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.
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Li Bai – Ballad of Four Seasons: Winter

“The messenger rides, she’s told, at first light
So, she sews a warrior’s cloak throughout the night
Her fingers tired, the needle cold
How can one hold the scissors tight?
Now the coat is done, she sends it away, and says,
‘How many days to Lintao?’ “

The poem explained

In the fourth and last of Li Bai’s seasonal ballads, the poet places us in a woman’s chamber in Chang’an, the Tang capital. The woman is sewing a warm cloak (征袍) for her warrior husband. He is serving with General Geshu Han in mountainous Lintao County (臨洮) on the Tibetan border. The messenger leaves at first light ( 明朝 ), so she must hurry to complete her task in spite of the cold.

Li Bai manages to capture the three emotions of love, devotion, and worry in this simple poem.

The original Chinese poem, as seen by the Pinyin translation, is more poetic, that is rhythmic and rhyming, than the English translation.

Enjoy!

Original Chinese and Pinyin

明朝驛使發
素手抽針冷
一夜絮征袍
那堪把剪刀
裁縫寄遠道
幾日到臨洮

Pinyin

Míng cháo yì shǐ fā
yīyè xù zhēng páo
sùshǒu chōu zhēn lěng
nà kān bǎ jiǎndāo
cáiféng jì yuǎndào
jǐ rì dào líntáo

General Geshu Han

General Geshu Han was of Turkic descent. He is famous for two events.

In 747, he achieved fame in western Lintao near Qinghai Lake, suppressing Tibetan raids on wheat farms and defeating Tibetan armies, and so restoring order to the western frontier of the Tang Empire.

The second event occurred during the An Lushan Rebellion that began in 755. General Geshu Han was sent to the strategic Tong Pass (Tongguan) to guard against the invading rebel forces. Though outnumbered, he followed orders and engaged the rebels, suffering a devastating defeat that led to his capture and the fall of the Tang capital at Chang’an.

General Geshu Han refused to cooperate with the rebels and was later executed.

Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762.

Li is a common surname in Chinese and means plum. The personal name Bai means white. Li Bai (701–762) was one of the superstar poets of the Tang dynasty. His career took a decided turn for the worse during the An Lushan Rebellion. He was captured by the rebels and held captive in the capital of Chang’an, but managed to escape a year later.

He died in 762, shortly before the rebellion was put down. Legend has it that he drank and drowned after falling from a boat, attempting to catch the moon’s reflection in a river.

My Gift to Wanglun – Li Bai

My Gift to Wanglun

As I, Li Bai, board the boat about to leave
Ashore, I hear the sound of song and dance
Though a thousand feet deep, Peach Blossom Spring may be,
It compares not to Wang’s kinship to me.

china ferry boat willow tree lake

Original Chinese Characters

赠汪伦

李白乘舟将欲行
忽闻岸上踏歌声
桃花潭水深千尺
不及汪伦送我行

Pinyin

lǐ bái chéng zhōu jiāngyù xíng
hū wén ànshàng tà gēshēng
táohuātán shuǐshēn qiān chǐ
bùjí wānglún sòng wǒ xíng

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Peach Blossom Spring

Li Bai’s reference to Peach Blossom Spring (桃花潭, Táohuātán) draws on an earlier legend of The Peach Blossom Land, written by Tao Yuanming (circa 421 AD).

The story is about the chance discovery of a perfect utopia where people live in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. A fisherman accidentally stumbles on the beautiful spot, stays for a week, and then leaves marking the way with signs. All attempts to rediscover this Shangri-la are futile.

Wang Lun

Who, pray tell, is the friend Wang Lun (汪伦)?

My guess is Wang Wei, a close colleague with whom he shared many nights of revelry. The Chinese character 伦, Lun in Pinyin, translates to relationship, kinship, or peer. Thus, the phrase is my peer, my kin, my friend Wang.

There is an often repeated story that Li Bai, who was fond of drinking to exess and talking to the moon, drowned after falling from his boat in the Yangtze River when he tried to embrace a reflection of the moon in the water.

Wang Wei’s Farewell to Li Bai

Wang Wei , The Farewell (ca. 750 CE)

Dismounting, I offer my friend a cup of wine,
I ask what place he is headed to.
He says he has not achieved his aims,
Is retiring to the southern hills.
Now go, and ask me nothing more,
White clouds will drift on for all time.


