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.”

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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

Li Bai’s Ballads Of Four Seasons: Summer

Li Bai, 夏歌

Ballads of Four Seasons: Summer, 子夜四時歌

For three hundred miles along the banks of Mirror Lake
Lovely lotus lilies blossoms flower.
In fifth moon, a smiling Xi Shi gathers them,
As lowly peasants look on from the bank at Yuoye Stream.
Her boat turns back without waiting for the moon to rise
To the Royal House of Yue to warmhearted sighs.

鏡湖三百里
菡萏發荷花
五月西施采
人看隘若耶
回舟不待月
歸去越王家

Jìng hú sānbǎi lǐ
hàn dàn fā héhuā
wǔ yuè xīshī cǎi
rén kàn ài ruò yé
huí zhōu bùdài yuè
guī qù yuè wángjiā

The Summer Period

This is the third of Li Bai’s four seasonal ballads.

Historically, we are at the tail end of the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 453 B.C.), immediately preceding the Warring States Period. Li Bai sets the poem in the fifth lunar month (which we designate as May) and the start of summer.

The poem picks up with the conclusion of the war between the Houses of Yue and Wu, omitting the fall and rise of King Goujian (勾踐, 496–465 BC). Instead, the poem tells of the aftermath and the fate of the lovely Xi Shi.

Xi Shi by Zhou Wenju (AD 907-960)

Xi Shi

The well known story goes like this. The State of Yue, where Xi Shi and her family lived, was defeated in a war with its neighbor State of Wu and Goujian (520-465 BC), the king of the Yue was captured. Made prisoner, Goujian was made a servant of the king of Wu. Three years later, he was set free. Remembering the many humiliations he suffered, Goujian plotted his revenge. All the meanwhile, living simply as a peasant, eating their foods, and tasting the bile of an animal each day as memory of his suffering at the hands of the king of Wu.

The fair Xi Shi was one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China. She was recruited by Goujian and his minister Fan Li to go to King Fuchai of Wu and distract him from his duties of state. Bewitched by her beauty, King Fuchai killed his best advisor and then began a series of disastrous political moves that eventually resulted in the killing of the king’s son and the destruction of the kingdom. King Fuchai himself, committed suicide when King Goujian surrounded his capital and demanded his surrender.

Li Bai’s ballad picks up after the defeat of Wu.

The victorious King Goujian kills all the scholars of Wu. King Goujian’s advisor Fan Li, seeing Goujian’s paranoia and taste for revenge, retires. In the legend recounted by Li Bai, Fan Li and Xi Shi live on a fishing boat, roaming like phantoms on the misty mirror-like waters of Lake Taihu, rarely seen.

Li Bai’s choice of the lotus blossom for Xi Shi is intentional. Because the flower rises from the mud and blooms in exquisite beauty, it symbolizes perfection and purity of heart and mind. It also represents long life and honor.

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

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