who, where, and why?

Parting

Dismount my friend, let me offer some wine
May I ask, where are you going?
Friend, you say, I have no purpose
To the Southern Mountains I depart
So, ask no more for
White clouds drift forever

送別

下馬飲君酒 問君何所之?
君言不得意 歸臥南山陲
但去莫復聞 白雲無盡時。

Sòngbié

Xiàmǎ yǐn jūn jiǔ, wèn jūn hé suǒ zhī?
Jūn yán bù déyì, guī wò nánshān chuí.
Dàn qù mò fù wén, báiyún wújìn shí.

白雲 báiyún, White Clouds



We are like the Clouds 云 yún, forever forming, then disappearing. 云 yún sounds the same as 运 yùn ‘luck, fortune, fate’. 時 Shí, time, endless, sounds like 诗 poem.

Please come down from your horse to have one last drink, dare I ask where you go? You said, because you have no purpose, no meaning in life, you will retire to the Nanshan Mountains. So go, I’ll ask no more, good poems, like white clouds are timeless.

The where and why are the easiest questions to answer:
歸臥南山陲 guī wò nánshān chuí, banished to (retiring to) the Southern Mountains’ frontier.

Who?

君 jūn, friend or colleague.

Perhaps, it is best to leave at that, an unnamed friend. One could guess Li Bai 李白 ( the banished immortal and well-known tippler). In 759, Li Bai was exiled by the emperor to Yelang in what is now Guizhou, a mountains region in southern China. In no hurry to reach Yelang, Li wandered much and wrote poetry, delaying so much that a pardon reached him before he arrived in far-off, frontier Yelang.

Wang Wei was likewise found in disgrace by the troubles of the An Lushan rebellion. His brother, a high imperial official, came to his defense, and Wang made his way into retirement.

Tang poet Li Bai on a Summer’s Day (19th c.), Gu Lang Yu Museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China
Advertisements

Part 3, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Touched by the beauty of the bird’s song, I sigh,
Turning to my wine, I pour
Awaiting the moon with a grand song, I sing
Singing to the end, unmoved

Li Bai, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day, third and final verse

Life, a story in three acts

Is this the way life ends, with a song, then silence?

In part one we find our poet lying in a drunken stupor outside the palace door. Morning dawns, he awakes clutching a porch column, to see the beauty of the garden flowers. In part two, he hears the song of a warbler and is entranced. Poets like prostitutes sing and dance when the moon is out, but what does it mean?

In part three, we conclude.

Touched by the beauty of the bird’s song, he turns to his wine and drinks. Awaiting the evening and moon, he sings a great song, until the end, emptied of sentiment, he remains unmoved.

Let this be a poem lesson. Drinking all night will put you outside with what’s left of your wine, a song, and then, nothing.

Hao Ge, 浩歌

Our third verse presages 浩歌 Hao Ge, a poem by the Tang poet Li He (circa. 790–791 – 816–817), who likewise found wine and women irresistible and died at the early age of 26 or 27. Hao Ge, literally means “grand song”, one addressed to the universe. Max Ehrmann’s popular 20th century example “Desiderata” is a comparison that comes to mind.

Li Bai’s life ended, the story is told, when he fell from his boat, alone and drunk, trying to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water.

moon, boat, water, Li Bai

Notes on translation

感 Gǎn, touched, sensing
感之 Gǎn zhī, a sense of it
嘆息 tàn xī, breathe a sigh
酒 Jiǔ, wine, spirits
浩歌 Hao Ge, compound word meaning song of the universe, grand song
歌 ge, sing, song, praise
忘情 wàngqíng, unmoved, lacking sentiment

Chinese and Pinyin

感之欲嘆息 對酒還自傾
浩歌待明月 曲盡已忘情

Gǎn zhī yù tànxí duì jiǔ hái zì qīng
hào gē dài míngyuè qū jìn yǐ wàngqíng


Part 2, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Yesterday, we left super-poet Li Bai alone on the porch, drunk, clutching a column, lying in a stupor after a night of revelry and wine. Morning breaks and he comes to his senses, or does he?

Yesterday’s verse

a yellow leaf warbler

Coming to my sense, I see the courtyard
In the midst of the flowers a bird sings
Is it time to ask this question,
In Spring, why does the warbler sing to the breeze?

Li Bai

Words matter

Li Bai, if words matter, and I am told they do, you are playing with us like a musician plays a zither, a sound may mean many things.  Imagine Li Bai plopped outside the door as morning comes, pear blossoms are dancing in the wind, a warbler sings.

What does he think?

Poets, like brightly colored prostitutes and whores, ply their trade. They dance and sing, and when the morning comes they rest in bed. Still, a lonely warbler sings, to whom and what?

Yesterday is far away, in fact its gone. Li Bai, our super-star, once the darling of the Imperial court, finds himself on the outside, staring in, singing to the breeze, surrounded by the flowers.

