In a Bamboo Grove, 竹裏館

Sitting alone, somewhere in a bamboo grove
Plucking on a zither, whistling along
Deep in the forest, where I can’t be found
At least, not until the bright moon shines

bamboo grove, 篁, huáng
somewhere in a bamboo grove, 篁裏 , huáng lǐ,
known only to me and the bright moon, 明月, míng yuè,
Wang Wei, 王維, 699–759

I Want to be Alone

We’re social critters who need to be strongly connected with other people. But, as every poet knows, solitude can be just as important. Space, we need space, and social distancing, but more than that sometimes we want to be alone, as Greta Garbo famously said.

Alone, Li Bai sat and watched Mt. Jiangshan. Alone, Du Fu sat in a grassy grove on a warm summer’s day. Wang Wei wrote at least two poems about being alone, one on an autumn night. And this one in a secluded bamboo grove, plucking a zither, whistling alone except for the moonlight.

Around the year 747, Wang Wei’s mother died. Wang Wei was then 48 years old. As a good son, devout Buddhist, and follower of Taoism, he retired from public life for a period of mourning at his family estate in Lantian County, Shaanxi province. He put the time to good use writing a collection of poems with Pei Di (裴迪) called Wangchuan Ji, or in English, the Wang River Collection or Wheel River Collection.

Chinese and Pinyin

竹裏館

獨坐幽篁裏
彈琴復長嘯
深林人不知
明月來相照

Zhú Lǐ Guǎn

Dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
Dàn qín fù chángxiào
Shēn lín rén bù zhī
Míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Today

Is this poem relevant today?

Think of Wang Wei as an ancient Henry David Thoreau walking the woods on Walden Pond. Or Ansel Adams taking pictures in the High Sierras. Songs – those of you looking for a 21st century connection can find many. Perhaps none better than Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (1972). Prefer Chinese, try 王嘉爾 Jackson Wang, 一個人 Alone.

It’s a “Zenthing”

The poem is relatively straight forward, but I will give you my thoughts on translation as I differ in the last line with other translators.

From the title, Zhú Lǐ Guǎn, 竹裏館, we learn that Wang Wei has fashioned a secluded shelter in his bamboo grove. Guàn doing double-duty as a homophone for a Taoist place of worship. In line one, we find Wang sitting alone, 獨坐, Dú zuò. Where? Somewhere in a bamboo grove. 篁裏, huáng lǐ. acts here as an indistinct unit of measure, somewhere. In line two, we see and hear him plucking a zither, 琴, qín. No confusion there, a zither, the seven string Chinese Guqin. But 長嘯, chángxiào requires some explanation. Chángxiào is a Taoist transcendental whistling, a long-drawn out whistling that functions as a yogic exercise. A skillful whistler could, it is believed, summon animals or communicate with supernatural beings.

Perhaps, in Wang Wei’s case, he is whistling to his departed mother.

The real trickery is in the last line where Wang is hidden from all the world except for the all seeing bright moon. Only if one has walked in a deep dark forest does one know what Wang Wei means.

In other words, its a Zenthing.

Prior version from April 2018

Painting by Yu Zhiding 1647 – 1709

Drinking Alone under the Moon


Li Bai
s oft repeated poem inspires much thought. Were I to accompany Li Bai under the moon and the Milky Way, these would be mine to share — Alone we enter the world, alone we leave, and in the middle we have the chance to share a drink and dance. There were three there then, the moon, my shadow, and I. It was dimly lit, and two said not a word. In my pocket I found a poem, Li Bai, it was yours.

[Previously translated, December 2016]

Drinking Alone Under the Moon
Li Bai

A jug of wine among the flowers,
I drink alone, I think.
I tip my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, my shadow, and I make three.
The moon does not care to drink.
My shadow only trails along.
Fleeting friends we three, the moon, my shadow and I.
Still, let us make merry ’til the end of Spring.
The moon swaying as I sing.
My shadow dancing in step along with me.
Sober, we happily honor the hour.
Drunk, we part.
Our meeting beyond the heavens,
Until we gather again, these two and I,
Beneath the Heavenly River

Gazing at Mount Lu’s Waterfall, by Li Bai

Sunlight shines on Lushan, in a purple haze,
From afar, like a veil, a waterfall hangs.
Water cascading three thousand feet
from the sky,
Is the Celestial River falling from heaven on high?

756, Awaiting My Fate

Li Bai’s diary, had he kept one, might have gone something like this.

“In the 12th month of the 43rd year of reign of our most illustrious Emperor Xuanzong
(December of 755)

General An Lushan has declared himself emperor of Northern China.

In the 5th month of the 1st year of the reign of Emperor Suzong.
(May, 756)

Chang’an has fallen and the emperor and his imperial court have fled to Sichuan. The imperial consort Yang Guifei (楊貴妃) is dead.

Emperor Xuanzong has abdicated. I have been attached to a military expedition headed by Prince Li Lin (the 16th son of Emperor Xuanzong’s 30 sons). Events are not going well. and his son Prince Li Heng declared Emperor Suzong. Prince Li Lin has failed to establish his own kingdom. He has been executed. I too am suspected of disloyalty to the new emperor and I am imprisoned at Jiujiang. My fall from grace is as high as the waterfall of Lushan before me and my fate as clouded as its purple haze.”

