phrase in Chinese and Japanese poetry that is incapable of translation. It is best understood as a Zen moment.

You know it when you hear it and feel it cooling the perspiration on your forehead.

Li Tang Wind in the Pines

Li Tang, Wind in the Pines (1050–1130)

 

What follows is a translation by Arthur Waley, 1919.

In the Mountains on a Summer Day, by Li Bai

Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.

Chinese and Pinyin

懶搖白羽扇,
裸袒青林中。
脫巾掛石壁,
露頂灑松風

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn,
luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.
Tuō jīn guà shíbì,
lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

Li Bai, Why I live in the Green Mountains

In the mountains, you asked, I answered, most popular answer

Why do I live in the green mountains?
I laugh and answer not, my soul serene
I dwell in another paradise, where earth belongs to no man
Where peach trees blossom forever, and the rivers flow on and on

You ask, why I dwell on Green Mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is at peace.
The peach-blossoms flow downstream and are gone forever,
I live in a world apart from among men.

I’m asked what the sense of living on Jade Mountain
I laugh and answer not, my heart at peace
I dwell in another heaven where no earthly man belongs
Where peach trees blossom and spring waters flow forever

green mountains

green mountains where rivers flow forever

Li Bai

Our wandering poet lived 61 years, surviving the hardship of rebellion and the vicissitudes of court intrigue. His final punishment was banishment for life. I suspect this strongly influenced his preference for the green mountains over the imperial palace or the sinecure of an imperial posting. Tongue in cheek, he might have said:

“I do not fare too well at court, too fond of wine and pretty girls, let the emperor wait, I’d rather compose a witty rhyme.”

Chinese and Pinyin

Wèn yú hé yì qī bìshān
Xiào ér bù dá xīn zì xián
Táohuā liúshuǐ yǎo rán qù
Biéyǒu tiāndì fēi rénjiān

問余何意棲碧山
笑而不答心自閒
桃花流水杳然去
別有天地非人間

Most popular answer

Poems may be allegorical, historical, legendary, sensual, descriptive, romantic, or a combination of some of the above. Li Bai’s poem draws from many of these genres.

I have given it two interpretations in three translations.

li bai reclining on rocks

li bai reclining on rocks

Why I live in the Green Mountains

Me or she, she the Queen Mother of the West.

Me, the wandering poet. After leaving the Imperial Court at Chang’an, Li Bai, now in his late 20s and early 30s,  wandered far and wide, before settling in Anlu, Hubei Province. He married well and formally adopted Taoism. His wife’s family had a country home at Bishan, Bi Mountain (碧山). There Li Bai found contentment, his heart at peace (心自閒, xīn zì xián). Several of his poems used the peach flower (桃花, táohuā) as a motif for immortality.

There in a world apart from man, he flourished. Compare 人间蒸发, rén jiān zhēng fā, to disappear from the earth.

Xi_Wangmu

She, Xiwangmu

She, Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the West.

In Taoist’s fairy tales, Xiwangmu is the Queen Mother of the West, the supreme goddess in the heaven, as well as the wife of Yuhuang Dadi, the Jade Emperor. Her palace is described as having a garden, full of peach (tao 桃) trees, a symbol of longevity. The trees from which the peaches grow are said to only bear fruit every 3,000 years. When this happens the Queen invites all the immortals to a banquet to celebrate her birthday and the day she became immortal. The trees border a Jasper Pool filled with water that flows forever.

The Title. In the Mountain, question answered

 山中問答(答俗人), In the mountain, question answered, most popular answer. This question reminds me of the popular topic “Mountains or Ocean” in which each person, given only one choice, must choose between living in the mountains or at the beach. Me, I all for the mountains. Mountains are hard and serene and beaches are way too easy, only the weak prefer what is easy.

Li Bai – A Gift to Wang Lun

I’m on board, about to sail,
Suddenly, I hear singing on the shore.
Peach Blossom Pool may be a thousand fathoms deep,
Yet not as deep as Wang Lun’s feelings for me.

