To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting – Meng Haoran

To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting

In the eighth lunar month, the lake is peaceful,
Boundless waters blend with the sky’s horizon

Over the Cloud-Dream Marsh, the vaporous mist rising,
And the waves are breaking against the walls of Yueyang City.

I wish to cross the river, but there is no boat
And to live an easy life, I would embarrass our enlightened ruler.

As I sit and watch the angler casting his line,
Envying him for fishing.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Meeting Meng Haoran for the first time

In our last poem, we heard from Meng as he was leaving political life to return home. The stay was brief. Here we meet Meng as he arrives at Lake Dongting on his way to the famous city of Yueyang.

As we have learned, Meng is in his 40’s. It is a late start on a political career and Meng as we discover is not without misgivings. As we shall learn, Meng’s longing for the simple life, will win out.

Lake Dongting

The title identifies the location as Lake Dongting, 洞庭湖. This lake is a subject of many Tang poems. It is well-known for its yearly floods from the Yangtze and other rivers that flow into its basin. By August, the water and blue sky blend with a vaporous mist to make a glistening spectacle.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling is referenced in several Tang poems. He was a minister to Emperor Xuanzong, and a noted poet.

Embedded within the title are the Chinese characters for hope and gift (望 and 贈). The character for hope can also be translated as looking at, so take your pick. Literally, the poem is expressing Meng’s hope that the gift of this poem might curry some small favor with Prime Minister Zhang (張丞相).

The poem

The hallmark of Meng’s poems is his natural imagery and emotion. This style was favored by younger poets like Li Bai, Wang Wei, and Du Fu. Li Bai would acknowledge Meng Haoran’s mastery in his poem, Send As a Gift to Meng Haoran.

Rhyme

aaba baba

Chinese

望洞庭湖贈張丞相

八月湖水平
涵虛混太清
氣蒸雲夢澤
波撼岳陽城
欲濟無舟楫
端居恥聖明
坐觀垂釣者
徒有羨魚情

Pinyin

Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng
yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

architecture China, wood roof

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Memories of Early Winter – Meng Haoran

Memories of Early Winter

The leaves are falling, and the wild geese fly south
Here the water is cold, there is a wind from the north.
I remember my home, but the River Xiang wanders
Walled off by clouds from Chu.

I weep for my village, ’til my tears are spent
I see a sail in the distant sky
Where is the delta ferry? Will somebody tell me?
The lake is quiet, and it’s growing darker and darker.

 

Meng Haoran

Death comes to us all. For poet Meng Haoran, it came at the age of 50. For most of his life he lived in the province of Hubei in the ancient Chinese state of Chu. He received his only official posting three years before his death, but left after less than a year.
meng-same

China’s Superstar Poets

By date of birth, Meng Haoran preceded Li Bai and Du Fu by 10 and 20 years. These three along with Wang Wei made up the pantheon of poetry superstars of the Tang Dynasty.

Until the age of forty, Meng Haoran lived  in his native Hubei province. When he finally traveled to the capital to seek fame and fortune, his poetic talents  came to the attention of  contemporaries. These included the likes Wang Wei, as well as poet and minister Zhang Jiuling. Through their efforts, Meng was recommended directly to Emperor Xuanzong. Unfortunately for Meng, his penchant for wine, a disdain for pomp, and the fact that one of his poems included a sentiment that did not look kindly on official life, gave the emperor pause and he decided Meng would be best left to wander and write.

Place Names

The River Xiang flows into Lake Dongting from the south, where it joins with the flow of the Yangtze. Beginning in late summer, flood water from the Yangtze also flows into the lake, enlarging the lake’s surface area. Dreamy cloud formations result from the increase in moisture.

