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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Bamboo House – Wang Wei

Bamboo House

In quiet bamboo, I sit alone
Plucking the zither, repeating its song.
In the forest deep, quite unknown
The bright moon shines and comes

Original Chinese characters

竹 里 館
獨 坐 幽 篁 裡
彈 琴 復 長 嘯
深 林 人 不 知
明 月 來 相 照

Pinyin

Zhú lǐ guǎn
dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
tán qín fù cháng xiào
shēn lín rén bù zhī
míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was and is highly regarded as poet, painter and musician.

The 琴 referred to in line two is a Chinese zither, a stringed instrument that is plucked. The English/Chinese translation is more correctly “guzheng”.

Late in life, Wang became a devout Buddhist. His poems and this one in particular refer to emptiness and the lessons of silence. The poem was composed during the An Lushan Rebellion, when Wang’s fortunes with the Imperial Court fell and rose again. The poem was likely composed at his family estate near the Wang River in Shaanxi province.

The challenge with translation is to try and keep both the cadence and meaning of the poem intact. Wang composed his poem in four lines of five characters.

wang wei Scenery of Snow and Creek

Wang Wei, Scenery of Snow and Creek, wikiart

French translation

Seul dans le bambou tranquille, je suis assis
Tapoter de la cithare, répéter sa chanson
Dans la forêt profonde, tout à fait inconnu
Brille la lune brillante, va et vient

Alternate translation

Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo
I strum my zither, and whistle a tune
Deep in the woods, no one can hear
Still, the bright moon comes to shine on me

Note to Self

Note to Self

Looking at my wine, I did not catch sight of the dark night coming
Or the flowers falling down on my gown
Tipsy, in the moonlight I walk along the stream
The birds have yet to come and few are the people

Note to self

Li Bai’s (李白) poem 自遣 is usually translated as “Amusing myself”.

I prefer “note to self” since the first character 自 can be translated as a prefix for self and the second character 遣 is dispatch or letter. Taken together as a compound word, the two characters take on the meaning “Cheer up!” which is close to “Amusing myself”.

Taking the translation of 自遣 as amusing myself as intended, an English language student might wonder if Li Bai meant something sexual. Probably not, probably mere coincidence, but I did come across an alternative meaning of the compound word as defecate. My Chinese is not good enough to confirm this, but it would explain the poet’s need to talk a walk down by the stream.

Why is that Tang poetry so innocent and simple in its beginning, becomes a bit lost on the way to the poet’s meaning?

Poor Li Bai, discharged from his administrative duties, sentenced to death, then spared and exiled, disgraced, Li Bai finds himself on the way to Sichuan and his hometown. Literally and metaphorically, it is the winter of his life. No one is there to accompany him on the way to exile. Winter and the birds will not keep him company. Caught up in his loneliness and wine, he does not notice the dark night as it comes. Then noticing his old friend the moon he goes for a walk down to the stream, a little tipsy, alone, but for the moon.

I leave it to the reader to decide why

 

Original Chinese

自遣

对酒不觉暝
落花盈我衣
醉起步溪月
鸟还人亦稀

Rhyme

Duì jiǔ bù jué míng, luòhuā yíng wǒ yī, zuì qǐbù xī yuè, niǎo hái rén yì xī

moonlight

Thoughts on a Silent Night – Li Bai

Poetry is meant to be read and reread. The retelling changing the meaning ever so slightly. So, I am rereading and retelling Li Bai’s famous poem, Thoughts on a Silent Night.

moonlight

Thoughts on a Silent Night

Moonlight falls at the foot of my bed,
Seeming like frost on the frozen ground.
I look up and see the bright moon,
And look down, reminded of my hometown.

Li Bai (701-762) was perhaps the most famous Chinese Tang poet living in what has been described as the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. He was friend and drinking companion to Du Fu, another well-known poet.

Tragedy often mythologizes a life. Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor’s beautiful and beloved Yang Guifei, but she took offense to the tone, and caused his dismissal.

Li Bai chose to become a Taoist priest, and might have lived out a long and happy life but for the rebellion of the general An Lushan in 755. Li Bai became a staff advisor to a member of the the imperial family who took to feuding with the prince who eventually became the new emperor. Sentenced to death, Li Bai’s life was spared. Sentenced to exile, he wandered, writing poetry along the way, reminiscing about family and friends.