Notes on translation

庭, ting, courtyard
鸣, ming, cry or sing
春风 chūn fēng, as compound word, spring wind; singularly, in spring, the wind
时, shi, the season, or time; a homophone for poem or verse, 诗
莺, ying, a warbler, also possibly a golden oriole
柳莺, liǔyīng, willow warbler; leaf warbler, a colorful bird with yellow markings that nests in spring; literally a prostitute.

Chinese and pinyin

觉来眄庭, 一鸟花间鸣
借问此何时, 春风语流莺

Jué lái miǎn tíng, yī niǎo huā jiān míng
jièwèn cǐ hé shí, chūnfēng yǔ liú yīng


Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Life in this world is but a dream,
Why spoil it with work or worry?
So, saying, I was drunk all day long, now
Helplessly lying on the porch at my front door…

Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志), Li Bai

Chinese and pinyin

處世若大夢,
胡爲勞其生.
所以終日醉,
頹然臥前楹.

Chǔshì ruò dà mèng,
húwèiláo qí shēng.
Suǒyǐ zhōngrì zuì,
tuírán wò qián yíng.

Notes on translation

Let this be a lesson to those of you who think it is cool to be drunk. Two more verses follow, which I will finish when my headache goes away:)
empty wine bottle

Seeing Meng Haoran off to Guangling – Li Bai 李 白

“You left me, old friend of the West, at the Yellow Crane Tower,
In Spring, going to Yangzhou, in a cloud of flowers;
Your lonely sail, a speck against blue sky, disappearing
Until now I only see the Yangtze and the sky.”

yellow crane tower, wuhan, china
yellow crane tower, wuhan, china

In the third lunar month of the New Year (middle March by modern calendars), Meng Haoran took leave of his friend Li Bai to make a 400 mile journey down the Yangtze(長江, chángjiāng) to Guangling and Yangzhou.

The place of their parting was the Yellow Crane Tower (黃鶴樓, Huánghè Lóu) in Wuhan, Hubei Province. It is a sacred site of Daoism, considered to be one of the four great towers in China. The symmetrical eaves on each floor are said to resemble a yellow crane soaring in the sky and clouds, reflecting immortality and wisdom.

Meng Haoran was born in 689 in Xiangyang, far western Hubei. Li Bai, ten years junior to the older Meng, was born in Suyab, on the Silk Road. For this tenuous reason, Li Bai refers to Meng as his old friend of the West (西 Xi). In the second line of the poem, Li Bai uses a metaphor 煙花 (flower and mist, together “fireworks”)* to describe the peach and cherry trees then in full blossom. Flower (花, Huā) has many symbolic meanings, also conveying a sense of magnificence and splendor.

The poem may date to the years 730-733, when Meng Haoran failed the imperial examinations for a second time and took to traveling to assuage his disappointment.

Li Bai wrote a second homage to his friend Meng Haoran.

Chinese Characters

送孟浩然之廣陵

故人西辭黃鶴樓
煙花三月下揚州
孤帆遠影碧空盡
惟見長江天際流

Pinyin

Sòng mènghàorán zhī guǎnglíng

gùrén xī cí huáng hè lóu
yānhuā sān yuè xià yángzhōu
gū fān yuǎn yǐng bìkōng jǐn
wéi jiàn chángjiāng tiānjì liú

Notes

*The exact date of the invention of fireworks is unknown. Therefore, this may be only a combination of the characters for flower and cloud, Anyone who has walked along a path of cherry trees in full blossom will understand splendor and the airy cloud-like feeling.
Yangtze River
Yangtze River

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, grass grows like the bluest silk thread
In Qin, mulberries hang low on branches of green
My Lord, why do you think of coming home?
Now, when I am heart-broken and sad
Oh Spring Breeze, that I do not know
Why part the silk curtains of my bed?

Translating Li Bai’s Spring Thoughts

” In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So said Lord Alfred Tennyson a thousand years after Li Bai. And anyone who has felt a gentle breeze in spring and felt the stirrings of love knows the feeling well.

Li Bai’s tells the story from the girl’s perspective. Alas, the rhyme does not translate into English.

Yan and Qin, 燕 and 秦

The story takes place in the ancient Chinese states of Yan and Qin, and dates to the time of the Warring States (somewhere around the 5th century BC). Yan, in northeastern coastal China, lies on the Bohai Sea. Qin lies to the south and west of Yan. Qin grew to be the strongest of the warring states.

Boy and girl, 君 and 妾

The relationship of our boy and girl is 君, lord (informally ‘you’) and 妾, concubine.

Concubine is not a term used in Western culture. In Chinese it means, a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife or wives. Mistress or lover is a better alternative. She may not be his wife, but she certainly has a claim on his heart.

Spring Breeze, 春風

Spring Breeze, 春風 , referred to in line five also has a sexual connotation, meaning sexual union.

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
dāng jūn huái guī rì shì
qiè duàncháng shí
chūnfēng bù xiāngshí
héshì rù luó wéi

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.

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.