At a distance to the south and east of the lake, lies the southern Chinese state of 楚 (Chu). This ancient state encompasses most of present-day Hunan, as well as Hubei, where Meng was born and raised.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

早寒有懷

木落雁南渡
北風江上寒
我家襄水曲
遙隔楚雲端

鄉淚客中盡
孤帆天際看
迷津欲有問
平海夕漫漫

Rhyme: abab

Pinyin

Zǎo hán yǒu huái

mù luòyàn nán dù
běifēng jiāngshàng hán
wǒjiā xiāng shuǐ qū
yáo gé chǔ yúnduān

xiāng lèi kè zhōng jǐn
gū fān tiānjì kàn
Míjīn yù yǒu wèn
píng hǎi xī mànmàn

china ferry boat willow tree lake

To Minister Zhang While Gazing at Lake Dongting

Note. Minister Zhang Jiuling held several important posts under Emperor Xuanzong, including head of the imperial library, minister of public works, and commandant of various prefectures. The ancient reader of this poem, acquainted with the history of the imperial court, would know that Minister Zhang fell from favor with the emperor and was dismissed.

Thus, a brilliant master like Zhang could not always count on a life of ease.

Zhang was himself a noted poet. Five of his poems are included in the anthology of Three Hundred Tang Poems. See for instance Orchid and Orange I.

To Minister Zhang while gazing at Lake Dongting 

The lake is full in the eighth moon,
The water blends with the sky
The march mist rises in a cloud-like dream,
While waves pound against Yueyang’s walls
Alas, I have no boat with which to cross.
A brilliant master is shamed with a life of ease
Still I sit and watch an angler release his hook,
And envy those the fish they catch.

fog and mist and rolling waves

Notes on the Meng Haoran’s translation; or what is wisdom to a hungry sage?

August is a rainy month in most of China. Meng does not mention this, but it is also the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Yueyang (岳陽) is both a city and a prefecture located in Hunan province on the eastern shore of the Yangtze River bordering Dongting Lake in the south. Dongting Lake is a shallow flood basin whose size depends on the time of year. Yueyang Tower is a well known site, standing at the west gate of the Yueyang city wall, looking down at Dongting Lake, and linking the Yangtze River to the north with the Xiangjiang River to the south.

Line six, 聖明, may be translated as enlightened sage, august wisdom, and brilliant master, this last choice probably applies to Minister Zhang, the person Meng is addressing. Meng wrote at least three other poems in which the name Zhang appears. From the poem, To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day, and other poems, we may conclude they shared fish and a drink or two.

Original Chinese and Pinyin

望洞庭湖贈張丞相

孟浩然

八月湖水平
涵虛混太清
氣蒸雲夢澤
波撼岳陽
欲濟無舟楫
端居恥聖明
坐觀垂釣者
徒有羨魚情

Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

Mèng Hàorán

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng
yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

Other translations

I am intrigued by the wide variation in translations of Tang poetry. Here is a translation for comparison. There are others.

An English translation by E. C. Chang

lake china

A Gift to Meng Haoran – Li Bai

li-bai

A Gift to Meng Haoran by Li Bai (李白)

Master Meng, my heart hails you
Your fame rises to the heavens
With youth’s impudence, you turned away from the emperor’s kind hand
Choosing woods and clouds, and now, white-haired
Moon drunk, flower-bewitched, a sage of dreams
But deaf to the the Emperor’s ear
How I long to be with you, high in the mountains
To breathe in your sweetness, even here

Original Chinese

赠孟浩然

吾爱孟夫子 风流天下闻
红颜弃轩冕 白首卧松云

醉月频中圣  迷花不事君
高山安可仰  徒此挹清芬

Notes on Li Bai’s Poem

The title is sometimes translated as A Message to Meng Haoran. The Chinese character 赠 literally translates as  – a gift (noun) and give this to… (verb.)

Alternate Translation

Send As a Gift to Meng Haoran
I love and respect Master Meng
Whose legend is known in heaven and on earth.
At a young age, he forswore the pomp of the palace elite
Free of politics, he lay down among the pine trees and white clouds.

Beneath the moon and frequently drunk, yet ever alert and wise
Lost among the peach blossoms, not a bedeviling bureaucrat.
Admire him, he who towers above the mountains
With respect, I bow to him and his simplicity.