Resentment – Li Bai

Resentment

Yes, she is beautiful, as she opens the pearl curtains,
But, oh how troubled she looks,
Whose tears leave tracks upon her face.
Do you not know a heart that hates?

fashion-chinese-girl-curtain

The heart of a beautiful woman

Li Bai’s poem 怨 情 has been variously translated as Bitter Love, Resentment, or Lament. Literally, the two characters translate as blame the situation. This points out the difficulty of translation as compound character often become metaphors for single ideas.

In the case of Li Bai’s poem, we have a beautiful woman (蛾眉, éméi) who lives in a rich apartment.  One can imagine Li Bai wandering the streets of Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. It is night. Li Bai has had too much to drink. Perhaps he is returning home, or on his way to an encounter.

There, above the street, he spies a beautiful woman at the window of her apartment as she unfurls her pearl curtains (珠 簾, pearl or pearl-like, beaded). Li Bai observes the troubled face – fresh tears stain her complexion, as he imagines the hate in her heart (心 恨 誰, I have used hate, but resentment could be substituted) for her lonely situation.

Whether she feels resentment, or lament, or hate, or bitterness is an open question.

Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor Xuanzong’s beautiful and beloved Yang Guifei, the favorite royal consort. This could not be one of those without exposing Li Bai to the Yang Guifei’s or the emperor’s wrath.

At some point in Li Bai’s career, Yang Guifei would take offense at Li Bai’s poetry and he would be banished from the royal court.

Original Chinese

怨 情

美 人 捲 珠 簾
深 坐 蹙 蛾 眉
但 見 淚 痕 濕
不 知 心 恨 誰

Pinyin

Yuàn qíng
měirén juǎn zhū lián
shēn zuò cù éméi
dàn jiàn lèihén shī
bùzhī xīn hèn shuí

Pearls of Wisdom

Li Bai’s poetic inclusion of pearl or pearl-like curtains is no accident. Immediately, the reader knows that Li Bai is speaking of  a woman who is not only beautiful but rich and well-kept, perhaps a courtesan, which in Li Bai’s time was an honored profession, but not without its obvious drawbacks. The pearl is a symbol of many other things, including the moon, which, itself, is a lonely object of beauty and contemplation.

painting in Gu Lang Yu museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China

early 19th c. painting of Li Bai in Gu Lang Yu museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China

 

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Draft – simple thought, tough poem to tackle, let me come back and get it right.

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, the grass grows like threads of blue silk
In Qin, it is said, mulberry leaves of emerald green hang low
Somewhere, a husband dreams of returning home
To his heartbroken wife who
Feels the spring breeze strange
As it slips unseen through her silk curtains

Notes on translating Spring Thoughts

The title is 春 (spring) 思 (thought).

From the clues left behind in Li Bai’s poem, we can date the writing of the poem to the spring of 756. Symbolically, the ancient State of Yan was rising like the blue-green grass of spring. The ancient State of Qin hung low like the emerald-green leaves of the mulberry tree.

In the winter of 755, General An Lushan, of Turkic extraction from modern day Mongolia, launched a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong and the Tang dynasty. By the Lunar New Year in 756, An had captured the eastern Tang capital of Luoyang, establishing a new state of Yan.

Tang generals and their armies moved north to confront the rebellion. In line 1, Li Bai places our warrior husband in the the State of Yan (燕), in the midst of the blue green grasses.

燕 (Yan) 草 (grass) 如 (like) 碧 (bluish-green) 絲 (silk thread)

By 756, General An Lushan had captured the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an in the ancient state of Qin.) Silk is a symbol of Chinese culture and wealth. The metaphor of hanging low and the fortunes of the Tang dynasty speaks for itself.

Back home in Qin, the ancient Chinese homeland, a wife longs for her absent husband. Low hanging mulberry leaves, upon which the silk worms feast, have recently unfolded in colors of emerald green, symbolizing sadness. A western wind slips though the wife’s silk curtains and she senses a strange emotion with the breeze that is felt but not seen.

Rhyme

In this short poem, Li Bai has managed to repeat the “shi” (homo-phone for poem) sound five times in six lines. Sadly, these homo-phonic puns do not translate well into English. Now, add the additional rhymes of “bi”, “di”, “gui”, “ri”, “qie”, and “he”.

