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
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
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 (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.