As I, Li Bai, was about to leave by boat
Alas, I heard singing on the shore
Peach Blossom Lake may be a thousand feet deep
It’s not so deep Wang Lun, as the love you gave to me

peach trees in blossom

Parting is Sweet Sorrow

On this occasion, parting was a time of singing and dancing as the residents of Taohuatan wished Li Bai a grand send-off.

During the reign of Tang Emperor Xuanzong (712-756), Wang Lun, the local magistrate of Jingxian County, Anhui Province, long been an admirer of Li Bai’s poetry, heard that Li Bai was traveling about southern China. Excited, Wang Lun wrote, asking “Are you fond of beautiful scenery, because we have ten miles of peach blossoms? And are you fond of drinking, because we have ten thousand taverns?”

此地有十里桃花;先生好酒乎?这里有万家酒店?

Li Bai took the bait and showed up in Jingxian. Then, Wang Lun confessed the truth – “Ten miles of peach blossoms” referred to the ferry called “Ferry of Peach Blossom” (十里桃花者,桃花渡也), and “ten thousand taverns” was only one pub whose owner’s first name was “Wan”. Figuratively true since, the Chinese family name, “wan” has the same pronunciation as “ten thousand” (万 Wàn).

The good natured Li Bai had a good time, and wrote this lovely poem as he was about to leave. He also managed to get a dig in at Wang Lun with a play on words, 水深, shuǐshēn, figuratively means “shoddy dealings”. Furthermore, 我 wǒ, the me in the last line is subtly suggestive. Folk etymology considers it to be an ideograph of a hand () holding a weapon (), in other words, one should protect oneself from such friendships.

Post Note

Sensing a business opportunity, the city named the ferry the Ancient Ferry for Farewell Song and Dance (踏歌古岸), and later a pavilion by the ferry. Taohua (Peach Blossom) Pool is now a cultural and historically scenic site.

Pinyin and Chinese

lǐ bái chéng zhōu jiāng yù xíng,
hū wén ànshàng tà gēshēng.
Táohuā tán shuǐshēn qiān chǐ,
bùjí wāng lún sòng wǒ qíng.

李白乘舟将欲行
忽闻岸上踏歌声
桃花潭水深千尺
不及汪伦送我情

Li Bai a Toast to Uncle Yun

We cannot wash away our worries with wine or words.

This is the short two line message Li Bai conveys in a long poem called, Farewell to Uncle Yun at Xietiao Tower in Xuanzhou. The message is remarkable for the repetition of the “chou” sound which, in line one, means withdraw 抽 Chōu, followed by the similar sounding word for water, 水 Shuǐ. The context being to withdraw one’s sword to cut the water. Line two repeats the sound with the repetition of worry 愁 Chóu. 愁更愁, chou geng chou, worry upon worry, the idea being that worries beget more worries.

Though I withdraw my sword to cut the water, it still runs
I toast to dispel worry, and create more worry…

The water still flows, though we cut it with our swords,
And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine…

architecture China, wood roof

Li Bai in Xuanzhou with Shūyún

Xuanzhou is modern day Xuancheng, east of Wuhan, west of Shanghai,in southeastern Anhui Province. Shūyún, Li Bai’s uncle Yun, was the Imperial archivist.

The Title: 宣州谢朓楼饯别校书叔云

Xuānzhōu xiètiǎo lóu jiànbié xiào shū shūyún.

Shūyún 叔云, was Li Bai’s uncle Shū 叔. He was an archivist in the Xietao Tower (lóu 楼, storied building) in Xuānzhōu. Xiào shū 校书, literally school book, but also an archivist or librarian. The title and full poem are an oblique reference to the rhyming 5th century poet Xiè tiǎo.

Jiànbié 饯别 is a farewell or parting; broadly speaking, to give a farewell dinner.