This sad bag of rhymes makes for a poem, whose meaning conveys, but whose beauty is obscured in translation:(

Chinese Characters

春思

燕草如碧絲
秦桑低綠枝
當君懷歸日
是妾斷腸時
春風不相識,
何事入羅幃

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
Qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
Dāng jūn huái guī rì
Shì qiè duàn cháng shí
Chūn fēng bù xiāng shí
Hé shì rù luó wéi

Sitting Alone on Jingtingshan – Li Bai

In the distance, a flock of birds flying high
Above, a lonely cloud drifts idly by
Fondly looking (相看) at each other, neither one growing tired,
And all there is, is Jingtingshan.

jingting mountain detail

Beauty is its own reward

Have we not all experienced the glory of nature, a mesmerizing view of the Grand Canyon, the spectacular Yosemite, a moment when the breath is taken away watching Mt. Hood or Mt. Bachelor?

The world contains many such splendid spots.

Li Bai and Jingting

Li Bai made many trips to Jingting Mountain in Anhui Province, west of Shanghai. The area is known for its low-hanging clouds, ancient granite rocks, and twisted pines that have been the subject of many painters and poets. In this poem, Li Bai expresses the opinion that the beauty of Jingtingshan (敬亭山) would never bore.

The title, 獨坐敬亭山, translates as sitting alone on Jingting Mountain. Jingting (敬亭) is a compound and place name. 山 (shan) is the Chinese character for mountain. I prefer Jingtingshan rather than Jingting Mountain, though it appears in translations both ways. Within the poem I inserted the original characters 相看, another compound word which expresses the sentiment of gazing or looking at each other. I added the adverb fondly, but that is pure fancy.

This poem came late in Li Bai’s career when he was on the wrong side of the political fence. Sentenced to death for treason, then reprieved and exiled, Li Bai was on his way down the Yangtze when he stopped to visit for the final time Jingtingshan (Jingting mountain). Fortunately, for Li Bai, his uncle Li Yangbing was governor of Anhui province and so could provide him refuge.

Death of Li Bai

I imagine that Li Bai saw himself in the poem as the lonely cloud drifting off while the world, represented by the flock of birds, moved on.

In fact, Li Bai was ill and near death when he wrote this poem. Legend has it that Li Bai drowned in the Yangtze River after falling from his boat when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection.

 

Original Chinese characters

獨坐敬亭山

衆鳥高飛盡
孤雲獨去閒
相看兩不厭
只有敬亭山

Pinyin and rhyme scheme

Zhòng niǎo gāofēi jǐn
gūyún dú qù xián
xiāng kàn liǎng bùyàn
zhǐyǒu jìngtíng shān

Jingting Mountain in autumn, 1671, by Shitao, Musée Guimet, Paris

jingtingshan

Spring Night, I hear a flute – Li Bai

Draft…

flute-silver

Spring Night, I Hear the Flute

From whose house does the sound of a jade flute flies
Scattered by the Spring breeze filling Luoyang?
In the middle of the night I hear the willow unfolding
Who does not feel these old garden feelings

In 725 or thereabouts, while in his mid-twenties, Li Bai left his home in Sichuan, sailing down the Yangtze River, beginning his wandering days. He returned back up river, married, and briefly settled in before resuming his wanderings. In this first year, like Buddha , he gave up much of his wealth to his friends. Five years later, he found himself at Chang’an, the capital. He tried to obtain a position at the court, failed, and sailed on to Luoyang where we may assume he wrote this poem, before going back home to Sichuan.

Li Bai would eventually achieve much fame. He would also become acquainted with the poet Du Fu who would later include Li Bai in his list of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.

The poem

Poems always raise questions.

The first is the significance of a flute that is jade, and not a simple one of bamboo.

I have no real answer for this other than the phonetic similarity of the compound characters 飞 声and “fei-sheng”. This is one of the Taoist steps to attain immortality,  (ascending to heaven in daylight). It may also mean to make a name famous. All cultures believe music is heavenly inspired. Li Bai is perhaps, just perhaps, saying that the sound of the flute is heavenly sent, and carrying it on the spring breeze might confirm this.

Question two – what’s up with the unfolding willow? To part from a willow tree, to stand under a willow tree is a common theme in Chinese poetry. The willow is also symbolic, one symbol being solitude, another the return of spring.

Question three, those old garden feelings.

There I am at a complete loss.

Not much is said of Li Bai’s marriage to his wife. They had a child, then another, he left her, she could hardly make ends meet, then died, and the children went to live with someone else.  More to the story elsewhere.