Li wrote two poems about Mt. Lushan’s waterfall. This is the shorter of the two.

Metaphors and Meaning

Mt. Lushan is an obvious reference to General An Lushan who is the cause of Li Bai’s woes. The Celestial River, our Milky Way Galaxy, pours forth a river of fiery stars and unrelenting troubles. The color purple represents imperial authority. The waterfall hanging like a veil, uncertainty.

Notes on Translation

The Title

Wàng lúshān pùbù, 望庐山瀑布. Gazing at Lushan’s waterfall. wàng, meaning gazing at or viewing, has a secondary meaning of hope, which expresses Li Bai’s hope that he might be spared. shān is the character for mountain. The two Chinese characters for waterfall 瀑布, pù bù, are themselves a neat rhyme.

The Poem

Lines one, three, and four rhyme – yān, chuān, and jiŭtiān. Line three has an internal rhyme – sān qiān.

Xianglu (香炉) in line one refers to a particular peak on Mt. Lu (Lushan) that in English translates as “incense burner”. Perhaps because of this, Li Bai mentions the purple haze that emanates from the peak in sunlight.

The last line is packed with metaphors. 疑是 yí shì, literally I suspect or believe it to be; which refers to 银河 (yínhé), literally “Silver River,” or often “Celestial River” (tiānhé). And where does this river fall (落 luò) from?

九天, jiŭtiān, the ninth and highest level of heaven. “Heaven on high” is a suitable English poetic interpretation. In the midst of the haze, Li is certainly anticipating his own fall 落 luò from “heaven on high”.

Li Bai, once the darling of the Imperial Court, has fallen from a dizzying height.

Li Bai in happier times

Chinese and Pinyin


望庐山瀑布

日照香炉生紫烟
遥看瀑布挂前川
飞流直下三千尺
疑是银河落九天

wàng lúshān pùbù

rì zhào xiānglú shēng zĭ yān
yáo kàn pù bù guà qián chuān
fēi liú zhí xià sān qiān chĭ
yí shì yínhé luò jiŭtiān

Early Autumn in Shaanxi – Li Bai

Early Autumn in (Taiyuan) Shaanxi

Year’s end, the flowers now rest
The season of the fleeting Fire Star
On the Frontier, the mighty frost is early and
Autumn’s colorful clouds have crossed the River
Dreams circle the city’s walls
In autumn my heart flies homeward
My thoughts returning south, like the Fen River
Everyday, all day long

My thoughts return homeward

Li Bai’s poem, Early Autumn in Shaanxi, might have special meaning for China’s President Xi Jinping. Xi’s father was from Shaanxi Province and one of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Government. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Xi’s father was purged from the Communist Party. Red Guards ransacked the family home, a sister died, and his mother was forced to publicly denounce her husband. Fifteen year old Xi was sent to Shaanxi to work the farms. For nearly seven years, Xi’s home was a cave, a worn quilt spread on bricks his bed, a bucket his toilet.

The stars his only companions.

Li Bai was destined to spend most of his life wandering from place to place. He also married four times. His first marriage was in 727, in Anlu, Hubei Province, to the granddaughter of a former government minister. Autumn in the year 735 finds him in northern Taiyun, the capital of Hedong Province (present day Shanxi)* wishing he was home.

*It is possible but speculative that Li Bai was visiting the politically powerful Pei Clan in hopes of an Imperial appointment.

Notes on Translation

Shaanxi, Shanxi, Taiyuan

English translations often use Shaanxi in the title for the sake of convenience. But Li Bai’s title is 太 原 早 秋 and 太 原 refers to Tàiyuán. This is in fact the capital of Shanxi province, which is today sometimes interchangeably confused with the similar contiguous province of Shaanxi. In Li Bai’s time, Shanxi was known as Hedong, meaning east of the Yellow River.

The character for Autumn, Qiu 秋, appears in the title and twice in the poem. The season is a transition from summer to winter, from joy to melancholy.

The Fire Star, my guess is that this refers to the Perseid Meteor Showers which peak in autumn. A second possibility is the red planet, Mars (Short for 火星, Huǒxīng), hence the name Fire Star. The star is fleeting because its lop-sided orbit causes the planet’s glow to wax and wane. There is also a legendary tale of the Yan Emperors from this region who used the titles “flame emperors”.

Hé 河, in line 4, refers to the Yellow River.

Fén shuǐ 汾水, seventh line. Fen River runs north to south through Shanxi Province, eventually joining the Yellow River.

Chinese and Pinyin

太 原 早 秋

岁 落 众 芳 歇
时 当 大 火 流
霜 威 出 塞 早
云 色 渡 河 秋
梦 绕 边 城 月
心 飞 故 国 秋
思 归 若 汾 水
无 日 不 悠 悠

Taiyuan Zao Qiu

Sui man zhong fang xie
Shi dang da huo liu.
Shuang wei qu sai zao
Yun se du he qiu.
Meng rao bian cheng yue
Xin fei gu guo qiu.
Si gui ruo fenshui
Wu ri bu you you.

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