Chinese and Pinyin

抽刀断水水更流
举杯消愁愁更愁

chou dao duan shui shui geng liu
ju bei xiao chou chou geng chou

li-bai-summer-day

 

Bitter Love – Li Bai

A beautiful woman, unfurls the pearly curtain
Quietly sitting, how troubled her brow
I see the tears now, glistening on her cheeks
Still I don’t know who she hates.

chinese-woman

Love and Hate

Love, it is said, is the strongest emotion. But hate must be a close second.

Li Bai sees a beautiful woman with tear stained cheeks, but not the bitter hate she feels. A beautiful woman unfurls a pearly curtain but not her feelings. It is a great prompt for a story.

Who does she bitterly hate? Will she get revenge?

Notes on Translation

Yuàn Qíng, the title is a bit tricky in English. Grudge, if you are looking for one word, Bitter love is more popular choice, literally, one comes up with blame the passion, which doesn’t quite fit.

Měirén, a beautiful woman. Line 2, é méi moth eyebrow, a euphemism for a beauty, which originates in the shape of the eybrows which resemble those of a moth. Last line, Bùzhī, unknown, xīn hèn shuí, who she hates, or, what she feels in her heart.

Pinyin and Chinese Characters

Yuàn Qíng

měirén juàn zhū lián
shēn zuò pín é méi
dàn jiàn lèi hén shī
búzhī xīn hèn shuí

怨情

美人捲珠簾
深坐蹙蛾眉
但見淚痕濕
不知心恨誰

Quiet Night Thought – Li Bai

Quiet Night Thought

At the foot of my bed, moonlight
Yes, I suppose there is frost on the ground.
Lifting my head I gaze at the bright moon
Bowing my head, thinking of home.

Jìng yè sī

Chuáng qián míngyuè guāng
Yí shì dìshang shuāng
Jǔtóu wàng míngyuè
Dītóu sī gùxiāng

靜夜思

床前明月光
疑是地上霜
舉頭望明月
低頭思故鄉

Li Bai

Perhaps he was a student away from home for the very first time, or a diplomat on his first foreign posting, there is a chill in the air, the room is dark and and our poet is lying in bed. Through the window the bright moonlight enters his bedroom and casts a silvery light on the floor at the foot of the bed.

He thinks, this same moon shines on my home far away.

li-bai-summer-day

Our poet, Li Bai (701–762) was, along with Du Fu, considered to be a Rock Star of Tang Dynasty poetry. In his mid-twenties he began what are called his wanderings. He left home in Sichuan and floated up the Yangtze through Dongting Lake to Nanjing. Perhaps, this initial homesickness inspired this poem, but we don’t know. Li Bai had many occasions on which to reflect of the emotion of being far from loved ones and far from home. This feeling of separation is one experienced by many students who go away to school, and this probably accounts for its continuing popularity today.

Li Bai lived during the tumultuous An Lushan Rebellion. He found himself on the wrong side of an internal struggle for succession and power, was condemned to death, then exiled, then pardoned, but before being recalled to the imperial court, died in 759.

A poem the Second time around

A poem the second time around can be better than the first. You’re older, presumably wiser. You know yourself a little better.

This is not your first rodeo.

A poem, like a cup of tea or a glass of wine, should be sipped and savored. The process repeated giving the poem new meaning. So I return to have a second look at Li Bai’s Quiet Night Thought.

Not a native Chinese speaker, I mouth the syllables, I hear the rhyme, notice the constant repetition of the glottal “g” sound. I am enamored with the second line,  Yí shì dìshang shuāng, I am aware of the subtle meaning of Yí shì, and that sleep is but a thin veil between the conscious and the unconscious, that a thought is both real and unreal, that homesickness is a longing for a place we want to be.

That place is home, gùxiāng. Dītóu sī gùxiāng, bowing, which I prefer to lowering, my head, I recall the my parents, my family, the place I call home. Gùxiāng has a broader meaning of both home and homeland, making this poem applicable to one who is traveling in a distant land.

