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

 

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The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl, Meng Jiao

The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl

As Wutong-trees, live life as one
As Mandarin ducks, mate til death
As a virtuous woman loves only her husband
I swear in life, to be faithful forever
For a billowing wave cannot stir
A water-like-spirit in a timeless well

concentric waves

Original Chinese

烈 女 操

梧 桐 相 待 老
鴛 鴦 會 雙 死
貞 婦 貴 殉 夫
捨 生 亦 如 此
波 瀾 誓 不 起
妾 心 井 中 水

Pinyin

Wú tóng xiāng dài lǎo
yuān\yāng huì shuāng sǐ
zhēnfù guì xùn fū
shě shēng yì rúcǐ
bōlán shì bù qǐ
qiè xīn jǐngzhōng shuǐ

Meng Jiao

May I introduce you to Master Meng, the latest poet in my list of Tang poets.

One could say that Meng Jiao had both the good and bad fortune to be born in interesting times. Meng Jiao was born in 751 in the Chinese province of Huzhou. Soon after his birth, the Tang dynasty experienced major military defeats on its western and southern borders. Shortly thereafter followed the An Lushan Rebellion, which laid waste to the Chinese population and economy. Floods followed further devastating the land and population.

Meng Jiao lived out much of these times as a Zen Buddhist recluse and poet in the south. Then at the age of forty, his wandering ways ceased and he settled in Luoyang, which was considered the “Eastern Capital” of the Tang Dynasty, with a population that approached one million, second only to Chang’an, the capital,which, at the time, was the largest city in the world.

Meng Jiao settled in as an impoverished and unemployed poet. Unwillinbg at first to take the imperial examinations, he eventually did at the urging of his mother, and at the age of 50 passed the test, after which he received a minor post.

After Meng’s death, the poet Han Yu wrote an epitaph saying:

“He had no sons. His wife, a woman of the Cheng family, informed me. I went out and stood weeping, and then I summoned Chang Chi to mourn with me…

As for his poetry, it pierces one’s eye and impales one’s heart. It cuts to the point like a thread parting at the touch of a knife. His barbed words and thorny sentences tear at one’s guts. His writing ability is spirit-like or like that of a ghost, glimpsed in between and over and over again. He cared only for writing and cared not what the world thought.”

The poet’s meaning

The title, 烈 女 操, one could replace “chaste” or “virtuous” for the words pure-hearted, but why, a pure heart employs better imagery. A modern day translation might be “an exemplary woman”.

The poem places a value on the fidelity and loyalty of a wife to her husband, and, can one assume, the reverse? So, perhaps Han Yu is too harsh in his assessment of Meng Jiao’s complete detachment from the world.

Line one, 梧 桐, (Firmiana simplex) the Chinese Parasol tree, a flowering tree whose wood was used for soundboards in Chinese musical instruments like the guqin and guzheng.

Line two, 鴛 鴦, Mandarin ducks yuan and yang, male and female, which mate for life.

The meaning of the poem lies in its final two lines – a billowing wave cannot stir the water like spirit in the deepest well. Han Yu elsewhere has given us an understanding of the effects of nature’s interactions with man, “Trees have no sound but cry when the wind stirs them, water has no sound but sounds forth when the wind roils it, and thus the heavens move men to speak when their spirits are troubled.” Master Meng is suggesting jut the opposite here, the steadfastness of the devotion of a pure-hearted wife.

There is a complementary Latin phrase that “still waters run deep” meaning that a quiet exterior may hide a passionate heart.

Let me leave you with Lao Tzu’s observation that “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.” Master Meng would say the same is true of love, which is soft and yielding, but firm in its devotion over time and tragedy.

Shall I return and translate this poem into French? Time will tell.

mandarin ducks pair

A Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret)

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret) (長 恨 歌) by Bai Juyi (772-846) retells the love story of the beautiful Yang Guifei (719-756) and Tang Emperor Xuanzong, and the cause of the An Lushan Rebellion that began in December of 755.

Beautiful Yang Guifei is said to have had “a face that put all flowers to shame”. The story is told that the young Yang Guifei, locked in the palace, lamented to the peony and the rose, flower, flower full of bloom when shall I see the light of day? The flowers and their leaves, either in sorrow or shame, drooped as she passed.

There are over 100 verses, and so I must come back from time to time to complete the translation.

Yes, there are many, many translations.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret) (長 恨 歌)

A Chinese Emperor longed for a beauty to match his kingdom
Looking, ever looking, without finding until
In the family Yang a young girl was growing and maturing
Kept well-hidden and unknown, yet one
Who is naturally beautiful cannot hide their own beauty, thus
One day she met the emperor and
Returned his look with a smile, so beginning one hundred beautiful lives,
As the girls of six hundred houses lost their luster

長 恨 歌

漢皇重色思傾國
御宇多年求不得
楊家有女初長成
養在深閨人未識
天生麗質難自棄
一朝選在君王側
回眸一笑百媚生
六宮粉黛無顏色

too young to know what sorrow is

horse

in her quiet window

wang changling

too young to know what sorrow is, and
dressed for spring, to her bedroom chamber she climbs, and
as the budding green willow wounds her heart
she wonders why, just for a title, she sent him to war

The actual title is, in her quiet window, but I like too young to know what sorrow is.

A young wife encourages her new husband to join the Tang army and go off and fight the enemy at the border. The expectation is that he will return with honors. Most likely, the enemy were the Tibetans at the far west of the Chinese Empire or the Tartars to the north, but there were other enemies both foreign and internal with which the emperor had to dear with.

Wang Changling, the Tang poet, deals with the contradictory emotions of love and pride. The young wife’s pride in the rank and title her husband achieves if he is heroic is balanced with the risk in his death.

I have played around with the words and the rhyme and though incomparable with Wang Changling’s poetic gift, I hope I conveyed some sense of his meaning. Wang’s use of the willow is symbolic. In China, the willow branch is used to ward off evil spirits. More ominously, mourners carry willow branches with them on the way to the cemetery during the Qingming Festival, which, like our poem, takes place in early spring. It is a festival that loosely translates as Tomb-Sweeping festival.

Then too, in Mandarin, “willow” sounds the same as “to stay”.

Does she care?

Original Chinese

闺怨

王昌龄

闺中少妇不知愁
春日凝妆上翠楼
忽见陌头杨柳色
悔教夫婿觅封侯

Read French translation of in her quiet window