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.”

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: 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

Mother’s Day 2019

Mother’s Day is Sunday, so I thought it appropriate to repost a transaltion of Meng Jiao’s Song of the Parting Son. Some changes have occurred. I will let you decide if they appropriate.

Song of the Departing Son

The thread, in a mother’s loving hand
Sewing a coat for her departing son
Stitch by stitch, alas
Fearing his late late return

Who said, a mother’s kindness
Can’t be repaid
Or even discussed

Chinese and Pinyin

慈母手中线,
游子身上衣。
临行密密缝
意恐迟迟归
谁言寸草心
报得三春晖

Címǔ shǒuzhōng xiàn,
yóuzǐ shēnshang yī
lín xíng mì mi fèng,
yì kǒng chí chí guī.
Shéi yán cùn cǎo xīn,
bào dé sān chūnhuī.

Notes on translation

Line one, thread is an obvious metaphor for spring’s tender grass.

Lines three and four contain repetitions of characters. Line three, 密密, stitch by stitch, may also refer to the tightly stitched garment, double seamed, so as to not come unraveled. Line four 迟迟归 concerns the mother’s worry and fear over the late, late, perhaps too late return.

Lines five and six of Meg Jiao’s poem contains the idiom, 寸草 and 春晖 , cùn cǎo chūn huī, which means that the heart of the tender grass can’t repay the deep feelings of the spring sun. It is a metaphor for the parents’ and a mother’s especially deep feelings for their children.

The last line inserts character for the number three, 三 san, which does double duty, first magnifying a mother’s love by three; second as a near-rhyme and homophone, for life, 身 Shēn.

Resentment – Li Bai

fashion-chinese-girl-curtain

Resentment

A beauty appears through a curtain of pearls,
With a deep frown on her beautiful face,
I see the tracks of her tears on her beautiful face.
But not the man she hates

 

Resentment

The two characters of the title 怨 情 can be translated as Bitter Love, Resentment, or Lament. Separately, the characters convey the meaning of “resent” the “situation”. A well-known idiom uses the same two characters, 心甘情愿, I’d be delighted to help.

We see but do not know. We can only feel, but not know why.

Perhaps, our poet has been out on the town, and now returning home he spies a beautiful woman (蛾眉, éméi) at the window of her apartment as she unfurls her pearl curtains (珠 簾, pearl or pearl-like, beaded). Li Bai sees the troubled face, but can only imagine the hate in her heart (心 恨 誰).

Yang Guifei

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

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

The pearly curtain hints at a rich and well-kept woman, a courtesan, an occupation which, in Li Bai’s time, was an honored profession, but not without drawbacks. The pearl may also symbolize the moon, itself 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

Song of a Pure-hearted Girl, Meng Jiao

Song of a Pure-hearted Girl

As Wutong-trees, live life as one
As Mandarin ducks, mate til death
As a pure-hearted girl 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

Meng Jiao (751–814)  was born in the eastern Chinese province of Huzhou near present day Shanghai. In the same year of his birth, Tang forces were defeated by the Arabs in far west present day Kazakhstan and by the Tai people near present day Yunnan province. Four years later, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out, laying waste to the Chinese population and economy. Floods followed.

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

Song of Everlasting Sorrow – Bai Juyi

Song of Everlasting Sorrow  (長 恨 歌)

A Chinese Emperor longed for a beauty to match his kingdom
Looking ever looking, without finding, until
In the Yang family, a young girl, growing and maturing
Well-hidden and unknown, yet one
Naturally beautiful, one cannot hide such 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

There are many additional verses.

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 Emperor Xuanzong, and the cause of the An Lushan Rebellion that began in December of 755.

Yang Guifei mounting a horse

Yang Guifei

Yang Guifei is said to have had “a face that put all flowers to shame”.

The story is told:

Locked in the palace, Yang Guifel lamented to the peony and the rose, “Flower, flower, full of bloom, when shall I see the light of day?”

Seeing her plight, the flowers and leaves, drooped in sorrow and shame as she passed.

Yang Guifei would meet a tragic end during the An Lushan Rebellion.

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.

Original Chinese

長 恨 歌

漢皇重色思傾國
御宇多年求不得
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