If you like this maybe you will like to read it in French.

moonlight

Autumn Air, Li Bai

moon, boat, water, Li Bai

The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright,
Leaves that have fallen gather and scatter,
Jackdaws roosts and start anew.
Yearning for each other, when shall we meet again?
It is hard to love this night

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Luò yè jù huán sàn,
Hán yā qī fù jīng.
Xiāng sī xiāng jiàn zhī hé rì?
Cĭ shí cĭ yè nán wéi qíng!

秋 风 清
秋 月 明
落 叶 聚 还 散
寒 鸦 栖 复 惊
相 思 相 见 知 何 日
此 时 此 夜 难 为 情

The Sublime

I suppose that it is the purpose of all great poetry to express the sublime. By sublime is meant the grandeur of the moment, the ineffable expression of an emotion that defies expression. For Li Bai, the moment was a clear, bright autumn evening, perfect in every way, except for the pain felt when two lovers were parted.

And the ridiculous; or, alas, it is hard to translate Chinese

Li Bai’s poignant homage to two lovesick lovers, each one under a bright autumn moon, each feeling the clear autumn air, but separated, like fallen leaves briefly coming together and scattering again, like jackdaws, stealing moments together then parting.

Translating Chinese characters into English is a difficult problem. Grammar plays a part. Take for example, the first two lines. I will use pinyin to illustrate the point.

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Li Bai uses but three characters while English requires the use of ten, adding both articles and a verb to convey a complete sentence. I suppose, the translator could say, “Clear autumn air” and “Bright autumn moon” are not familiar English constructions.

I need not mention the obvious loss of rhyme and rhythm that naturally occurs in translations that retain the original meaning.

Like English combining one Chinese character with another often creates a unique meaning. In English, fire and house, means something quite different from firehouse. Like wise, in Chinese. Take the first tow characters in fifth line of Li Bai’s poem, 相 思, Xiāng sī. Literally, one gets cold crow, but the combined meaning is jackdaw, a bird that is known for its thieving habits in building a nest. Had the translator chosen crow or raven, the poem would lose the sense of two lovers stealing moments together.

Sometimes, the translator must abandon the literal Chinese to get the sense of the poem. The last line of Li Bai’s poem starts out with 此 时 , Cĭ shí , literally, at this time. It is followed by 此 夜 , cĭ yè, this night, and ending with 难 为 情, nán wéi qíng, which most translators interpret as hard or difficult. Li Bai’s rhyme and rhythm are nice, but in English it sounds better, and is closer to the poet’s intent to say, “It is hard to love this night.”

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

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Autumn

Chang’an is lit by a crescent moon and
From ten thousand homes comes the sound of cloth-pounding
While an autumn wind blows endlessly,
For those who guard the Gate at Yumenguan.
Who knows when peace will be made with the northern Hu?
So good men may return from long marches.

Yumenguan, Jade Gate

長安一片
萬戶搗衣聲
秋風吹不盡
總是玉關情
何日平胡虜
良人罷遠征


Cháng’ān yīpiàn yuè
wàn hù dǎo yī shēng
qiū fēngchuī bù jìn
zǒng shì yù guān qíng
hérìpíng hú lǔ
liáng rén bà yuǎnzhēng

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons

In Spring, the lovely Lo Foh picks mulberry leaves for her silk worms while she disarms the advances of a Prince. In Summer, Xi Shi, China’s Beauty gathers lotus blossoms in May. In Autumn, a sliver of a moon hangs high over Chang’an while soldiers guard Yumenguan Pass. In Winter, a loving wife can hardly hold her needle and thread while she stitches a warm cloak for her warrior husband.

These are the Four Seasons and the Four Ballads of Li Bai.

In this poem, Autumn, Li Bai returns to Chinese history, hearkening back to the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han dynasty who ruled from 131- 87, a record of 54 years, not surpassed for almost 1,800 years. Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion. At its height, extending the Empire’s borders north and west to Mongolia and modern Kyrgyzstan, Korea in the east, and Vietnam in the south.

In the North, Emperor Wu faced off against the northern “barbarians”, but this term did not exist in China. Instead, Li Bai refers to he Hu people 胡虜, Hu lu. This ancient people were also known as the Xiongnu. Wu used varying policies of appeasement, marriage, and ultimately war to fight them off.

