Mother’s Day Again

Mother’s Day is one day away, so I reprise Meng Jiao’s Song of the Wandering Son. The poem is like a multi-faceted gem, viewed differently from different angles.

The thread in the hands of a loving mother
Making clothes for her wandering son;
Carefully she stitches and sews,
Fearing delays that will keep him from home.
But how does inch-long grass
Repay the sun for three months of sunlight in spring?

pine tree on rocky mountain

The wandering son

Our wandering son is most likely a soldier called up by the emperor to campaign in the spring and the summer against the Tibetans in the far west or the Mongols to the north. The weather is bleak, the spring and summer short, winter is long and cold. The soldiers travel to a faraway land of high, grass plateaus, steep ravines, and snow-capped mountains. The sparse rains fall, gathering and forming the three of the great rivers of Asia – the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong.

The Tang soldiers confront tribesmen who are fierce warriors and splendid horsemen born to the saddle. They live upon herds of yaks, cliff-dwelling sheep, horses and the plunder they take from the caravans bound to and from China.

A loving mother

Our mother silently goes about her work closely stitching the warm coat he will need, knowing and fearing the long delay before he returns.

Notes on translation

How does the high plateau grass repay the sun for its sunlight, how does a son repay a mother for her nurturing love?

The last two lines of Meng’s poem which begins with 谁 言 Shéi yán, who said, has become a metaphor for a mother’s love.

谁 言, 寸 草 心, 报 得 三 春 晖
Shéi yán, cùn cǎo xīn, bào dé sān chūnhuī

green grass hillside solitary tree
Advertisements

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.

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