French Translation – Message à maitre Meng

Maître Meng, salue de mon cœur
Dans les cieux votre renommée s’élève
Vous, qui, dans l’impudence de la jeunesse, ont renoncé au service de l’empereur
Choix des pins et des nuages; Et maintenant, les cheveux blancs
Lune ivre, fleur enchanté, une sage de rêves
Mais sourd à l’oreille de l’empereur
Comment j’aimerais être élevé dans les montagnes, avec vous voici
Pour respirer votre douceur, même ici

German Tanslation – Nachricht an Meister Meng

Meister Meng, Herzliche grüße!
Dein Ruhm erhebt sich im Himmel
Sie, der in der Frechheit der Jugend, auf den Dienst des Kaisers verzichtet hat
Leben in Wäldern und Wolken; Und jetzt, weißhaarig
Mond betrunken, blumen verhext, ein Salbei der Träume
Aber taub zum Ohr des Kaisers
Wenn ich nur in den Bergen mit dir war
Um deine Süße zu atmen, auch hier

SOS

Somewhere in the back of my mind comes a refrain from ABBA’s song, SOS:

“Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find. I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind. Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood. It used to be so nice, it used to be so good. So when you’re near me, darling can’t you hear me.”

“S. O. S.”

During the An Lushan rebellion, when war and famine devastated northern China, rebel forces captured the capital, and the Emperor fled south. Li Bai was captured but after a year he escaped. Forgiven by the emperor for remaining too long in the north, he never fully recovered his status; and his poems on a sadder tone.

 

Why send Meng a message?

Tang poets wrote messages to other poets, to the Emperor, to loved ones back home and to wives and lovers. If one could not be present in person, one could reach out and and touch a kindred spirit with the mind.

It is a nice thing to do.

meng-same

Meng Haoran

It is a Cowboy T’ang

Just for fun, imagine a cowboy sending a message to his long lost love. It might go something like this: “Send a message to my heart on the wings of the wind. Let me hear your sweet voice sayin’, ‘You love me again, even though we’re apart, I hold to your memory. Send a message to my heart to keep you here with me.’ ”

Send A Message To My Heart Dwight Yoakam with Patty Loveless

cowboy-hat

Spring Dawn

As Poet Meng Haoran observes in four lines of five characters each, some years Spring is late to arrive.

The earth is cold and the blossoms on the branches fail to bloom. Crows darken the sky; their stink fills the air. At night, nothing is heard but the sound of wind and rain; in the morning flowers rot on the ground.

Spring Dawn

Spring sleeps, I do not think it’s dawn
The air stinks and crows cry
Last night there was nothing but
The sound of wind and rain and
Where the flower blossoms fell, what’s left?

Francais

L’aube du printemps

Au printemps, je dors, je sais que le jour ne commence.
Des corbeaux puants pleurer partout et
Toute la nuit, j’ai entendu le son du vent et pluie, quand
Le prochaine matin, qui sait combien de fleurs sont tombées.

Original Chinese

春晓

春眠不觉晓
处处闻啼鸟
夜来风雨声
花落知多少

raindrops-on-branch

The Dawn of Spring, Meng Haoran

Meng did it in 20 characters. Not counting articles, prepositions, and conjunctions, I am close.

Sunrise and Spring sleeps .
The morning stinks as crows cry
In the night, there is nothing
But wind and rain while
Blossoms fall from the trees

Meng Haoran was not a successful civil servant. He remained close to home, living off the wealth of his land owning parents, and contenting himself with drink, friendship, and poetry, most of which dealt with the natural world.

“Does Spring sleep still?” Meng Haoran asks and concludes perhaps.

Now, gentle reader, may I momentarily divert?  Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring that, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” The cycles of seasons are refreshing.

Or, as Meng meant.

All night long, it rained, accompanied by a drum-like sound and pungent smell of  flowering rattan 夜来 . One could not breathe nor sleep. If this is not punishment enough, flocks crows (啼) gathered and added their sound and stink to nature’s mournful symphony.

When morning come, will the blossoms survive?

English Translation

Most English translation translations present spring in a kinder light.