Li Bai wrote this series of Ballads during the insurrection of General An Lushan, whose rebellion against the Tang dynasty began in 755 with disastrous consequences.

Yumenguan

Every Chinese reader of Li Bai’s poetry, then and now, was and is familiar with Yumenguan, 玉門關, the Jade Gate. This remote post marked the western extent of Chinese control. The name derives from the precious jade carried through its gate. 遠征, yuǎnzhēng, I translate as a long march, also an expedition, campaign would also fit.
Li Bai resting
Li Bai

Crescent Moon

Li Bai hangs a crescent moon, 一片月, Yīpiàn yuè, over Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty. One could have used the literal translation, a piece, or the poetically assonant “sliver” with shines, but I like the image of a crescent moon over Chang’an. It conveys the dire image that Chang’an and the Tang dynasty were hanging on by a thread during An Lushan’s rebellion.
crescent moon Chinese 一片月
Crescent moon, Chinese, 一片月

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Spring

Yang Guifei, painting by Hosoda Eishi, British Museum

Oh, the lovely Lo Fo from the Land of Chin
Picking green mulberry leaves by the riverside
Her red lips bright and fresh
Sir, she says, my silkworms must eat, so I must go
Prince, I pray
, tarry not with your coach and five.

子夜四時歌春歌,
李白


秦地羅敷女
采桑綠水邊
紅妝白日鮮
蠶飢妾欲去
五馬莫留連

Zǐyè sì shí gē chūn gē,
Lǐ Bái


Qín de luó fū nǚ
Cǎi sāng lǜ shuǐ biān
Hóngzhuāng bái rì xiān
Cán jī qiè yù qù
Wǔ mǎ mò liúlián

mulberry leaves

The Story of Lo Foh

Li Bai’s poem is a retelling of the popular ballad of Lo Fo (Lo Foh), a story of a wife’s loyalty, devotion, and honor to her husband when approached by a high official. It is based on a much longer ballad that goes like this:

In the southeast, the sun rises where two walls meet.
And shines on the house of Master Chin.
Master Chin has a lovely daughter, Lo-foh her name.
Lo-foh feeds her silk-worms well.
She picks mulberry leaves south of the city.
Her basket is carried by a cord of blue silk,
And a hook fashioned from a laurel branch.
Her hair is dressed in pretty knots of Wa-doj
Sparkling moonstones hang from her ears.
Her petticoat is yellow silk, her jacket purple silk.

The Lord Governor comes from the south,
His five horse coach stops and stays.
The Lord Governor bids his men to ask.
And they ask: “Who art thou, little maid?”
“I am the fair daughter of Master Chin, “Lo-foh is my name.”
“How old art thou, Lo-foh?”
“Less than twenty.”
“But more than fifteen, yea, much more.”
The Lord Governor entreats Lo-foh,
“Wilt thou ride with me?”
Lo-foh sweetly replies: “My Lord Governor, how foolish, indeed! My Lord Governor, you have a lady of your own,
“And Lo-foh, she has a man of her own.”

The Land of Ch’in (Qin)

In this, Li Bai’s first ballad of spring, we return to the China’s first imperial dynasty. This is the Qin Dynasty, which we know better as Ch’in or Chin. The dynasty was short-lived, lasting only 15 years from 221 to 206 BC. Its importance, other than the fact that it was the first imperial dynasty, is that it is the source from which Europeans derived the name China.

In the ancient Warring States Period (475–221 BC), the Land of Qin lay to the west before conquering the other states.

Lo Fo, or Lo-Foh, is a legendary figure, a young girl who is either married or engaged to be so. Her bright red lipstick might indicate the later. She is picking fresh mulberry leaves for her silkworms when she is approached by a coach drawn by five horses, a sign of a high official, perhaps even the governor of Chin. Lo Fo quickly deflects his attention and remains chaste.

Making Silk