Perhaps, that is why he wrote this poem.

One must add one final comment, popular legend says that he drowned when, sitting drunk in a boat, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection on the water.

French translation of Li Bai’s Thoughts on a Silent Night

Pensées sur un nuit silencieuse

Le clair de lune tombe au pied de mon lit,
Semblant comme le givre sur le sol gelé.
Je lève les yeux et vois la lune brillante,
Et regarde en bas, a rappelé de ma ville natale.

 

Original Chinese

静夜思
Jìng yè sī

床前明月光,
Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

疑是地上霜。
Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

举头望明月,
Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,

低头思故乡。
Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

Note the rhyme. Also note the interplay of the title Jìng yè sī and the last three characters of the poem, sī gù xiāng, literally, remember your hometown. Li Bai’s hometown was Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province.

 

 

moon-window

Song of an Autumn Midnight

At the far western reach of the Tang Dynasty was the 玉 關, Jade Gate, though which the western caravans came wool, spices, gold, and silver in exchange for Chinese silks.

The Tang Dynasty was founded in 618 AD and ended in 907. It followed the Han Dynasty which existed from 206 BC until 220 AD. The Han succeeded in pacifying the western barbarian tribes and creating the gate or pass on the Silk Road connecting Central Asia and China. It was called the 玉 關, Jade Gate. The Tang emperor Taizong, and his military force defeated the Eastern Turks in 630, established peace with the Western Turks and vanquished Gaochang (Turpan), Yanqi (Qarashar) and Qiuci (now Kuche), all of whom were collectively called 胡 虜, barbarians or Hu Lu. In 646, the Mongolian Plateau came under the control of the Tang Dynasty the defeat of the Western Turks.

Chang’ An was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and the largest City on Earth, with a population exceeding one million. During the extended military campaigns the wives remained at home doing the wash, taking care of the children, and hoping for the day when their husbands would return.

moon-crescent

Midnight and an Autumn Song (秋歌)

Over Chang’an, shines a slice of moon and
Ten thousand wives can be heard washing clothes
An autumn wind blows without end
Carrying my heart to the Jade Gate
When will peace come to the Hu Lu
And my husband return from his long journey

Original Chinese text

秋歌

長 安 一 片 月
萬 戶 擣 衣 聲
秋 風 吹 不 盡
總 是 玉 關 情
何 日 平 胡 虜
良 人 罷 遠 征

Note:
Rhyme pattern:
Yuè, sheng, jìn, qíng, lǔ, zhēng
a, b, b, b, a, b

Li Bai (701–762) was a romantic poet influenced greatly by the northern An Shi Rebellion which began in 755 and lasted almost a decade. The catastrophic events included the capture of Chang’an by the rebels. Midnight Autumn Song poem should be read along with Li Bai’s Moon over the Mountain Pass.

li-bai-shadow

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762. He was one of the two leading figures of Chinese poetry.

Li Bai’s life was for the most part itinerant. In 742, he came to Chang’an, marveled at its splendor, hoping to be given an official position. No official post resulted, but he did meet other poets and shared a glass of wine or two, for which he was well-known. In the autumn of 744, he took to wanderings again.

Popular legend says that he drowned when, drunk in a boat, he leaned over and tried to seize the moon’s reflection in the water.

Moonlit night

When moonbeams light more than half my house
And the Big Dipper and Southern Star criss-cross
On such a night I sense and smell a warm spring
In a cricket’s sound passing by my green window screen

Geng shen yue se ban ren jia
Bei dou lan gan nan dou xia
Jin ye pian zhi chun qi nuan
Chong sheng xin tou lu chuang sha

月 夜
更 深 月 色 半 人 家
北 斗 闌 干 南 斗 斜
今 夜 偏 知 春 氣 暖
蟲 聲 新 透 綠 窗 沙

Liu Fangping 劉 方 平

Liu (c.742 in Luoyang – c.779) began an official career quite early, but he resigned from office in his thirties to live a hermit’s life. The poem Moonlit night expresses his oneness with nature. 蟲 聲, literally bug sound, but cricket works since the criss-crossing stars imitate the sound of the cricket’s song.

Alternate translation:

Moonlit Night

As moon colors half my house
And the North Star rises and the South Star sets
I can feel in the warm air the first moment of spring
In an insect singing at my green-silk screen

moonlight