French Translation of Spring Night, I Hear a Flute

Printemps, j’entends la flûte

Ou est la maison de qui sons la flute
Dispersé par la brise de printemps s’étend sur Luoyang?
Dans la nuit j’entends le saule se dérouler
Qui ne ressent aucune ces sentiments de jardin

Original Chinese

春 夜 洛 城 闻 笛

谁 家 玉 笛 暗 飞 声
散 入 春 风 满 洛 城
此 夜 曲 中 闻 折 柳
何 人 不 起 故 园 情

Pinyin

Shei jia yu di an fei sheng
San ru chun feng man luocheng
Ci ye qu zhong wen she liu
He ren bu qi gu yuan qing?

Note to Self

Note to Self

Looking at my wine, I did not catch sight of the dark night coming
Or the flowers falling down on my gown
Tipsy, in the moonlight I walk along the stream
The birds have yet to come and few are the people

Note to self

Li Bai’s (李白) poem 自遣 is usually translated as “Amusing myself”.

I prefer “note to self” since the first character 自 can be translated as a prefix for self and the second character 遣 is dispatch or letter. Taken together as a compound word, the two characters take on the meaning “Cheer up!” which is close to “Amusing myself”.

Taking the translation of 自遣 as amusing myself as intended, an English language student might wonder if Li Bai meant something sexual. Probably not, probably mere coincidence, but I did come across an alternative meaning of the compound word as defecate. My Chinese is not good enough to confirm this, but it would explain the poet’s need to talk a walk down by the stream.

Why is that Tang poetry so innocent and simple in its beginning, becomes a bit lost on the way to the poet’s meaning?

Poor Li Bai, discharged from his administrative duties, sentenced to death, then spared and exiled, disgraced, Li Bai finds himself on the way to Sichuan and his hometown. Literally and metaphorically, it is the winter of his life. No one is there to accompany him on the way to exile. Winter and the birds will not keep him company. Caught up in his loneliness and wine, he does not notice the dark night as it comes. Then noticing his old friend the moon he goes for a walk down to the stream, a little tipsy, alone, but for the moon.

I leave it to the reader to decide why

 

Original Chinese

自遣

对酒不觉暝
落花盈我衣
醉起步溪月
鸟还人亦稀

Rhyme

Duì jiǔ bù jué míng, luòhuā yíng wǒ yī, zuì qǐbù xī yuè, niǎo hái rén yì xī

moonlight

Thoughts on a Silent Night – Li Bai

Poetry is meant to be read and reread. The retelling changing the meaning ever so slightly. So, I am rereading and retelling Li Bai’s famous poem, Thoughts on a Silent Night.

moonlight

Thoughts on a Silent Night

Moonlight falls at the foot of my bed,
Seeming like frost on the frozen ground.
I look up and see the bright moon,
And look down, reminded of my hometown.

Li Bai (701-762) was perhaps the most famous Chinese Tang poet living in what has been described as the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. He was friend and drinking companion to Du Fu, another well-known poet.

Tragedy often mythologizes a life. Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor’s beautiful and beloved Yang Guifei, but she took offense to the tone, and caused his dismissal.

Li Bai chose to become a Taoist priest, and might have lived out a long and happy life but for the rebellion of the general An Lushan in 755. Li Bai became a staff advisor to a member of the the imperial family who took to feuding with the prince who eventually became the new emperor. Sentenced to death, Li Bai’s life was spared. Sentenced to exile, he wandered, writing poetry along the way, reminiscing about family and friends.

Perhaps, that is why he wrote this poem.

One must add one final comment, popular legend says that he drowned when, sitting drunk in a boat, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection on the water.

French translation of Li Bai’s Thoughts on a Silent Night

Pensées sur un nuit silencieuse

Le clair de lune tombe au pied de mon lit,
Semblant comme le givre sur le sol gelé.
Je lève les yeux et vois la lune brillante,
Et regarde en bas, a rappelé de ma ville natale.

 

Original Chinese

静夜思
Jìng yè sī

床前明月光,
Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

疑是地上霜。
Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

举头望明月,
Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,

低头思故乡。
Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

Note the rhyme. Also note the interplay of the title Jìng yè sī and the last three characters of the poem, sī gù xiāng, literally, remember your hometown. Li Bai’s hometown was Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province.

 

 

moon-window