“Spring sleeps, at dawn I do not wake
All around I hear birds cry
Night falls to the sound of wind and rain
While flowers fall and few remain”

The title is Spring Dawn, 春晓. An old proverb goes, the wise man sees one word and hears two. Does Meng speak of the dawn of spring or waking one spring morn?

The crows both stink and cry,  闻 啼 鸟, but the sense of smell 闻 is gone and we are left with bird is 鸟 that cry 啼, aka the foul smelly crow.

I recall an early morning in Bruges, Belgium. I would get up early to go for a run, delighted that it was raining. Disturbed by the weather, the crows would gather in city parks. The sound and stench was something out of a horror film. Combine the sound and fury with the thick white globs the defecating birds left and one has the beginnings of a movie, The Blob of Bruges.

Meng begins the third line begins with 夜来, night falls. It is also the Chinese word for Rattan, a vine we use in furniture making, but which has a night blooming flower that stinks. One could say, look beyond the words to find the meaning; this is the essence of good Tang poetry.

blossom-bird

Zhang Mingfu Cold Food Feast

winter-fence

A Cold Food Feast at Magistrate Zhang’s
by Meng Haoran
A lucky first snow falling a full foot,
Evening eases in and just at midnight’s nigh,
Mats arrayed, we wine companions beg
To cut the candle to a poem’s verse length.
Warmed by the fragrant golden ashes of the stove,
Her jaded fingers clearly pluck the lute strings,
Just when, befuddled, I wish to fall asleep,
Surprised, I am awakened by the cock’s crow.

Chinese

寒食張明府宅宴
(A Cold Evening’s Feast at Zhang Mingfu’s)

瑞 雪 初 盈 尺
閑 霄 始 半 更
列 筵 邀 酒 伴
刻 燭 限 詩 成
香 灰 金 爐 暖
嬌 絃 玉 指 清
醉 來 方 欲 臥
不 覺 曉 雞 鳴

Pinyin

Hánshí zhāng míng fǔ zhái yàn

ruìxuě chū yíng chǐ
xián xiāo shǐ bàn gèng
liè yán yāo jiǔ bàn
kè zhú xiàn shī chéng
xiānghuī jīn lú nuǎn
jiāo xián yù zhǐ qīng
zuì lái fāng yù wò
bù jué xiǎo jī míng

Notes on Meng’s Poem

Meng’s title refers to 寒食, which is the Cold Food or Hanshi Festival. This ancient Chinese holiday developed from the commemoration of the death of the Jin nobleman Jie Zhitui in the 7th century BC. It is usually celebrated the 105th day after the winter solstice.

Zhang Mingfu is a reference to a county magistrate (明府) named Zhang.

The Morning After at Zhang Mingfu
Morning is a distant light that
Reveals ghostly figures in the naked trees
I open the window and shout
Silence,
Except for the cry of the cock
The snow still blows
Against Zhang Mingfu’s house
In go to the stove,
Where the silver white ashes are cold
And though I toss inside a sparrow’s nest and wood,
Then blow
No ember lights the flame

A cracked wine cup, an empty plate
Lie scattered on a wine stained mat
On the stool a silk scarf scented jasmine
The remains of
The girl whose face was white as snow
My companions gone
And when the cock-a-doodle-do
Fades to nothingness
I am alone

Dating Meng Haoran’s poem

Meng Haoran was at the Tang capital of Chang’an for about three years, arriving there when he was about 40 years of age. Recognized as a brilliant poet, Meng was given an introduction to the imperial court, and missed the opportunity, spending time with friends. This is the likely reason that he failed the civil examination. A friend then introduced him to the emperor and Meng composed a “failed exam” poem, explaining that the fault was his for not studying hard enough. The emperor did not take kindly to the tone of the poem and Meng’s “goose was cooked.”

Meng Haoran’s date of birth is given as 689 or 691, which means that he arrived in Chang’an sometime around 730 and left around 733. Meng composed the two poems above during this time.

Zhang Mingfu is not clearly identified in Meng’s poem. In another poem he references a Premier Zhang, A Message from Lake Dongtin to Premier Zhang.

About Meng Haoran